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Norwegian sails the Hawaiian islands

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MIAMI _ When Norwegian Cruise Line announced three years ago that it would hire only Americans to staff one of its ships in Hawaii, the collective response from cruise industry insiders was ``Ha!''

Americans couldn't take the long work days and cramped living quarters, they said. There would be massive walk-offs.

And at first, it seemed like a case of ``I told you so.''

But Miami-based NCL stuck with the experiment. It sharpened its recruiting strategy and invested in intensive training programs to prepare Americans for the rigors of working on a cruise ship.

Now NCL is adding a third American-staffed ship, the Pride of Hawaii, to its fleet in the Hawaiian islands.

``If the proposition is that American workers can't work hard and can't deliver good service, then we have shown that's wrong,'' said Colin Veitch, CEO and president of NCL. ``Has it been easy? Certainly not. There was no labor force experienced in this work. We had to create one.''

For as long as modern cruising has been around, ships have preferred to carry foreign flags, allowing them to hire from developing countries that have abundant supplies of inexpensive labor.

The hiring of American workers was NCL's gambit for entering the coveted Hawaiian cruise market. U.S. law forbids foreign-flagged ships from transporting passengers between U.S. ports without visiting a foreign port somewhere along the way. In Hawaii the nearest port _ Fanning Island _ is two days away, meaning foreign-flagged ships typically can't do a Hawaiian itinerary in fewer than 10 days, a turnoff for many people with limited vacation time.

NCL's solution: Put U.S.-flagged ships in Hawaii and offer seven-day, inter-island itineraries without the bother of visiting a foreign port.

Because it's American-flagged, NCL's Hawaiian fleet must fill its jobs with American workers, pay American taxes and follow American labor laws. NCL formed a separate cruise line, NCL America, to operate the fleet in Hawaii.

Finding Americans willing and able to work four or five months at a time as busboys, waiters, cleaners and cabin stewards hasn't been easy _ let alone cheap, Veitch said. Work weeks can run 60 hours, and pay generally matches what workers would make at an American hotel or restaurant. NCL declined to disclose its pay structure.

``This job is extremely attractive to someone in Romania, and we have the pick of the crop,'' Veitch said. ``Here, we do pay much higher wages, but those wages are merely competitive with all the other jobs people can do.''

He became interested in developing Hawaii as a cruising destination while Carnival and Royal Caribbean were locked in a battle over P&O Princess Cruises in the early 2000s. Carnival eventually won, and together, Royal Caribbean and Carnival came to dominate nearly 80 percent of the North American market.

Veitch said he realized NCL needed a ``particular edge'' to capture the attention of travel agents. On July 4, 2004, NCL began American-flagged cruising with the Pride of Aloha. At a ceremony in Honolulu, he delivered a Shakespearean-inspired message to his Miami-based rivals:

``Those who lie this day on the beach and in their sun loungers at their barbecues in Miami will think themselves accursed they were not here,'' Veitch said.

But over the next few weeks, it was Veitch who probably felt accursed. Many of the American workers walked away from their jobs during port calls. NCL didn't have enough workers to take their place, and soon, passenger complaints bombarded Internet chatrooms.

NCL dropped a daily $10 service charge tacked on passengers' bills and paired with the Seafarers International Union on a new, three-week training program in Piney Point, Md. Recruits were shown mock-ups of the small crew cabins, which sleep up to four. Then they were told flatly, ``This is how big your living space is going to be.''

``We try to be very honest with people about what to expect,'' said Bill Hamlin, executive vice president of fleet operations at NCL. Hamlin joined the company in July 2004 just as it was launching Pride of Aloha and encouraged Veitch to invest in the new training program.

``It's not about getting bodies and throwing them on the ship. That doesn't work,'' he said. ``We do wash some people out if they don't display the right attitude.''

When a second Hawaii ship, the Pride of America, was introduced a year later, more workers were sticking with their jobs, and the $10-a-day service charge was reinstated without complaints from passengers, Hamlin said.

But NCL now must sustain a work force of nearly 4,000 in Hawaii, so it looks to all 50 states for its recruits rather than limiting itself to the islands.

Kevin Lynn Smith, 34, of Northglenn, Colo., was looking for a change and ``just wanted to move away'' when he heard a radio advertisement about new job opportunities with NCL. He quit his job managing a Denver restaurant and completed his three weeks at Piney Point in February. He's now a waiter aboard the Pride of Hawaii.

``There's definitely an adjustment period, and it's not for everybody,'' Smith said. ``But if you can get used to working and living with the same people, it's an awesome experience.''

American Classic Voyages, which operated an American-flagged ship in Hawaii in 2000 and 2001, tried to recruit mostly in the Hawaiian islands, thinking it could cut down on the costs of flying crew members back and forth from home. But it struggled to get and keep recruits and had to look nationwide.

``This isn't like the Love Boat, where after you work all day you go up to the bar and play with the passengers,'' said Rod McLeod, a retired American Classic executive living in South Florida. ``It's demanding work, and at the end of the day, you can't go home to your boyfriend or girlfriend.''

American Classic's foray ended when the owners lost confidence following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and decided to seek bankruptcy protection. McLeod said he, nevertheless, believes American-flagged cruising in Hawaii has enough appeal to make it profitable for NCL _ and, he believes, cruisers will come to appreciate the all-American crew.

``Yes, there will be a different style on board. You're not going to have the Continental waiter,'' he said. ``But on the other hand, your waiter may be able to talk with you about March Madness and the Final Four. The waiter from Croatia wouldn't have the slightest idea what you're talking about.''

Still, cruise lines aren't rushing to flag with the red, white and blue. Carnival and Royal Caribbean have not announced plans to follow NCL's lead, and even NCL has no intention to sail American outside the Hawaiian islands.

Richard Fain, the boss at Royal Caribbean Cruises, declined to comment on NCL's Hawaii experiment, while Bob Dickinson, at the helm of Carnival Cruise Lines, said it's too soon to tell if NCL will succeed. ``The issue,'' he said, ``is how deep is the market? If three ships can't generate the same level of demand as two ships, then you have problems.''

Veitch said the proof of Hawaii's success is in the premiums that NCL is charging for its inter-island tours _ typically, a couple hundred dollars more than for Caribbean cruises. ``The Hawaii venture has clearly demonstrated that there's good business to be made here,'' Veitch said. ``People are paying a good price for the market.''

Brenda Elliott, chief operating officer at Vacation.com, an Alexandria, Va., marketing firm that represents about 6,000 travel agencies, said she likes what she sees in Hawaii. ``There's a huge demand,'' she said. ``I'm very high on NCL doing this.''

She said Vacation.com has not received passenger complaints out of Hawaii for ``months and months'' _ a sign NCL's American workers are delivering good service.

But Toby Nash, who owns a travel agency in Salt Lake City, Utah, said she has stopped recommending NCL's Hawaii cruises to customers because of concerns about service. She said she'll remain on the sidelines for at least another year, ``while they work things out.''

She described the American workers as ``brisk'' and ``pompous,'' not at all like the ``humble and compassionate'' crew she finds aboard foreign-flagged ships.

``When you're on a ship, you want to be waited on hand and foot,'' she said. ``Americans don't like to work that hard.''

Not true, said Michael Laundry, who oversees food and entertainment aboard NCL's Pride of Aloha: ``I work 16 to 18 hours a day, and I'm as American as they come.''

Laundry, 36, of Fort Lauderdale, added that six of every 10 workers on the ship are on their second, third or fourth contracts, meaning they've accumulated many months of experience. His message to those who still aren't sure if NCL's experiment will succeed: Just give it time.

``Around the world, Americans are leaders in pretty much everything we do,'' he said.

Karen Jones, 20, of Sugarland, Texas, said she's never worked as hard as she has for NCL. But Jones, a waitress on the Pride of Hawaii, measures the payoff in terms of the overtime she's accumulated over the past 10 months, as well as the satisfaction of proving naysayers wrong.

She met her fiancee, Adam Alvarez, 24, of Ventura, Calif., while they were both working aboard the Pride of Aloha. They recently bought a Chevrolet Tahoe for $45,000 cash and now plan to put a hefty down payment on a new house in California.

``I've seen American workers walk in and walk out just as quickly as I've seen American workers walk in and say, `Great, here's a challenge,''' Jones said aboard the Pride of Hawaii during a recent stop in Miami. ``I think we all love a challenge.''

Source: Amy Martinez, Knight Ridder Newspapers

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