The hotel director on a cruise ship is one of the senior officers, second only to the captain. By far, most of the ship's crew are in the hotel department and the hotel director's responsibilities include almost everything that directly affects the passengers including accommodations, dining, entertainment, activities and beverages. In addition, the hotel director is part of the senior executive committee along with the captain, the staff captain and the chief engineer.
Looking across the cruise industry, there are very few women hotel directors, probably even fewer than the number of female captains. “I don't understand why it is only a few. I guess you need to be very strong, knowing what you want otherwise you would not be able to fit through,” observes Sonja Sommeregger, Hotel Director on Norwegian Gem.
Ms. Sommeregger's path to becoming a hotel director began far from the sea. She grew up on a farm in Austria. Her ambition was not to become a sailor but rather to make the hotel industry her profession. “I did my apprenticeship for four years in a hotel in Austria. Did college. Worked in a couple of hotels in Austria and Germany and then I went to England for one summer season.”
Some of her friends were working during the winters on cruise ships in the Caribbean and then working in hotels in Europe during the summers. Avoiding the cold European winters sounded good so Ms. Sommeregger applied to the cruise lines.
She was hired by Cunard Line and went to work in the dining room on the Vistafjord. “We had very good times there. We were out in every port. Every morning you woke up in a different port.”
After working in the restaurant and housekeeping departments on Vistafjoird, Ms. Sommeregger decided it was time to return to the land. “I said 'that's it for me, I've experienced three years on ships,' so I resigned from Cunard. Then I went home, worked in a hotel in guest services at the reception desk. A year later, I said, it doesn't work, there is something missing. So I applied to Norwegian Cruise Line because a lot of people from Cunard at that time had moved over to Norwegian.”
She then began to work her way up through guest relations, starting as an associate and eventually becoming the manager in charge of that department. From there, she became an assistant hotel director and then food and beverage manager in charge of all the dining rooms and bars. After that, she was promoted to hotel director on Norwegian Dawn. Among the ships she worked on along the way were Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Breakaway.
“I'm not someone who likes to sit or be comfortable in a position. You want to see something else. I was eager to learn more. I had good managers to teach me, to guide me and to support. I think I learned from the best. You learn, you pick up. Then you make your own [style]. Nobody copies and pastes. You grow contract to contract.”
This is not to say that it was smooth sailing all along the way. Indeed, she thought of giving up the sailor's life a couple of times but the sea kept calling.
“I love ships. I've been 15 years on ships now. You miss out, you give up a lot on ships - - your family life, your private life. [But] as long as the job makes you happy and you like what you do, you are not going to give it up, it is hard to give up.”
Even when a ship is doing the same itinerary each week, “every day you find a different situation, challenge. It's an excitement.”
Furthermore, “it is a very close environment. Here, we need to see each other and share. We share, we love, we learn a lot from each other - - the religion, the way [others] grew up, why they are on a cruise ship - - we all have a story. Its an interesting life.”
Being Hotel Director
“I am not somebody who micromanages. I let my people run their businesses because they know how to run the business. I am here to support. If there are any issues raised or I have any concerns, we discuss it. I am not someone who says this is my decision and this is how I want to have it done. We are here to guide and assist but it is the team who run the business. If you have good people, it runs smoothly.”
Still, the final responsibility is hers. “[After] we discuss, it is my call at the end. If it is right or wrong that's what we need to deal with. And you learn from situation to situation.”
For this style of management to succeed, a manager cannot just sit in her office. “You need to be out and about. I go at least two times a day around the ship behind the scenes to see the crew and to talk to the crew.”
Visibility is important “especially when you have situations like an influenza [outbreak] where the crew is stretched. This is where you build the team. We all need to be together. I go down and serve. I will never forget where I came from. I will not act like 'I am a hotel director, I am not touching this.' I go and pick it up myself and this is where the crew learns, where the crew gets their respect. The crew needs to see that the management is there to assist - - that is how you motivate the crew. At those times, you need to stick with the team, go around from section to section, talk.”
Along the same lines, visibility and communication are important in fostering the right relationship with the guests. “We need to take the time, we need to be out and about. We need to have a smile.”
On page two, Ms. Sommeregger discusses Norwegian Gem's continuing popularity and the changes made to the ship in the 2015 refit.
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Cruise ship interview - Norwegian Cruise Line - Norwegian Gem - Hotel Director - page one