Interview with Hotel Director Philip Herbert, Azamara Club Cruises
He was born in Kenya, a land of big game and wildlife. It's funny how a lion figures into one of his best stories at sea, too! Learn the back story (and favorite stories) of the witty and entertaining Philip Herbert.
Q: Philip, tell us about your early life and where you grew up.
My mother was from Kenya and my father was from the UK. I was born in Nairobi but did all my schooling in the UK. Kenya is famous for its wildlife and that was a big part of my early life experience. There's a huge hospitality industry there, with hotels and lodges and all kinds of tourism. That's where I got my first inkling to go into this business.
I now live in UK in a little town called Cheltenham on the edge of the Cotswolds, a very pretty part of the country known for its quaint yellow stone colored villages. I live there with my wife and energetic black lab called Mutley. The countryside is beautiful and the three of us do a great deal of walking. I am also a keen runner and skier. I like being outside in the fresh air and countryside, and physical exercise always clears my head.
Q: Are you just as active at sea?
For me, running is a big part of keeping fit at sea. With the incredibly diverse itineraries here at Azamara Club Cruises we have lots of opportunities to get outdoors, so I take advantage of it whenever I can.
Q: How did you find your way to Azamara Club Cruises?
I completed a financial economics degree in London, and went to visit my brother in America who was married to a California girl. A friend of his who used to work on cruise ships suggested I might like that too. I was thinking, "Okay, so either I go back to the UK in winter and work at a bank, or stay here and do this for a while." It was an easy decision. I got a job with Celebrity Cruises and enjoyed it so much that I stayed. I progressed quickly and the company sponsored me through Hotel Management training. I spent about ten years at Crystal Cruises and it was very formative. During that time I worked my way up to Hotel Director. When Azamara started in 2007 they asked me to join. I readily accepted! I have worked on both the Journey and the Quest.
Q: Was your experience on both ships similar?
Yes, I have worked with both Captain Carl and Captain Johannes. They are both great individuals and have a lot to do with making Azamara what it is today. Senior management has to be out there, be visible, and be genuinely interested in creating a great guest experience. The captains do that very well, and they set an example for the rest of us.
Q: What are essential skills in your job?
One essential skill is to be as patient as possible and listen a lot—really listen and not talk. I work very hard to make sure our crew's welfare is looked after, so all they have to do is enjoy what they're doing and go out there and perform well. If they know they have onboard management that's willing to listen, care for and be there for them, they'll give their best.
The essential challenge is getting the best from my team so guests are happy and we all get the results we're aiming for. It may be a bit of a cliché, but a happy crew means happy guests. When the crew is happy, it correlates with high guest ratings.
Q: Tell me more about how a happy crew makes for happy guests.
What we hear onboard is how sincere and friendly our crew is, and how well they work together. I'm amazed at how many guests know our crew members by name. That's a real connection. It's the same in how our staff and crew say hello to each other and greet each other in a friendly way. That's genuine, and if they aren't doing it downstairs they won't do it upstairs. It will feel forced.
New ships are coming out all the time with a lot more tonnage and hardware, beautiful furnishings, and state of the art amenities. You can have all of that, but if you don't have a soul to the ship it doesn't make much difference. And the soul of the ship is the crew. Guests walk on and can feel it very quickly. They've been on other ships and feel just the opposite. A friendly crew sets the tone, and it becomes a friendly ship among guests, too.
Q: Can you give us a quick rundown of your responsibilities?
The hotel department is the largest department onboard. Out of a crew of 408, roughly 365 to 370 are on the hotel team. The main departments reporting to me are food and beverage, housekeeping, guest relations, finance team, cruise director and entertainment, plus our loyalty program, IT, print specialist and the stores. The largest part is food and beverage, and this is obviously very important to guest satisfaction. We are perfectionists when it comes to following public health guidelines and obviously the quality, service and friendliness of our bars, restaurants and room service make a big impact. It's not just upholding established guidelines but meeting the standards we've set for ourselves.
Q: What's a typical day in your life?
The great thing is that each day is different, either a new port or a sea day in a new place. I start with daily rounds, top to bottom. Decks, then Windows Café, then room service to make sure things are dispatched as they should be. Then I'll visit the main dining area and stores. Then catch up on email before a 9 AM meeting with department heads.
Most days in port we meet on the gangway as the tours are being dispatched. We say hello to guests, get to know them, and hear their feedback. The guests know they will see us there every day and after a while they feel comfortable bringing things to our attention. That's exactly what we want. If even the smallest thing isn't right, we want to hear about it.
There may be planning meetings after that. We also have weekly lifeboat drills that take quite a bit of time and training. I'll often have lunch in Windows Café with guests, then more email before an afternoon break. At 5 PM there are cocktail parties and loyalty parties, which are always fun. I usually go to Prime C or Aqualina at dinner to greet guests and check in with them. It's another great way to hear feedback.
Q: Your most challenging experience?
Certainly the engine room incident we had off the coast of Malaysia was both my most challenging and most reaffirming experience. We've had close to a 100% return rate from people onboard that cruise. And I'm sure that has to do with the way everyone onboard came together, the way the captain kept people informed, and the way Miami supported us. This is where having a strong team makes all the difference in the world.
Fortunately we got our own power back within a reasonable time, and were able to slowly sail until we reached Sandakan in Borneo three days later. It was a remarkable time. The morale onboard was strong and there was real bonding. Our guests collectively had a great attitude and were so cooperative.
I have to credit the resourcefulness of our staff and crew. Without power we couldn't cook anything in the galley, but we could still barbecue and the ocean was quite calm, so we decided to throw the White Night party on deck. Russ was outstanding at getting the team together to put on a great show. There was euphoria that we had all gotten through something together—something tough—and we were grateful for what we had.
Our guests were also amazed that Larry Pimentel, our CEO, flew out to meet them. Bert van Middendorp (AVP Hotel Operations) flew out too. Everyone was blown away that senior company management would be there and face the situation head-on. Taking responsibility…not shirking from it. That's what you want to see. People value straightforward answers and honesty.
Q: What's your funniest experience?
Before Azamara I was concierge on a world cruise. When we were in Africa, a lot of people bought large wooden carvings. We would store these purchases until the end of the voyage. So we were coming into Rio when this guest came to me and said, "I'm here to pick up my lion." I said "What? A lion carving?" "No, a real lion," he said. I'm frantically searching my mind, but I did not remember anything about a lion! Turns out he had purchased a full-size stuffed male lion. I had been busy that day so someone else had stored it for him. Later I saw it carried off the ship—this gigantic stuffed lion—and it even made the papers in Brazil.
Q: Best thing you've heard after a voyage?
People saying you've made a difference in my vacation, or recognizing how great the team is and all the hard work it takes to make a great voyage. Personal acknowledgement makes all the difference. It makes everything worthwhile.
Q: How do you deal with guests who are less than satisfied?
I am happy when I hear about it onboard because then I can fix it. The worst thing is to get a letter after the voyage when you learn for the very first time that a guest was unhappy. I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't want every guest to have a fantastic experience. That's why we offer so many opportunities for feedback during the voyage. We can fix just about anything.
Generally speaking, it's usually not the initial problem but how it's handled that counts. Did it take too long? Was it solved correctly the first time? That's something we constantly strive for, to make sure the resolution is swift and the guest is absolutely satisfied. We try to put ourselves in the guest's shoes. We all want to know that people care and are listening.
Q: What have you learned about human nature?
That most people don't like to complain. So by the time they come forward they are already unhappy that they have been put in a situation where they need to complain. And they doubt themselves, feeling they are perhaps inconveniencing you.
Now for some quick questions…
Q: Best ports for nightlife?
Kotor is fantastic and we're usually there overnight. St. Tropez and Edinburgh are also favorite nightlife places.
Q: Favorite onboard foods?
I like spicy food, so everything from Thai to Indian. And I love Japanese food. We do many international buffets in Windows and they're all very good. I like the ones with kick. No subtle foods for me!
Q: AzAmazing Evenings experience?
I would go for the one in St.Petersburg at the ballet; it was absolutely amazing. They put on quite a ballet for just our guests and it was spectacular. That was a very special evening. A beautiful event.
Q: Finally, what do you like most about working with Azamara?
Sailing into all these little places. Not only is it convenient, guests get to see a city from a different point of view. St Petersburg, Bordeaux and Seville are a few examples. A lot of the bigger ships dock hours outside of town, so you waste two hours just getting to and from where you end to start your tour. Your holiday is important! Don't waste time!
We sailed close to the Tower Bridge in London…what an experience! Seeing the Tower of London, the skyline of London, and you're sitting there looking right out at it. Captain Carl thrives on that sort of thing. He loves it. And so do our guests.
On Azamara you can be as involved as you want in experiences like that. You can watch the world go by and see this spectacular scenery. To me that's a big part of what makes a voyage like no other form of travel.
Q: Any desire to be a hotel director back on land?
Being on land—no! Every day is different, and I get to work with people from 50 different nationalities. I love how people from different cultures think differently too. I put myself fully into my work, knowing it will be followed by a good block of time to get recharged and revitalized.