NOW THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT!
MEET CRUISE DIRECTOR TONY MARKEY
Some people are naturally curious and eager for new experiences. Tony Markey is like that. Born with itchy feet, as his mother would say. Lucky for us, he found his dream job as Cruise Director at Azamara Club Cruises. Fasten your seat belts and get ready for a ride.
Q: Tony, tell us about your background and how it led to a position as cruise director.
I’ve done a whole lot of fun stuff over the years…people sometimes don’t believe it. I was very good at sciences in school. So after finishing my early education I talked my way into a graduate level job. I earned a pharmacology/physiology degree while working as part of the team that developed the first heart-lung machine. That was cutting edge science back in 1982! I had four papers published in my name.
So I was set on becoming a cardiac surgeon. Then I got a phone call and had the chance to perform in the “Song For Europe” competition. This was a huge competition, the one that launched ABBA. I went home and thought it over, and my heart knew this was what I wanted to do: become a performer. So I said yes and left science behind.
Of course we lost the competition! I didn’t know I’d become an unemployed singer for the next two years. But I just kept going, auditioning week after week, learning theater and dance and working my way from the bottom up. You just need one person to say “yes.” After a few wilderness years touring in theatre shows I moved to Newcastle and met my wife. She is an awesome singer and we formed a double act and worked as guest entertainers on cruise ships (The Steve & Eydie Gormè of the cruise ship world).
In 1997 we came home and I went to law school. I know you’re thinking…law school?? Later I transferred my degree to Science Education, graduated Summa Cum Laude and taught high school science for a few years. Hated it. I returned to ships in 2005 and have no intention of ever going back to so-called real life!
So if anyone ever needs heart surgery or a lawyer on the ship, we’ll just say, “Call off the show! We need Tony!” Seriously, with such an eclectic background, what do you love about performing onstage with Azamara?
I love the intimate environment and the connection with the audience. I can see the faces of our guests and the whites of their eyes; I can adjust the performance based on their reaction. It’s like an intimate supper club. You can tell if your audience is smiling or laughing and you can gauge the mood. It’s a personal experience, and we get to react to the mood of the room. Guests often have requests and I am happy to sing nearly any song for them. We can be very in-the-moment, and you don’t get that on the big ships.
Q: How do you plan for the year ahead?
We have guest entertainers every five or six days and planning generally occurs one year ahead. As Cruise Director I can look at our guest roster and make sure our entertainers match the general guest demographic. We can move guest entertainers around to adjust for that. Plus, we try our best to vary shows each week because we have so many back-to-back guests.
I have my own 45-50 minute show. I also join a production cast in a Broadway show. These shows are built around the Cruise Director on each ship. So we get solo moments and group songs. This is what we Cruise Directors are born to do. In fact ours is the only cruise company that I know of where experience as an entertainer is a job requirement.
Q: You wear a lot of hats. What’s it like to manage the entire entertainment crew?
Managing 21 entertainers…well it’s like managing the drama department on some days. We entertainers are highly strung people. I love it.
Q: Like the American TV show Glee.
That is very close to reality!
Q: Where do you call home when you’re not on the ship?
The Northeast of England in Newcastle upon Tyne. Although I was born in East London, I have lived in Newcastle for 30 years. I met my wife Christine there in 1985 and decided to stay. So in my time off I spend a lot of time with my family of nieces and nephews throughout the UK, who all think Uncle Tony has a glamorous job! Christine and I then have two uninterrupted months to get all those “Honey Do” jobs completed and visit family and friends around the UK. My mother says I have itchy feet and I really cannot settle in one place for too long.
Q: What are your responsibilities as Cruise Director? How does your schedule work?
According to my job description, I am in charge of all entertainment, shows, enrichment, arts & crafts, music, movies, dancing, activities, DJ, a Dept of 21, TV & broadcast. I wish it were that simple! The Cruise Director typically does not wear a uniform although we are 3½-stripe officers. We must be accessible at all times, and I spend most of my day walking the ship, greeting guests on the gangway each morning, walking the restaurants at night and interacting with guests to gauge what they individually want. As the most senior Cruise Director—I’ve been here since 2008—I go between ships to ensure guests have the same quality experience on both vessels. So I do between two and three months on each ship, then take vacation for two months or so. This means I get to work with great friends on either ship, see the world (I have now been to around 140 countries) and get great air miles!
Q: What do you love about being on a smaller ship? Do you ever crave a bigger stage?
Been there, done that. I much prefer a smaller venue because it’s all about working together with the audience. I believe the Captains and Cruise Directors are perhaps the most visible face of the ship. We are very guest-facing and guest-focused. In my free time I can read a book or walk the deck to talk with people. I much prefer talking with people.
Q: That’s the secret sauce of the Azamara experience, isn’t it?
It is. Guests feel great when they know you stopped to talk just with them. It’s a concept of service that’s very rare these days. They’ll call the company and ask when Russ, Eric (the other Cruise Directors) and I will be on the ship. We have a high percentage of repeat guests because of that relationship. Pure and simple. We spend quality time with guests and work hard to entertain them on stage, too. And of course we are fortunate to have four fantastic captains, Carl, Johannes, Jason and Jose, our newest.
Q: What’s the best part of your job, and what’s the most challenging?
Actually, they are one and the same! Working with our guests from around the world, anticipating what they want and trying to over-deliver. This has its challenges, as what may be acceptable for someone from London can be over-the-top for someone from Utah. That is where experience kicks in. I learned very early on that you can’t use the same language with everyone. English guests do irony and sarcasm like nobody else! But if I do that to a North American, it can be offensive. And you learn to be a great reader of body language. Not everyone is gregarious and wants to chat, and we are sensitive to that. God gave us two ears and one month, so l’ve learned to listen twice as much as I speak. That’s a great lesson for everyone.
Q:What’s your personal favorite style of entertainment—music, dance, theater, opera, movies?
I have performed so many styles of music! I was in a “Steely Dan” style of band as a young man. I was theatre trained at a Stage School in London, so my heart is in the London’s West End. I have starred in many stage shows. I’m a sucker for a good melody and was fortunate to see Donny and Marie Osmond in Vegas. Some people might question my admiration for Donny Osmond, but he is a consummate entertainer. Day-to-day, it doesn’t get any better than listening to Joni Mitchell with my feet in the sand in Saint-Tropez. Whatever has happened that day, Joni just washes it all away.
Q: What music would we find on your personal device playlists?
My own album! Actually, it’s true that I have just finished my new CD and I am listening again and again until I am sure there are no glitches or flat notes and it is good enough to release. For pleasure, I am a James Taylor, Joni Mitchell & Josh Groban kind of guy.
Q: Tell us about a time when everything went wrong with a performance and how you fixed it.
Oh my goodness, after more than 30 years in the business I have had so many disasters on stage. I have fallen off stages, gone on with no voice, forgotten all my costumes…I’ve been locked in dressing rooms, locked in toilets, had chairs and bottles thrown at me, played with a blind piano player, a one-armed bass player and a young lad in a wheelchair with no legs who played the drums. Every time he hit the drum his chair would move backwards out of range. So we attached him to his drum set with bungee cords. I’ve seen it all.
This one may take the cake. A pianist in the UK got the job for a Christmas and New Year’s performance…because she was on the only one who showed up at the audition and wasn’t actually asked to play anything; they just hired her. So she shows up and it turns out she only knew the keys by color, so she would say, “What key is this song in?” I thought she was joking. I would say “Bb” and she would put a tiny yellow sticker on the music. And so it went. Blue for “G,” brown for “Eb” and so on. When I went on stage that night, the first song was “It Takes Two,” an old Motown favorite. From the keyboard…all we got was a single note. It was horrifying. So we just went on and sang a cappella with drums. The entire evening (two 45-minute shows) it was just my voice and drums. The audience didn’t quite get it, but by the second half they were all drunk so we just did it. At least I got paid at the end of the night!
Way back when I was a theatre singer, I was touring with the Rock Musical Godspell. Opening night I had these tight sexy breeches on with nothing underneath because they were too tight. I cartwheeled down the aisle at the very beginning and fell on my head, hurting my neck while splitting my trousers front to back. I then had to remain on stage for the entire first half, singing “Prepare thee the way of the Lord” with my behind hanging out.
And I’ve made brilliant financial decisions along the way, too. In 1985 my manager asked me to do a recording session and voice for a children’s toy. I recorded the tracks and chose the session fee of 50 pounds (UK). The tracks were for a new toy called “My Little Pony” which remains one of the best selling toys of all time. No royalties for me! How was one to know!
Around two years ago while on vacation in the UK, I recorded a Gospel album for a friend as a session singer, which I have been doing for many years. It was meant as a demo to be sent to established Gospel singers to encourage them to record it. Six months later I had charted at #6 on the UK Gospel charts with one of the tracks. The entire album sold brilliantly. However, all profits go to church charities!
My biggest success and surprise was my interview and audition for this job. I was touring the UK in Calamity Jane and Celebrity Cruises called and flew me to Miami to audition for Azamara. From that three-minute interview in 2008 I have had the best life for the last six years and hope for many more wonderful years ahead.
Q: Dancing in high heels during a storm at sea—how does that work? Any experiences where you had to say we’re just not doing this tonight?
(Spoiler alert!) Of course, when I take part in Hairspray I come out in high heels but I practiced long and hard to be stable on them as they are quite high. For our dancers we have three stages of assessment. If it gets too rough for heels, we go to flat shoes, and if it is really bad, I postpone the show or will even stop mid-show. The dancers have an entire career ahead of them and a broken ankle can stop them for good. So I work with the Dance Captain to assess the conditions. Luckily for us on Azamara, we are a very stable ship and do not typically encounter high seas.
Q: For someone in such a social position, what do you do to unwind at the end of the day?
I have always had a rule that work stays outside my stateroom door. So when I get back to my room at around midnight, I check e-mails but decided (wisely I think) many years ago to never send an e-mail reply after midnight. So I write them, save them to draft, and re-read them in the morning. Then I call my wife if I can, and sit with my iPad & Kindle for 30 minutes or so reading a good book. I usually sleep around 1 AM and get up at 07:30 to be ready to greet guests at the gangway by 8 AM.
Q: Tell us some good stories about famous White Night parties.
We had a charter onboard in Kotor, Montenegro, and the White Night party was very loud at their request. We started around 11 PM and around 1 PM the police arrived at the gangway to close us down for making too much noise! We had apparently woken the entire town. The following night in Dubrovnik, we had a second deck party and exactly the same thing happened at 2 AM.
Q: Have you met many celebrity entertainers onboard?
Sir Roger Moore was onboard as a guest and he very graciously agreed to be interviewed by me for an hour. The theatre was full of 650 guests and probably 200 crew. He was an amazing person and a great talker. I had roughly three days to do my research, so I read his book and everything I could find online. I was determined not to ask the same boring questions about Bond girls, so asked him questions like “What movie did you do that really sucked, the one you don’t want your grandchildren to see?” He was surprised and I think delighted to answer honestly. Then at the end he said something I will take with me into retirement: “Tony, I have been interviewed around the world for 50 years. This was one of the best and most original chats I have ever done.” He was and is an amazing man. Over the years I have met Walter Cronkite, Buzz Aldrin, Scott Carpenter and Sol Linowitz, and each had such an interesting story to tell.
Q: Any memorable experiences that may not fit the typical Cruise Director role?
In 2005 I was on the Seabourn Spirit heading to Asia along the coast of Somalia (don’t worry, Azamara does not sail this coast, and many things have changed since then!). At 5:40 AM we were attacked by two small boats full of Somali Pirates. They fired rocket-propelled grenades at us as well as strafing us with Kalashnikov fire. The ship sustained a 45-minute attack and thanks to the actions of some crew (me included) there were no injuries and we escaped unharmed. I was shot at and didn’t even realize it at the time. I will never forget the smell of Cordite.
Q: Your life experiences are beyond belief!
I have a great memory and it’s fun to have so many experiences to look back on. Paying attention, listening twice as much as you speak, and enjoying yourself along the way. That’s what life is all about.