Starting his career with Carnival Cruise Lines as a wine steward in 1989, John Heald has worked his way up the ladder to become not only the Senior Cruise director but also the line’s Brand Ambassador.
His irreverent and honest humour has captured the hearts of many and sometimes grated on cruise fans, but it is largely because of this “face value” approach that he has become a force to be reckoned with in the social media sphere.
Here, John talks about honesty, what makes a great Cruise director and missing the ship when he caught up with Natalie Aroyan from e-Travel Blackboard on Carnival Breeze last month.
Natalie : You have become somewhat of a celebrity of late in the social media sphere, but what I don’t understand is how you find the time to answer all those questions, respond on Facebook, write your blog, post your photos and then do you regular role!
John: I’m very lucky because Carnival has given me wonderful support staff, one of whom is sitting six feet away from me now (Vance Gulliksen –Carnival Cruise Lines public relations manager).
Vance reads my blog every day to proof read it. He’s the second pair of eynes to see whether there’s anything that needs to be looked at. But it’s getting harder and harder and I actually wrote that in my blog the other day.
Bringing out a new ship and doing the Brand Ambassador stuff on Facebook is not easy.
Then there’s Facebook. I spend about 3 hours a day on Facebook. I have to spend three hours a day on Facebook as I have 27,500 people liking my page. I answer about 150 to 200 questions a day.
It’s just a matter of finding the time and sacrificing other stuff.
It sounds like I’m saying “hey look at me” but I’m not, I really do have to sacrifice any free time. So any free time I used to have is now taken up with social media.
The priority while I’m on a ship is to run the ship and spend as much time on stage as I can and that is getting a little harder to do because of social media.
There are a lot of companies who have veered away from social media because they believe it gives their clients too much of a say. I think Carnival does the best job when it comes to allowing people to have their say online.
Natalie : Is there a concern there as well though that people will take advantage of that?
John: I think that social media can be a blessing and a curse. If you ask Vance or Jennifer (Carnival Cruise Lines PR), there are times when I’m sure I make their toes curl!
I think that social media can be a blessing and a bit of a curse sometimes if it’s not handled properly but Carnival right from our CMO down, their input and their energy in social media is extraordinary.
I don’t think that anybody, certainly in the travel industry has the social media presence that we have.
We have 2 million on Carnival’s Facebook page, we have the Carnival News that Vance and the guys pump out all the time and now with my Facebook page and the blog which has had 14 million page views since I’ve started, definitely we’ve opened the doors to people to see what goes on sort of behind the scenes.
We’re using social media to get the message out and I think what we have is a great message.
So I think social media overall for Carnival…we do a fantastic job!
Natalie : You were saying that sometimes you might make Vance’s toes curl. You are a bit risqué, a lot of people love it but I can imagine that not everyone does. Where are the boundaries for you?
John: I think that’s a really good question and I’ve always said that the day that Carnival pick up the phone and tell me that they want me to say this and they don’t want me to say this and we want you to say that Carnival is the best and everything we do is perfect, is the day I shall respectively say OK it’s time for me to stop.
Right from the beginning, I have only done what I have done because I have been allowed to be myself and of course there’s a line and occasionally I step over it.
My line is probably a little further away than other people’s but all I can say is that sometimes I get someone saying that they’re surprised that Carnival allows me to do it and I guess there are times where I have even said that to myself.
But I guess the proof is in the pudding and we do have an ever growing fan base and there are times when I am sure there are things I shouldn’t say, but it is an extension of me.
I’m sure that when you write, you sit there and you’re not just writing what you’re feeling but what comes from right inside you.
I hope I answered that correctly, I do have a second pair of eyes and there are times that Vance will ask me if I’m sure I want to say something. Or maybe suggesting that now isn’t the time to mention something but that’s very rarely and I think they have been fantastically brave to allow me to do this and that’s a really good quote.
They have been very brave to allow me to do this.
Natalie : Well, talking about being open, something I’ve been looking forward to every day whilst aboard Breeze are your afternoon calls with who has been late getting back on the ship and announcing their cabin numbers. Is that usual?
John: The cabin numbers is fleet wide protocol. If somebody is missing, we announce their name and cabin number because often names are duplicated.
In the Caribbean, it’s a little different because it’s a very rare thing that people are late. In Europe as you’ve seen, it’s every single port.
It’s not just this ship, it’s every season I’ve done in Europe. People come back late.
Last night (in Venice) we had pulled the ship away. The ship was about three feet away from the pier when a water taxi came up to the bow flashing its lights and the Captain could have just kept going, he was absolutely within his right to do that because there’s a certain amount of risk putting the ship back again in the dark plus the fuel expense of burning fuel for thrusters, but he was very wonderful and David and Catherine arrived back on board safe and sound.
We had a family this week who were late again yesterday, the Taylors who were ten minutes later than they were supposed to be.
Natalie : Wow! They were late again? They’ve been late every day this cruise! Have you spoken to them personally?
John: Yes we have.
Natalie : Do they realise that the whole ship knows who they are?
John: They do and they’re a wonderful family from New Jersey. They are a little blasé about it and I’ve sort of unwittingly made them famous through my announcements even though I haven’t actually said “this is them”.
Natalie : Maybe you need to put their photo up on the big screen next time they’re late along with their cabin number?
John: I tell you what, the Captain spoke to them as well but I probably shouldn’t say anymore than that. They have been warned that if they miss the ship that it isn’t an easy thing.
If those folks had missed the ship yesterday, then they would have missed a sea day and they would have had to fly to Messina from Venice, so it wouldn’t have been a good thing.
Natalie : I’ve heard that if a ship is late leaving a port then the ship is issued with a fine and if the reason is that a passenger is late (and not on a Carnival shore excursion) that they are then passed on that fine. Is that true?
John: No there is no fine. We have to declare if we’ve left someone behind.
These days there are various lists that we have to send out to various agencies before we sail and those lists have to be complete in the sense that they have to be accurate but there is no fine.
But they are responsible for finding their own transportation and hotel. We have an agent who looks after us in each port and they will assist us with the bookings etc…but as far as the payment of the flight and the hotel, that’s all down to them.
Natalie : There have been lots of mentions about how Carnival Breeze has been your favourite ship. Why is that?
John: There are two answers to that.
The best ship is the one that I’m on at the moment but I do believe this (Carnival Breeze) is our best ship and I do say that with the greatest respect and I know that a lot of other companies tend to base their marketing around maybe one or two ships only.
Everything you see is about their biggest or their newest and you forget about all their other ships. The good thing with this is that this is my favourite ship.
I love the décor, I love the things we’ve put on it. It feels light, it feels crisp, it feels relaxed, it feels like a resort but a lot of what we have here is also being rolled out on other ships.
The great thing with 2.0 is that it’s not just about one ship. In fact this is the second ship to have got it. Carnival Liberty got it first and then the next one will be Carnival Ecstasy then Carnival Conquest. So a lot of the stuff that you see here will be on other ships in the fleet. The Sunshine will also be designed very similarly to this.
I have to say something about the ship; a lot of my favourite crewmembers are here.
Ken in the dining room, Chris in the dining room, a lot of the cabin stewards, of course the bartenders a lot of whom I have worked with for a very long time.
So we have really gone all out here to ensure that we have the best crew onboard. It’s also the little things…like we’re sitting in the Library right now…look at those wine dispensers!
It’s the great little extra touches. Right now she’s my favourite ship.
Natalie: I was following the repartee on Facebook yesterday about the complaints made regarding Platinum members not receiving the benefits they feel they deserve.
Where do you see the loyalty programs going aboard Carnival Cruise Lines? Does Carnival look at the loyalty clubs aboard other lines to see how they stack up?
John: Well I mean we have Princess, Holland America, Costa, Cunard, P&O and one of the things we have never been able to do is have a combined loyalty program between all of the ships in Carnival Corporation.
The reason we couldn’t do it is because everybody’s loyalty program is so different and to grandfather it all in (it’s a new term I’m learnt recently… an American term apparently) is very, very difficult because one cruise will have your Diamond member after 12 cruises, another after 30 cruises and some base it on number of cruises rather than number of days cruised, so to combine everything together is impossible.
Our loyalty program is excessive, it really is very good.
The benefits they get are things like priority seating, a complimentary meal for two in the steakhouse, they get a gift, they get deliveries to their cabins…
There are some who maybe think that shiny platinum card entitles them to more than what they’re given, but a majority of guests who hold them are just people who simply love Carnival who don’t necessarily cruise for the perks.
I mean I am a frequent flier with BA and I don’t fly with BA because after 50,000 miles I can sit in a chair and get a free bag of peanuts. I go with them because of their schedule and I like their bacon sandwiches on the plane, but you know very few people cruise for the perks, most people cruise for the cruising itself.
Natalie : When you are sailing aboard a cruise ship, you are the Cruise director for that particular ship. How do you separate what you do to what the regular Cruise director does who is also on that sailing with you? In this case, Butch, aboard Carnival Breeze?
John: We have the new “Hasbro the Game Show” and it’s very complicated with buttons and cues and stuff so Butch was rehearsing a lot of the time in Philadelphia to learn that. Which is why he’s here and running that.
I have quite a big staff and they take a lot of stuff away from me, allowing me to do this and that. After I’ve been here, I think I’m going to do two more cruises and then I shall hand over to Butch, then head away to do other stuff for Carnival as they have other big things coming up.
I get to spend less and less time as Cruise director these days, which is a shame.
Natalie : Do you miss that?
John: I miss it immensely. I don’t miss the paperwork and I don’t miss the other stuff people don’t see behind the scenes but the stage stuff I really miss. It’s what I enjoy the most about the job.
I’m very lucky. A wise man once said to me that a microphone doesn’t change who you are, it just makes your voice louder. This is what I tell all the young Cruise directors.
They pick up a microphone and they try to become someone else and all a microphone does is make your voice loud. Providing you’re always yourself and you always remember that, to me, that’s the secret of being a good cruise director simply just be yourself.
There should be no difference between the man or woman they see on stage to the one they see in an environment like this.