Austrian-born Josef Gruber is the Hotel Manager responsible for a staff of 230. Josef Graduated from Cornell University of Hotel Management in 1994, has a long ship history and has been the Hotel Manager for Europa since her launch in 1999.
Josef works aboard eight months of the year on a four month on, two months off basis and is relieved by Johannes Salfelner, a fellow Austrian with over 20 years of luxury ship experience.
Josef’s experience and contacts have earned him a loyal respect from his crew. Repeat passengers know well the unforgettable experiences that Josef helps create in far-away ports.
The author of “Fielding’s Guide to Luxury Cruises”, Tim Fielding, recently took the opportunity, on a beautifully calm sea day in the South Pacific, to ask Josef some questions about his work. Josef’s speaks ‘international’ English: it’s word perfect, has a slight Germanic infliction and boasts a wonderful well traveled tone.
Q. Josef, what are your responsibilities as Hotel Manager on the Europa?
Overall, it is to run a world-class 5 star+ hotel operation with all facets in perfect harmony.
Specifically that translates to being responsible for the total hotel operation onboard the vessel as well as the entertainment, tour operations and concessionaires. The role is a highly diplomatic challenge as the objective of each area of operation must be met, while still satisfying our desire to create the most perfect vacation experience for our passenger’s day in and day out.
My aim is to create an experience for staff and guests that cannot be found anywhere else in the cruise industry.
Q. Why is the Europa so special?
Primarily it is about the guests, all staff onboard shows personal hospitality and friendliness towards them. We know their names, habits and preferences to the last detail, we treat them like family and care personally for their well being. This makes them feel like the Europa is their home away from home. If ever a problem arises the management structure allows for fast resolution. No request is ever considered too hard to achieve and we love a challenge!
And of course from a ‘hardware’ perspective, we have the perfect ship for our staff to deliver the special Europa experience in a meticulously planned, total luxury environment.
Q. What kind of management style do you use?
As much as possible I believe in direct contact. I listen to people and find ways to satisfy their wishes. My staff, just like all human beings, experience a whole range of emotions and we work as a team to overcome operational challenges that the human factor creates. My staff all live by the fact that being friendly doesn’t cost anything. As a manager I am proud to have the friendliest crew on the seven seas. A happy crew equals happy passengers and as a manager I am always mindful of that balance.
Q. You work 12-15 hours a day with no break for four months straight. Are you mad?
No, not at all. I love my job, believe me nothing compares to having this job at sea, most every day is extremely memorable in one way or another. Sure there are days which are hard and tiring, but the dawning of each day brings fresh opportunities for discovery and enjoyment of my surrounds, and I draw inspiration from my colleagues whenever that thought wavers.
Q. Many cruise companies have problems with staff turnover, why does the Europa not have this problem?
Well, to begin with our crew is a lot less international that you will find on other luxury ships. Basically all Europa’s crew that interacts with the guests are from Germany or Austria. All my staff speak German and English, on other ships English is the common language used despite the origin of the staff member and the team spirit created by nationality is lost. That equates to a higher turnover for them.
Secondly, the Europa occupies the highest possible ground in German hotel society – basically every young, ambitious person who decides to seek a job in the hotel industry does everything possible to get a job onboard Europa at least once. We respect that most people will not want a whole life at sea, but once they are here we want them to feel a powerful desire to renew their contracts for as long as they wish.
Thirdly, a lot of cruise companies offer repetitive itineraries that de-motivate staff, the Europa has a world cruise each year and non-repetitive, interesting ports of call. Crew have the chance to see the world and collect unforgettable memories along the way, they tell it to all their friends and colleagues at home which produces the next generation of aspiring crew.
Q. Josef, you are a walking encyclopedia and wonderful story teller, have you ever thought about writing a book detailing your experiences?
When I have time in my old days – and I have no plans to retire just yet, I’m sure there will be the odd story told. I still have a few years to work on a snappy title.
Q: Finally, what trends do you forecast in luxury cruising market?
Well there is no doubt that guests taking a luxury cruise want to spend their money on a well-designed product that delivers quality and service. The ability for a cruise line to capture first-time cruisers will become more important as brand loyalty is high in the luxury cruising business. You can see high rates of repeat patronage with many different ships, so capturing the imagination of the potential cruiser is very important trend for us.
Sure, the ships in the industry will get bigger and more guests and revenue will be the key factor for some operators, but this lessens the real luxury experience and shifts them further toward the mainstream. The challenge then for Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is to be able to break through the marketing hype that surrounds the word ‘luxury’ to communicate the REAL luxury that small size and high passenger crew ratios deliver.
We also feel a trend in the industry to offer or provide ‘trophy’ experiences for guests in ports of call – some of which are getting quite extreme. We are continually searching for special experiences and it is one area that my hundreds of friends and contacts around the world help us deliver.
Regarding our own clientele, we are already seeing a trend toward multi-generational cruising. This two and sometimes three-generation trip is a wonderful time for families to bond and yet have room to them self. The ship caters for our youngest guests in our children’s areas with special toys and entertainment, all set up and accompanied by staff that are experienced and fully-trained in child care. Having your children looked after while you relax, yet still having them close-by and in trusted hands is very reassuring for parents.
I can’t recall a single child not having the time of their lives aboard Europa. It delivers a holiday experience to families that simply cannot be found elsewhere. I think we will see more families cruising together and our hardware will evolve to accommodate their needs.
Joseph, I would like to thank-you for your time and insight – all the best and good luck.