Hotel Director Ryszard Gusmann – Paying It Forward
Conducted February 2016 onboard the Azamara Journey by Bonnie MacLaird, Chief Blogging Officer
Hotel Managers are the sum of their training, experiences and opportunities. Ryszard (pronounced ‘Richard’) Gusmann understands this perhaps better than anyone. After a lifetime of working in hospitality and continually pushing himself to learn ever more, it’s obvious that his focus is now on helping others; be it helping his children and his fellow crewmembers to achieve as much as possible in their career and their lives, or his guests onboard the Azamara Club Cruises vessels.
Hello Ryszard, tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
First of all thank you for this interview. I was born on the north coast of Poland in the port city of Gdynia. I have one brother and one sister. My parents were both born in Poland, but my father’s parents and grandparents were from the Salzburg area of Austria. So I still have a lot of relatives in both Poland and Austria.
My entire education took place in Gdynia, Poland. At 15 I began a four-year Hotel Management program. I already knew that hospitality would be my calling. I enjoyed working and spending time with people, and learning to provide good service. When I graduated I began working in hotels on the coast of Poland. But really throughout my youth I was working in hotels on the weekends. I wanted to be ready for my first job when I finished my studies. I wasn’t really paid.
Not paid? Like an internship?
Well, you could call it that but basically my friends working in hotels let me stay on the weekends to watch, learn and help out. I was working in the area called Tri-City because there are three connected cities: Gdynia, my home town; Sopot, a resort area where I started in my first hotel called the Grand Hotel of Sopot, and Gdansk, where our Azamara ships call. In fact we hold an AzAmazing Evening in Gdansk!
How did you end up coming to sea?
Unexpectedly, really. I was in my first job, in a very good initial position at the Grand Hotel of Sopot. Out of the blue my brother said I should interview for a position he heard about with a cruise company. At that time I was learning English so I said “ok why not?” I thought it would be a good way to test my English skills, and I’d just see what they were offering. I went to the interview not really expecting anything to come of it. Two weeks later I received a phone call asking for my documents and telling me to get ready to leave my country. That’s how fast it happened.
Did you take it because you wanted to see the world? What lured you from your good position?
As I said, I was very happy with my position and my future at the Grand Hotel of Sopot. But yes, the adventure of traveling around the world was a big lure. I spoke with my boss and he encouraged me to go for it. He pointed out I could always come back if I didn’t like the experience at sea. Long story short, I never intended to stay at sea but I fell in love with this job and with working at sea. My family doesn’t want to hear this but you could say I am addicted to this job. Once you find your place, a place that you feel comfortable in, it’s hard to give it up.
What was your first cruise company?
I started out as an Assistant Waiter onboard a Regency ship when I was 21, and the years and the various shipboard positions in hospitality have flown by! I hardly remember it all. I moved from ship to ship, always changing my responsibilities until arriving where I am today, Hotel Director with Azamara Club Cruises!
When did you start with Azamara Club Cruises?
I’ve been with Azamara since Day One of the line’s operation…May 2007. I was working for Celebrity Cruise Line when they purchased the two Azamara ships from Pullman Cruise Line. They were looking for a crew that had experience on small ships, and specifically anyone with experience on the ex-Renaissance ships. I was first in line to sign up. I had worked on Renaissance and I loved these R-ships. They didn’t have to ask me twice!
Tell me about your family.
I’m married. My wife’s name is Jessica. She’s originally from Peru. We have two children: a son, age 15, and a daughter, age 13. I’m usually onboard for four months at a time, which means there’s a long stretch that I don’t see them. They all come out to visit me but lately only during their summer break from classes. My children are multi-lingual…they speak Polish, English, Spanish and German. Of course their native language is Polish, but I stress how important it is to study and become proficient in all these languages. And they have a lot of homework! They’re at this age where they don’t want much instruction from us but I know deep down they understand the benefits of a good education.
Where do you live? What do you do on your off-time?
We have built a house in a forest in Poland. It is so beautiful, a real sanctuary for me. In my free time I ride my mountain bike. It was Captain Jose who introduced me to this sport. I’m still learning but I love it. I also practice photography. I collect pictures of sunsets and sunrises and occasionally share them on Twitter. I like sports…I used to play a lot of sports and was very competitive.
But more and more I enjoy simple activities, such as drinking coffee in a café, watching the sunset, eating ice cream in the park. I have a sense of gratitude and of appreciating all that life has brought me. At home I try to switch off but of course I have responsibilities, I can’t just go home and sleep! Besides, my nature is that I can’t stay put. Even on the ship I’m rarely in my office. I like to be around people more than anything else.
You mentioned your excitement about coming back to these ships all those years ago. What is it about these Azamara ships that you love?
These ships are very unique. Stepping on the Azamara gangway the first time was such a great feeling. I said “I’m back again. I’m Home.” I feel that every time I return to either the Journey or the Quest, and that’s the feeling I want to convey to our guests, not only but especially our large number of repeat guests that return again and again. We typically have around 45% repeaters onboard. It is their home while they’re here and we are glad they’re back. The ship size is small enough to be enjoyed and yet our ships are never over-crowded. Even with a full capacity, guests say to us that the ship design is such that there are no queues; no trouble to get their food in the Windows buffet, and in the Discoveries Restaurant guests can enjoy their meals anytime they please. There are no tickets for the tenders, the guests can come at their leisure and they can get off from the ship anytime that they want. That flexibility represents quality for our guests.
Not everyone who starts off as an Assistant Waiter reaches senior management such as you have. To what do you attribute your success?
I’d like to take full credit for it, but I can’t. If I could find one singular explanation it would be my interest in watching and learning from others. I remember simply one day I realized that I could grow and move forward in my career. I began to express my willingness to move up and Azamara, and other lines before, gave me the opportunity.
Here at Azamara much of the tribute goes to my bosses. All my bosses have worked at sea and there is mutual understanding [between shoreside management and ship management], sometimes without words. They support us 24/7. All I have to do is pick up the phone; they understand. And they trust us. I think that it is very important that they trust us, and recognize that we are professionals who love this line.
That is unique. It is something that doesn’t happen everywhere. No one really wants to leave this company because it is so good in regards to relations here. You know supervision vs. management, and management vs. crew members. It cascades down to the lowest level of the workers because we have the same relationship with the laundry workers and with the cleaners. We talk to them daily. We greet each other daily. You know this is not happening on the bigger ships. I think it is a very unique culture that we’ve managed to establish on Azamara Club Cruises.
Something we hear regularly from our guests and on social media is how happy guests are with the staff and crew and the friendliness of the interactions. They realize that the staff and crew are honestly happy to be onboard.
It all revolves around the people hired to work on Azamara. I know it sounds like a broken record but we like this particular broken record, and we want it to continue. From my experience you just don’t meet people like we have onboard every day.
We look for people who have natural hospitality in their blood…that’s where we start. We look for a friendly personality and a natural love of hospitality. We believe someone either has this personality trait or they don’t. We find these people and then of course we train them to provide the standard of service that our guests expect. These people, our crew, are very genuine, very natural and this is unique compared to any other cruise line. If they tell you Good Morning it is because they mean it. It is not because I told them last night that they must say Good Morning tomorrow morning. They really mean it. They actually acknowledge you.
We’ve been so lucky with the personnel we have found and who have chosen to stay. The challenge is two-sided; not only to find such people but to keep them here. This is not easy; there are many options for these young men and women. We have a very unique culture onboard and they just like it. This culture brings them back I guess.
And there’s the culture of hiring from within. It falls to you and your team to train people to go up the ranks, to be given opportunities such as you’ve had.
Yes, I’m always happy to see people progressing in their career. I always tell the others to take advantage of what they have here, to watch and learn. I think I’m an example of this. So I watch for initiative in others. We, my team and I, start to focus on those showing initiative. We always need good people. I think focusing on our crew members is extremely important. We need to be there for them.
In your role now as Hotel Director, what do you feel is the more important aspect of your job? There’s the hospitality side of it that guests see, and then there’s the Management of the crew, which I’m realizing is such an important role.
Both are equally important. But I am part of a team, not one man standing above everybody making unilateral decisions that impact the guests or the crew. Ok yes, ultimately it is my responsibility to make a decision that impacts my department onboard, but decisions are always based on the feedback from my managers and the others onboard.
Speaking as one of the original employees of Azamara Club Cruises, what are your impressions of our Azamara guests?
Azamara attracts what I call travel people. The majority of our guests are world travelers. They know what they want. I’m happy to say that our guests are very nice to our crew as well. Our guests appreciate the service and they appreciate our crew. If I see our guests appreciating our work, and talking to them and making friends with them, I just stand aside and smile. This is the best payback to me.
When I’m training a new crewmember I always say “Imagine you are on the vacation of your life, and then you will do well” because if we put ourselves in their shoes, the way we would want to be treated on vacation, we cannot go wrong.