Who’s sinking whom? Part 2

The booming cruise business seems to be going in two different directions.  Last post I talked about the boom of giant mega cruise ships.  Interestingly, here’s the other direction …

Soft-adventure, port-focused, exploration cruising in small vessels is the alternative to the giant, impersonal, nickel- and-diming mega ships, and it is the fastest growing segment of the cruise business.  These ships have no climbing walls, water slides, casinos, art and Botox hustlers, nor Broadway wanta-be shows.  They are smaller, generally 200 guests or fewer, usually all-inclusive, and are definitely destination focused.  Often, they will intentionally seek out ports of call that are somewhat off-the-beaten path and frequently can accommodate ships only with smaller draft, ruling out the mega shifts or forcing them to anchor out with inconvenient, long tender rides to get to shore.

Soft-adventure may, or may not, be active adventure, depending on the cruise line.  Some offer customized excursions ashore in Zodiac-type boats, or “hiking” (which is sometimes more walking or even “strolling” depending on the age profile of the guests), with a definite focus on the ports, the history, and the culture.

And there are no former slice-and-dice machine hawkers picked up from local fairs to serve as shopping “ambassadors” to push shopping in “preferred” stores (those with kick-backs to the cruise lines) as if shopping was the primary reason people make a voyage.  Frequently tours ashore with local guides are included, or if extra offered without an outrageous cruise line mark up.

Don’t feel sorry for these cruise lines who aren’t huckstering shopping, or making profits marking up shore excursions, selling bottled water at $2.50 a small bottle plus 15% gratuity, offering free bar drinks and wine with dinner, and not selling jewelry, clothing, spa treatments, Botox, teeth whitening, art, the “good” food, or whatever.  They are making their money up front.  Expect to pay $500 to $800 per person per day!  If you wait ‘til the last minute, you can likely book a “guaranteed” room on a mass market 7-day cruise somewhere in the Caribbean for $800 per week.  Those mass market ships aren’t making any money on your cruise ticket.  They make their money by nickel-and-diming you once you step on board.  “Yeah, but think of all the money they spend on food,” you say.  Even a 7-day mass market cruise that serves really good food to the masses in the buffet and included dining room, is only spending about $2 per person per day for food.  So the business model of the mega, mass-market cruise line is different than that of the small-ship, more boutique exploration cruise line.

The market audience for the soft-adventure, port-focused exploration ship is different.  What amazes me on the small ships are the folks that I meet.  Now on a mega ship I talk to hundreds of people, but I never really get to meet anyone.  On a small ship I’m able to interact with the guests, travel with them on shore excursions, and eat with them every meal.  These folks are well-travelled and have been “everywhere,” they are well-educated and well-read, and they tend to be more affluent given the price point. All of that means that they’ve been around longer and so are generally older which means that they have had amazing life experiences!

We had a large, multi-generation family on one of the small ships.  They pretty much took an entire deck of cabins.  I thought maybe it was a special wedding anniversary or birthday for one of the family’s patriarchs, so I ask the Dad.  He said no, but they had just sold their family company and were celebrating. I said, “Oh, what kind of company?”  He said drilling, so I assumed it was the oil business.  But he went on to tell me that it was his company that figured out how to drill down and rescue the 33 miners who in 2010 were trapped for 69 days in the collapsed copper-gold mine in San Jose de Copiapo, Chile.  Amazing!  And this guy is sitting right there!  Better than a rock star!


On one of my trips to Cuba, I was sitting at dinner with a 91-year-old gentleman who had been a merchant marine Captain and his wife said to him, “Tell Richard about the time you met Fidel.”  Wow!  Here we are sailing to Cuba and this guy met Fidel!

After the boggled Bay of Pigs US Invasion of Cuba in 1961 to get the captured US invaders back from Cuba the US agreed to send Cuba medical supplies in exchange for the US prisoners.  The gentleman sitting across from me was the Captain of the ship that took the supplies to Cuba and made the exchange!  His wife said, “There was a  picture of him and Fidel with James Donovan who arranged the exchange.”  With a little time online I found the picture!

New Picture

It turned out that Fidel wasn’t too trusting of the US by this time, so he insisted on personally visiting the ship and checking out the shipment.  Satisfied, he told the Captain, “My men willl unload.”  The Captain told Fidel that it was his ship and he would unload.  Rather than another international incident they decided to make a bet.  Fidel’s men would unload one hold, and the ship’s crew would unload the other.  Fidel put up a bottle of really good, aged Cuban rum and the Captain put up a bottle of Kentucky whiskey.  The diplomatic good will continued and the two determined it was a draw and just exchanged bottles.  So here was a guy who not only met Fidel, but made a bet with him!  And we’re going to Cuba and he’s on the ship sitting at the table with me!

The story gets even better … all this happened at Christmas.  The ship arrived on December 24th and after it was unloaded Fidel said to the Captain, “I’ve always wondered how you people celebrated Christmas, and since it’s Christmas Eve I would like to have dinner on board with you and your men.”

The Captain replied, “Well, sir, since you are an atheist and don’t believe, you probably would not enjoy it, so the answer is no.”  He turned down Castro!  In Cuba!

But the two must have established some rapport because Castro invited him the next day to see what Castro called his Cuba.  The Captain said it was the scariest thing I have ever done.  He was in the back of a car, sitting with Fidel, with a machine gun at their feet, two guys in front with machine guns, and four outrigger jeeps bristling with guns, and they drove across Cuba.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen on big mega ships.  First, if you are an “entertainer” of any sort, you never get to really meet and get to know the guests.  Second, the big ships don’t attract this type of well-educated, well-read, well-traveled guests who have had these amazing life experiences and are still eager to explore and learn.

The expedition, port-focused vessels are generally smaller topping out at around 500-700 guests, but many with accomodation for less than 200.  Some are quite luxurious and others are pretty basic, but all are more expensive than the mega ships.  It just costs a whole lot more to operate a small ship which lacks any economy of scale.

Some go overboard making promises without always delivering.  I think it’s better to underpromise and over deliver.

One of the highlights of the exploration, adventure, port-focused ships are the “lectures” and talks onboard that enhance the voyage providing guests with historical and cultural context, and this is primarily my job on board.

Next to the question, “Why did you move to Panama?,” the most common question I get on board ships is, “How do I get a job like yours?”

Now I readily admit that I have a great life.  I live in a spectacularly beautiful part of Panama with ideal spring-like weather year round, and as a professional speaker I’m paid to spend 4 to 7 months a year sailing around on beautiful ships.  Yes, it’s a tough life … and believe it or not, it sometimes is … but someone has to do it.  And it’s a better retirement job than being a greeter at Walmart, not that there is anything wrong with being a greeter at Walmart.


There are two types of lecturers on board ships. A few of us are paid professionals, but many are what I call “pay to play” lecturers.  The cruise lines offload the responsibility of providing lecturers, and other entertainers, to lecture bureaus who recruit and assign people to work the ships, saving the cruise line having to hire someone to do this.  The lecture bureau develops a stable of folks who hopefully have something to say and more importantly perhaps know how to say it in an entertaining … “edutainment” is the goal … way.  These folks earn a “free cruise” for themselves and a companion by providing talks and lectures on board and they support the lecture bureau/booking agent by paying of fee of anywhere from $60 to $150 per day, depending on the cruise line and assignment.

So far, so good.  The cruise line saves money, the lecture burea makes money, and the speakers get a “free cruise.”  Of course the cruise line in return for giving up a room … which may be inside or outside, crew or passenger, whatever location or bedding arrangement is available … gets a “non revenue” passenger, but one who pays port charges, gratuities, buys bottles of water, drinks, and hopefully pictures, and the usual stuff sold on the ships.  Some cruise lines allow the primary speaker to go on shore excursions as a “ship escort” and others charge for the tours.

The problem for the cruise line and their guests is consistency.  Quality of “pay to play” speakers varies immensely.  I always try to support the other lecturers on board and attend their talks.  Some have been fantastic!  There have been great former astronauts … one who had the audience literally rolling in the aisles with laughter as he described the basics of potty training in outer space!  I know a gal who is a geologist and has a great ability to make the earth make sense.  Another who can turn a tomato into a history lesson spanning generations and cultures.  I remember a botany professor who on a Mexican Riviera cruise announced a lecture entitled, “Cacti of The Baja.”  So I thought i’d better go and support him in case no one else showed up.  Well, I guess it was a dull day on board because a few folks showed up.  The guy was fantastic!!  I never knew cactus could be so funny!  After the lecture I told him I thought his classes must be a hit.  He told me that his university in Calfiornia always assigns him the worst spot on the schedule … Saturday morning!  But … year after year within 15 minutes of registrations opening, his classes are sold out!

But there are also some real duds.  The man who has written 40 or so “novels,” all self-published, who reviewed all 40 of his books and hawked them as well.  The Georgetown professor, actually a real expert, who had everyone in the audience snoring 15 minutes into his talk.  The pompous marine historian who despite his great topic managed to have half the audience disappear.  Long-lost and forgotten actors without scripts … and the whole gamut of investment gerus and self-improvement experts.  Which reminds me of the classic definition of an expert as being “a drip under pressure.”

Sometimes this relates to the voyage … and sometimes it is just fill … something to keep the guests who don’t want to bake in the sun busy.  On the mega ships you get the distinct feeling, both as a guest and lecturer, that this is just “fill.”  BUT on the expedition, adventure, destination-intensive ships, the lectures are an important and essential highlight of the days at sea … often standing room only!

I don’t do “pay to play” but I started out with a lecture bureau.   I was living in Panama, they were desperate for someone last minute to do a Canal cruise, so I did it.  I didn’t pay them, and nobody paid me,  I met their need and got my foot in the door.

So IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY and know how to say it in an entertaining way, and are interested, here are three contacts, folks in the business that I know, and you are welcome to contact them and tell them I sent you.

Sixth Star – www.SixthStar.com

Compass Speakers – www.CompassSpeakers.com

StarboardSpeakers – www.starboardspeakers.com