How do I get a job like yours?

OK, spending retirement, being off on luxury cruise ships 4-6 months a year, sailing to fantastic places around the world, being waited on, meeting interesting people, and getting paid for it, is a tough job, but somebody has got to do it.  And I suppose it may be better than being a greeter at Walmart.

ad54d0c72978451f6346c72248b4ee24My path is probably different from what you or most folks would experience.  When I was in seminary, I had an apartment in the ground floor of a big house on Lake Macatawa in Holland, Michigan.  The lady who lived there was one of many wealthy, widowed women who lived alone, some still in the family home, and others in hotels.  Not just any old hotel, but places like the Waldorf and Sir Francis Drake.  In the depths of winter, year after year, they would sail of on cruises around the world for 109 to 130 days. Back in those days these ships were VERY luxurious.  They had the company of friends, an on-call medical staff, fantastic food, entertainment, and were able to visit some of the most exotic places in the world.

So my job was to look after the property during the winter while Mrs. Den Herder was on the ship.  Now I was a poor seminarian, and sometimes Mrs. Den Herder would call down and ask me if I wanted to come up for dinner.  And dinner was always a melt-in-your mouth, aged steak, complimented by the best wine.  And during these dinners she Seminary with Mrs DenHerder47would regale me with stories of life on the ROTTERDAM.  [And since Holland America recycles the names of its ships, this was the Old, Old ROTTERDAM built in the 50’s with a graciousness and luxury which has never been repeated.]

When I graduated she said, “You know, Richard, they have chaplains on all these ships, and you should apply.” Back in the day passenger ships all carried a rabbi, a priest and a minister … no, this is not the opening line for a joke.  You’d take your vacation time, and in return for a “free cruise” conduct services on board.  As cruising grew more popular, and some would say the cruise lines grew more greedy, those who count the beans decided that God wasn’t paying, so … the first to get thrown overboard was the rabbi.  The minister was the next overboard, and finally the priest.  For a while they’d have clergy on board just for the holidays, but that too is pretty much a thing of the past.  The highlight of Christmas Eve is now the appearance of Santa and the snow-making machine in the atrium.

Back then Holland America’s home office was still in New York, so I volunteered.  They told me they had a long list of applicants, so I asked them to add my name to the list, told them I was single, lived in the Bronx, and (take note!) could be available on short notice.  It turned out they had a lot of cancellations and I ended up getting a lot of cruises!  I’d grab my tux, get a few neighborhood kids from the Center we operated in the church basement, hop on the Number 5 train, and head for Pier 42.  This was in another era when you could invite your friends on board for bon voyage parties, but when I’d arrive with half dozen Black and Puerto Rican kids with huge Afros, well we stood out.

My second church was a very traditional First Reformed Church which I helped to transform into New Life Community Church and began taking groups of church members on cruises.  By this time the cruise industry was rapidly ramping up, and with over 50 cruises under my belt, I knew more about cruising than my travel agent.  He became a friend and corralled me into leading seminars for his agents on how to sell cruises.

My third church was in the Denver area and I was still going onboard as chaplain, sometimes leading groups. and with now 100 cruises under my belt, the agency owner asked me to help out part time focused on building his cruise business, while at the same time leading an active and growing congregation.  My wife had an active family therapy practice.

079Then we moved to California and my wife discovered that in order to practice in California she would have to jump once again through all the hoops she had done to be certified in Colorado: California would not recognize the work she did in Colorado.  The cruise side of travel was booming, so taking advantage of now over 150 cruises (and stopping counting!) we owned cruise agencies for 15 years and  became top producers for Princess, Holland America and Carnival. Along the way I became fascinated by the corporate side of the cruise business and so at 53 went back to get an MBA from Cal State Northridge, thinking I would probably work for Princess or Crystal.  I was working part-time in a large United Methodist Church and through a guy at the church was derailed into the fitness club business at the very beginning of the Internet.  Thankfully I was able to sell our travel agencies and became eCommerce Director for 24 Hour Fitness, although I usually jokingly tell people they hired me to be a model for the “before” pictures.  I started dabbling in real estate and viewing that as a job which I could continue as long as I wished, left the fitness/Internet space.

I got tired of having my life ruled by the telephone and a slice of then-new technology called the Palm Pilot, got tired of the traffic, cost and hassle of life in Southern California.  After I turned 62, one day I came home and said to my wife, “There is a time when you need to cash in your chips and walk out of the casino, and I think this is it.’

So we moved to Panama, and I resumed very occasionally going on board as a chaplain.  On one trip we had a “guest speaker” (frequently, although not always this refers to folks who are lecturing for a free cruise and are not paid).  Holland America invited me to be chaplain on a trip around South America.  We had onboard a gentleman (“guest speaker”) who was speaking on international relations.  This guy was a full professor at Georgetown, had several books, and had been in an executive position with the Foreign Service.  He was the guy: he knew his stuff!  But he didn’t know how to communicate and 10 minutes in you could hear people snoring all over the room.  I whispered to my wife, “I can do better than this.”


We were living in Panama.  I had been through the Canal several times.  And I had a neighbor who was a retired Panama Canal Pilot.  So I began to read everything I could get my hands on, about Panama, about the Canal, about US/Panama relations.  I went to the Web sites of several of the Speaker Booking Agencies and applied, looking for a way to get my foot in the door.  That resulted in getting regular emails about cruises they were trying to fill.  In my application I told them I could be available if needed at the last minute (take note!).

When one came up, on a very pricy, high end, ship, which frankly I didn’t think I had a chance of getting, I applied.  And I got the gig!  But now came the challenging part … putting together five lectures on Panama and the Canal, with visually rich PowerPoint slides, and a lecture that would entertain as well as inform.  “Lecturing” … I prefer “talking” … on ships is really something called edu-tainment.  How you deliver, and keeping your audience engaged and sometimes laughing, is as important as content since you are viewed as part of the entertainment staff.    Putting together a set of compelling lectures, carefully timed, usually 45-55 minutes, is a matter of “genius” which was defined for me by a professor who said, “Genius is a matter of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and staying there”

Pearl Mist Santiago PAX Photo

Well it was a hit! And I got good reviews, which are everything in this business.

So here’s how this works. Most of the cruise lines have offloaded planning and assigning “guest speakers” to Lecture Bureaus who recruit people who are willing to work for a “free cruise.” Usually they charge the speaker $65 to $100 a day for their service. This includes a free cruise for you and an accompany spouse, friend or relative. Usually you are responsible for port charges, any hotels in route, and air fare. Sometimes, depending on their needs/desperation the cruise line includes air and port charges for the speaker. The speaker bureaus try their best to provide speakers that are intelligent, informing, articulate and entertaining. Sometimes, usually, they are successful, but sometimes they are not. The cruise line is also offloading the responsibility, quality control and liability. More and more cruise lines have adopted this approach. 98% of what I do is on a per diem fee plus all expenses. Once in a while if there is a special itinerary that interests me, or as a favor to one of the Lecture Bureaus with whom I’ve worked, but without any long-term, or exclusive relationship with the Lecture Bureau. My first lecture-bureau gig was on Royal Caribbean, and out of respect to the Lecture Bureau with whom I worked, I will only deal with Royal Caribbean through that Lecture Bureau.


Two lecture bureaus which I would recommend that you check out are SixthStar and Starboard Speakers. There are others, I just happen to know these folks.

Most importantly, YOU’LL NEED TO HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY! It’s got to be interesting and compelling. A few former astronauts come to mind! Folks were most fascinated by how you go to the bathroom in zero gravity! But it can be much more down to earth. One of the best lectures I’ve heard was by a botany professor for California State University who was going to speak as we sailed down along the Baja on “Cacti of the Baja.” Wow! That was sure to be a show-stopper! Feeling sorry for the guy I went. It was the funniest lecture I’ve heard! No wonder his first thing Saturday morning classes are filled within hours of registration opening. Financial topics are definitely out: too much risk for the cruise line. Ditto self-help or reading the last speech you gave to a professional association, or your class notes. Forget quoting from your books … or lengthy quotes from others. And remember, IT IS ENTERTAINMENT! On most ships that use “free cruise” speakers you’re competing with a dozen other activities, so you have to grab your audience the first time out. You have to present your topic in a fun way! And just like a public tennis court, when your time is up, it’s up and the next act is waiting in the wings. Most larger cruise ships have someone, someone like me, who focuses on destinations, but in 45-50 minutes no one can cover it all. So if you have a fascinating rabbit hole about a destination you can explore, go for it.


YOU NEED A COMPELLING POWERPOINT PRESENTATION preferably on a PC. Proceed with Mac at your own risk, bring your own cables, and hope for the best. 28 pt. type or better. IMHO white on black background is be best. Provides a sharp contrast and on many ships your presentation will be recorded so those who chose to lay in the sun, have an additional opportunity to see your talk.

Before assigning you a cruise they’ll want to see an outline for about five lectures … compelling title, summary. And they’ll want to see how you perform before an audience. It can be a service club, or church meeting, or evening a business talk as long as it is compelling, interesting, and fun. They just want to see how you come across in front of a live audience.  It doesn’t have to be professionally produced, in fact, better if it’s not,  They just want to see you if you can articulate and hold an audience, and it needs to be on Facebook (Easy: if you don’t know how just ask your grand kids).

How I morphed from being a “guest speaker” to actually being paid for a part time, fun job, all expenses paid.

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I quickly morphed from working with the lecture bureaus to the cruise lines. It was unique in many ways and unexpected. Having done one success Canal voyage, providing lectures as a background and then giving the play-by-play as we sailed through the canal. I ended up doing 4 or 5 canal trips for a major cruise line. They were making plans to totally revamp their onboard entertainment department which would include an administrative manager, a cruise director who would be the “voice”, a tech guy who would offer classes on technology aimed at an older audience for whom all of this tech stuff was a brave new world, a party planner who would handle all the social activities, and a travel guide who would provide information about the ports on the itinerary that would help guests get the most out of their cruise. Perhaps the only flaw was that they had chosen a woman to redesign the program who had recently retired as a college dean and … get this … had never been on a cruise! So she would end up calling me asking how this or that actually worked on board, specifically focused on the destination/travel guide position.

When a job description finally emerged, the gal surprised me by asking, “Richard, would you ever be interested in doing this?”

Frankly I’d never thought about it, but I asked anyway, “How many weeks are we talking about?”

She answered six months.  And I just laughed.  Thanks, but no thanks.  When I hung up I told my wife and kids and my kids said, “Dad you’d never last that long!”  So, of course, I picked up the phone, called her back, and started a new and exciting chapter of my life which has taken me around the world, twice, and allowed me to lecture on over 300 ports worldwide.  Most importantly, I’ve met some of the most interesting people in the world.

People usually ask this question as I’m sticking my first bite of dinner into my mouth!  I apologize for such a long answer, but it’s better than missing dinner monopolizing the entire conversation for the evening.  Thank you for wading through this to the end and I hope we meet when you are a Guest Speaker on board!

Just a quick aside: it’s amazing how something tiny, almost inconsequential at the time, can change the diretion of your life.  All thanks to Mrs. Margurite Den Herder!  You never know!  So maybe you’re stumbling on this article will open fantastic opportunities for you!