Cruise Industry Focus, Part One | Three interviews, one set of questions! Mike Deegan FIH

>>Cruise Industry Focus, Part One | Three interviews, one set of questions! Mike Deegan FIH

As we continue with our ‘one set of questions’ series… this month we are delighted to be shining our spotlight on an amazing part of our industry; the cruise industry. In part one, we talk to one of our Fellows; Mike Deegan FIH, Head of Fleet Operations at Noble Caledonia about his life at sea!

Tell us a little more about yourself and your career to date. 

After 21 years afloat as an officer in the UK Merchant Navy (serving on a variety of ship types including general cargo, tankers but later on large passenger ships), I have worked ashore as a ship manager since 1999. I have specialised in small, expedition, 5-star, boutique-style and river ships where attention to detail and exceptionally high service standards are required.

What do you enjoy about working in the cruise industry? 

It is a privilege to take people on holiday for a living. If we get it right, the experiences and memories we provide to our guests remain with them for a lifetime. I particularly enjoy working in the expedition and river sectors of the cruise industry as the daily challenges we face, when working in some of the planet’s remotest locations, are exciting. 

Whilst we work hard to support ships operating in harsh and remote environments, it is a particular joy when the passengers see the whole product as seamless. The cruise sector enjoys some of the highest repeat business in hospitality and I enjoy seeing returning guests when I am visiting our ships – their warm greetings and smiles suggests we have got something right in delivering their holiday experiences.

How does working in international waters differ from land-based hospitality jobs? 

Regulation changes in different jurisdictions and we are continually subjected to a range of inspection and audit regimes. Each landing or visit has to be carefully planned so as to ensure compliance with not only international maritime and public health regulations but also any local restrictions or rules. Knowledge of those detailed regulations or of how to find out what they are and how they may affect our operations are of paramount importance. 

The shipping industry generally has come a long way in my 42 years in it: for example the hours of work and rest regulations which were introduced a few years ago have done much to reduce fatigue levels amongst crew members on internationally trading vessels and must be strictly adhered to. Even more importantly environmental considerations have become a vital part of what we do over the last 20 years or so… whether it’s funnel emissions, discharges, garbage volume reductions, re-cycling initiatives or plastic reduction – all are subject to local and international regulation and all have become very important aspects of international shipping, as they have ashore. 

I am very proud of the fact that we became one of the first cruise operators to replace upwards of 90% of the plastic bottles of drinking water we used for tours with re-useable water bottles and re-filling stations on board about 6 years ago now.

What are your favourite and least favourite ports from around the world and why? 

I don’t have favourites or least favourites: there are always highlights to be found in any port or landing (we often anchor in isolated anchorages and transfer passengers ashore maybe onto a local beach for nature walks or visits to local heritage sites denied to participants in mass tourism). Particular highlights for me over the years have been visits to the quieter, less-visited, parts of the Caribbean or Indian Ocean, to the Galapagos Islands and to Albadra, an isolated Indian Ocean atoll actually part of, though remote from, the Seychelles where unique vegetation and species exist (including the Aldabra Land Crab – look it up, you will be amazed!). 

However closer to home I recently re-discovered the fine city that is Liverpool with it’s maritime history, amazing buildings, UNESCO World Heritage Site at the waterfront, culture (the Tate Modern Gallery for one) and musical diversity. Some of the smaller Croatian islands such as Hvar and Iz (population 615!) astound and I was lucky enough to audit a river ship on the Brahmaputra River in Assam, North West India a few years ago : a simply stunning part of a truly amazing country.

How do you cope with sea sickness, or finding your “sea legs”. Are you born with it or do you develop? 

I often get asked this, especially as an operator of smaller tonnage. We would change the itinerary rather than subject guests to discomfort – we operate pleasure cruises after all. However all ships can be subjected to motion in high seas – I have been lucky thus far never to suffer from seasickness (although in cargo ships many years ago when ship motion for comfort was less of a requirement I could get “tetchy” after five or six nights of little sleep due to being thrown around my bunk in rough seas – Shipmate : “Morning Mike, how are you?” Me : “What do you mean by that???”) but many mariners do. In fact I sailed with one particular Captain on a regular run through the Bay of Biscay who suffered terribly. As I used to tell passengers when I worked on cross channel ferries, ”there is only one sure remedy for seasickness which is 100% effective : the shade of an oak tree!”

Given a cruise ship is essentially a floating community, how have you had to revise crises procedures as we come out of the pandemic? 

Coronavirus has caused the entire cruise industry to consider mitigation to prevent transmission in a closed community and a joint framework has been agreed between operators in consultation with Governments (in our case the UK Department for Transport – who liaise with Public Health England – and the devolved administrations). 

Measures such as capacity reductions and one-way systems around the vessels have been introduced as well as removal of food buffets, allocated seating and service staff in the dining outlets, a requirement for social distancing and regular testing for both guests and crew (including pre-boarding and also before they leave the house to travel to the port for embarkation) are important aspects of our procedures for operation as we emerge from the pandemic. 

Technical aspects of vessels have also had to be considered and revised such as upgrades to air filtration units and forced air ventilation systems. We have also installed “isolation cabins” which have enhanced ventilation and filtration units in place and have introduced barrier protocols to service them. It is important that the situation ashore in our visit locations be considered – we are fortunate in that we can avoid large centres of population in smaller ships or indeed on our expedition cruising can avoid populated areas altogether.

Does travel broaden the mind? 

Indeed it does and the desire for travel is undiminished despite the pandemic. We were recently permitted to re-start commercial operations on the UK coast and were inundated with people anxious to join our ships again. Television daily beams stunning vistas from faraway lands into our living rooms and that in turn fuels a desire for travel. The expedition sector of the cruise industry attracts guests wanting to learn much more about the fascinating areas we cruise and we carry an expedition team of scientists and other specialists who can bring unique and diverse eco-systems, flora, fauna, history, geology and local anthropology to life for our guests. Our citizen science projects, in which we actively encourage guests to participate, also help to bring aspects of different locations the world over (in normal times!) to life and our environmental impact mitigations (leave only footprints, take only photographs) serves to remind us all about the fragility of our planet.

What is your hope for the cruise industry as we hopefully come out of the pandemic? 

I hope we can emerge stronger with a shared sense of responsibility to our guests and the environment. I hope too, on a more selfish level that we can provide confidence to new guests, perhaps those who have not cruised before, that we operate in safety and with the health and safety or our guests and colleagues paramount. The shipping industry is amongst the most regulated in the world and those regulators are now, rightly, applying the highest importance to Covid-safe operation.

What is the most memorable thing a passenger or guest has asked you? 

I frequently used to get asked if all the crew lived on board when I was at sea but two other comments come to mind: “Do these stairs go up and well as down?” and “What time do we arrive?”  “45 minutes sir”. “Is that English or French time?”.

What made you join the Institute of Hospitality?

The access to information and advice from the wider industry and the opportunity to network are very important to me and always have been since I was initially admitted as an Associate nearly 30 years ago now. Since being proud to be made a Fellow in 2018, I have tried to use my experience to encourage and advise the next generation of hospitality professionals, including sadly, those more recently who have sadly lost their jobs due to the pandemic. 

I often advise our own young officers to join the IoH for it’s wealth of advice and information and to add further credibility to their own roles by using the post-nominal letters to denote “Industry Professional” to all they encounter. The shipping industry has historically not considered itself to be in the wider hospitality sector but I am pleased to report this has changed over the last few years and membership of the IoH can only serve to help that belief of those afloat that they are part of a much wider community.

Which elements of Membership did you use most during lockdown? 

The webinars and briefings were especially useful as well as the highlighting of other sectors’ challenges during the a pandemic via the website and in HQ Magazine.

Do you have any advice for people considering joining the cruise industry? 

It is a superb career for hospitality professionals. Responsibility comes at an early age and once away from home ports you need to rely on your own professionalism and initiative. However the sense of teamwork and camaraderie is second to none. For those for whom a life at sea is attractive (it is not for everyone – separation from families and loved ones is a high price to pay) there are good career paths to senior positions and the overlay of safety and maritime training on top of professional training and knowledge makes for an interesting mix. 

For those whose career is in the kitchen (called the Galley afloat – we delight in having our own language : walls are bulkheads, ceilings are deckheads and we refer to port and starboard instead of left and right. Remind me to tell you sometime what “tumblehome” is!), again promotion is rapid and the opportunity for career development and creative flair are limitless executive Chefs on the larger ships are preparing up to 30,000 meals a day for guests and crew, all with the “wow” factor.  All Chefs afloat are expected to source local delicacies and ingredients to give guests a flavour of the places visited. 

Again for those who take to the life, positions ashore in operations, crewing (the maritime equivalent of human resources) or procurement management exist and a solid foundation in the sharp end of the business (ie customer facing at sea) are the main qualification. Cruise offers a fascinating career choice with good opportunities for responsibility at an early age, good training, an opportunity to meet fascinating people from all over the world and with amazing stories of their own to tell – oh yes, and then there’s the travel!  I spent the day before Christmas Eve a few years ago in Guadeloupe. I had taken the ship’s Hotel Manager and Cruise Director out for a meeting in a local waterfront café to discuss the festive period. As I looked out at the ship anchored in front of me and two professional and much-respected colleagues with me, and the perfect Caribbean scene arrayed before me I had to pinch myself and remind myself I was being paid for this!

Tell us three things about yourself that we don’t know!

I went to sea 42 years ago “for 5 years to see the world”.  All these years later I’m still involved with ships and the sea. 

My first shore job in the maritime industry was overseeing the catering and logistics in a fleet of Royal Yachts in the Middle East. 

I was honoured to be recognised by my fellow maritime professionals when I was sworn in as one of the Younger Brethren of the Corporation of Trinity House in 2020 – a historic position that dates back to 1514 when the Corporation was founded by King Henry VIII.

You can connect with Mike via LinkedIn.