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Brits abroad: Michael Smith

27 June 2014 by
Brits abroad: Michael Smith

Michael Smith is senior vice-president of marine hotel operations for Holland America Line and Seabourn cruise lines. He talks to Janet Harmer

Q Describe your current role as senior vice-president of marine hotel operations?

Q How does your role differ to a similar land-based one?
Logistically, running hotels at sea is very different - you can't just call the local veg supplier if you need more carrots. Everything has to be pre-planned to the minutest detail and contingency plans have to be in place should anything go wrong.

Managers and staff constantly change due to going on or returning from vacation. Training programs and standard operating procedures have to be very robust to maintain a consistent guest experience.

Being responsible for the guest entertainment programs is also unique within the cruise industry. Developing stage shows is an interesting part of the job.

Q What specific considerations do you have to think about when creating a great customer experience at sea?
You have to consider the demographics of your guests, such as age and nationality. Something that appeals to a working couple in their 40s may not appeal to a retired 65-year-old couple from Chicago. We also want to bring a flavour of the area where the ships are cruising - whether it's lobster for the dinner menu in Maine or a steel band to play by the pool in the Caribbean.

Q Have you ever worked in a hotel on land? Yes, during my college days in London I worked at the Royal Court hotel in Sloane Square as a management trainee. Prior to joining Holland America and Seabourn,
I spent 15 years with a private hotel company - Club Quarters - in New York. I was responsible for the hotel operations for 21 hotels, including four in London.

Q Describe the style and standards of Seabourn and Holland America lines?
Holland America Line is a premium cruise line with mid-size ships that sails to all seven continents, with destination-focused itineraries. Seabourn's intimate, award-winning ships feature spacious suites, many with verandas, a choice of superb dining venues and personalised service.

Q What is the split between being land-based and sea-based in your job?
I probably travel around 30% of the time. You have to experience what the guest experiences and meet and listen to your managers and staff on the ships.

Q What do you like about being based in Seattle?
It's a great place to work, as well as a great place to raise a family - the schools are some of the best in the country and it has a great 'outdoorsy' lifestyle, with skiing available just 45 minutes from downtown in the winter. After living in New York for 26 years, Seattle offers a great change of pace - less frenetic, less noisy, but with great restaurants and an extensive cultural scene.

Q And any dislikes?
The weather! It's a little 'English', so I should be used to it! You can go for weeks without seeing the sun. Fortunately, I get to travel to the Caribbean.

Q What is the longest period of time you have ever spent working at sea?
Seven months. I sailed on the Sagafjord for the 1986 World Cruise for four months and my contract was extended several times.

Q What have you enjoyed most about working in the cruise industry?
It has to be about striving to exceed guest expectations. For most of our guests, taking a cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so the service we offer has to be unique, memorable and a wow.

Q What have been the greatest challenges?
Coping with a delayed or diverted ship, due to weather or an unexpected event. Fortunately, this is very rare, but when it happens we have our contingency plans.

Q Would you ever choose to return to live and work in the UK?
You can never say never. After living and working in the USA for over 27 years, it would be tough to return to the UK. My wife and son thoroughly enjoy the Seattle lifestyle and I am extremely satisfied working for such a unique, diverse and interesting company.

Michael Smith's CV
2013-present Senior vice-president, marine hotel operations, Seabourn and Holland America Line
1997-2012 Vice president, operations, Club Quarters
1994-1996 Staff vice-president, Cunard Line
1993-1994 Vice-president, Silversea
1980-1993 Assistant vice-president, operations, Cunard Line
1976-1979 HND in hotel and catering administration, Ealing College of Further Education

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