The luxury residential community that is The World is currently sailing around the UK on its ongoing circumnavigation of the globe. Janet Harmer joined the ship to find out how hospitality operates on a top-class floating hotel.
Working on board The World is as good as it gets in this business, according to Philip Ashcroft, hotel manager of what is a unique floating community.
"It would be very difficult to go back to working on a regular cruise ship after this," says Ashcroft, who has now been on The World for over five years.
Having just completed a tour of the ship as it sailed towards the UK mainland for the first time in two years, it is easy to understand why. The World, despite its initial appearance, is not a cruise ship at all. Instead, it is a luxury ship made up of 165 residences, owned by private individuals, which operates along the lines of a luxury hotel.
As it continually circles the globe, following an itinerary decided by the residents, the ship docks for an average of two-and-a-half days at each port, allowing the residents to enjoy each location at their leisure. For popular stop-off points, such as Cape Town or Sydney, The World may dock for up to 10 or 11 days.
A handful of residents stay on board permanently, but the majority spend around four to five months of the year on the ship, flying in and out from their land-based homes. When not on board, around 40% of the owners rent out their residences - which include a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments, as well as 40 studios and a six-bedroom penthouse.
With The World owned by up to 165 of the world's wealthiest people, the crew effectively have that number of bosses. It means that the staff get to know the residents and their specific demands very well. With the residences ranging in price from £424,514 to £8.6m (see panel), coupled with a hefty annual service charge, only the seriously rich can afford to become owners. "They pay a substantial amount of money to be here and therefore it is important that we constantly exceed their demands," says Ashcroft.
Despite the constant pressure of having to provide a personal service to an enormously discerning clientele, turnover of staff is low, with nearly 50% having worked for The World since its launch in 2002.
There are 12 British members of the crew, including Ashcroft, who originally hails from Liverpool. He has worked at sea since 1990, apart from two years - one which he spent living in Australia and the other during which he got married and worked at the St David's Hotel & Spa in Cardiff.
After starting his cruise career as an assistant purser with the Premier Cruise Line, Ashcroft moved on to work with Cunard Crown/Commodore Cruise Line, Orient Lines and Disney Cruise Line.
He has now been with The World for five-and-a-half years, a period he describes as an amazing adventure, allowing him to visit places that he had only dreamed about and working with what he believes to be the best team at sea.
"We have a much closer-knit community of staff than you tend to get on cruise ships, which have more passengers and therefore a much larger crew. The Disney ships, for instance, have around 1,000 crew, so it is impossible to get to know everyone well."
The World's 270 crew, representing 33 countries, work seven days a week, for four months at a time, before going on shore for a two-month break. Recruitment is carried out via two agencies in the Philippines, which employ the majority of the housekeeping and food and beverage staff, with The World's head office in Florida looking after managerial appointments.
"The people we take on come from a variety of backgrounds; some come from cruise ships, some from five-star or boutique hotels," says Ashcroft. "The key thing is that they should have a strong service ethic.
"From a manager's point of view, working on board a ship is a smooth operation. We rarely have staff calling in sick, as when they are ill there is no doubt that it is genuine and so we don't have to deal with members of the crew telling us they won't be able to work."
The World is currently looking to recruit some key chef positions, but it is often difficult to recruit people with experience who don't want to leave behind established families on land. It is always easier to recruit people in their early 20s.
On board, the staff enjoy good living facilities and what Ashcroft describes as "the best crew food in the industry". Unlike crew ships, there is no tipping for staff, but passengers can contribute to a crew enrichment fund, which sponsors trips when The World is in port.
For Ashcroft, the current visit to the UK has been extra special as it has involved The World making its maiden trip to his home city of Liverpool. "I've been encouraging the captain to put Liverpool on the itinerary for years, and I'm delighted that at last we have made it," he says. "Before, I had only ever sailed into Liverpool on the Mersey ferry, so it was very special to arrive on board The World. There was definitely a tear in my eye."
FOOD & BEVERAGE ABOARD THE WORLD
Although The World's 165 residences have fully functional kitchens, and there is a food shop on board, the reality is that they are rarely used. Instead, the residents can choose to eat in one of four restaurants - Portraits fine-dining restaurant; Tides, which serves Mediterranean cuisine; East for Asian food; or the Marina seafood eaterie - or two more informal locations (Fredy's Deli for sandwiches, soups and salads and the Poolside Grill on sunny days).
Food is also served direct to the apartments and with overnight stops in port, there is plenty of opportunity for the residents to eat ashore.
If there are 200 passengers on board, around 120 will dine in one of the restaurants and 80 will eat in their apartments; while on port days, 25% will eat ashore, 45% will stay in their apartments and the rest will visit one of the ship's restaurants.
The World's food and beverage manager Arjan Scheepers says catering to an audience predominately made up of multi-millionaires, who leave the ship to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and five-star hotels in Hong Kong, is an enormous challenge for the ship's 120-strong food and beverage staff.
"We have to work hard to keep the menus as fresh as possible and usually change them every six to seven weeks," he says.
"Inevitably, expectations are always high and we aim to always meet the residents' demands. Generally we take on all major dry good supplies and meat that have been flown in from the USA at around 10 major hubs around the world such as Barcelona, Singapore and Southampton. The rest, such as salads and fresh fish, come from local ports.
"However, if a guest wants lobster from Maine and foie gras from France, it doesn't matter where we are in the world, we have to try and come up with the goods by flying them in. You'll be surprised how much is possible, but it comes at a cost. We can usually meet about 90% of last-minute requests."
Visiting chefs, sommeliers and mixologists create added interest for the residents, as in the case of Mark Jordan of the Michelin-starred Ocean restaurant at the Atlantic hotel in Jersey. He joined The World at the end of July as the ship sailed from Guernsey to Southampton, and cooked dinner for 40 residents in Portraits restaurant.
Despite preparing dinner for such a demanding audience, Jordan received plenty of positive feedback about his seven-course menu, based around the produce of the Channel Islands. Priced at $130 (£83), including a cocktail reception, or $225 (£144) with matching wine, the menu included caramelised pork belly with seared langoustines, wilted spinach, brazil nuts and jus d'epice; steamed Jersey sea bass with crab-crushed Jersey royals, asparagus, and Champagne foam; and raspberry nougatine crunch, pistachio cream and raspberry sorbet.
As a result of the contact made between Jordan and The World, the chef is now planning a lunch for the ship's residents at the Atlantic hotel during August 2011 when The World is due to sail into Jersey.
THE WORLD AT A GLANCE
Port of registry Bahamas
Operator ResidenSea in Miramar, Florida
Management The residents, through an elected board of directors, provide guidance to the management about The World's itinerary, finances and future development
Speed 18.5 knots
Average number of residents 160. At its busiest, there may be around 300 passengers
Facilities Four restaurants, food store and delicatessen, golf simulator, the world's only on-board full-sized tennis court, swimming pool, jogging track, spa, movie theatre and library
Residences 165. There are currently 17 available for sale, ranging in price from $750,000 (£478,590) for a studio apartment up to $13.5m (£8.6m) for the six-bedroom penthouse.
Annual service charge Charged according to the size of residence at $159 (£101) per sq ft. So the annual fee for a studio apartment is $53,583 (£34,192) and for the six-bedroom penthouse $665,256 (£424,514). The annual food and beverage charge is $41,450 (£26,450)
THE WORLD AROUND THE UK
St Peter Port in Guernsey was the location of The World's first visit to the UK in two years. It sailed into port there on 24 July, since when it has been sailing around the UK and Ireland, stopping off at Southampton, Dartmouth, Fowey, Cardiff, Dublin, Cork, Douglas, Whitehaven and Liverpool. It is currently docked for four nights at Greenock, from where the residents and guests can visit Glasgow and the surrounding area, before moving on to Oban. It will leave UK waters on 25 August.