If you’ve been enjoying the recent ITV documentary “The Cruise Ship” filmed on board Royal Princess, you’ll have already met Cruise Director Sam Hawker-Thomas who was featured in Episode 2. In this interview with Sam we find out what being a Cruise Director for Princess Cruises involves, what it was like being filmed for the TV series and her favourite destinations to visit around the world. as well as her tips for getting the most from your cruise.
So Sam, how did you come to be working in the cruise industry?
I was 22 and working on the makeup counter at Debenhams and one of my friends there had worked for Princess Cruises before. I’d always wanted to travel and she kept telling me “You should work on a cruise ship”, so I decided to apply. I thought I would have 6 months away and then come back to work, but 13 years later, I’m still here.
I did two contracts working in the boutiques, then I switched over to the entertainment department and worked my way up through the ranks, getting my first role as Cruise Director in 2010. The company usually decides where to send you or you can make a request for which ship you’d like to work, but I’ve usually left it to fate. However I do remember, when the company announced that they were launching a new ship, Royal Princess, I did ring my boss in Los Angeles and told him “I want to be on that ship.” As my grandpa always told me, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get!”
And what does the job of Cruise Director on Royal Princess involve?
On board I oversea the whole entertainment department and have 5 managers who work for me; the Youth Activities Manager, Music Manager, Production Manager, Performance Manager and Deputy Cruise director. We look after everything relating to the entertainment on board, from the music to the lighting, to the ambiance of all of the shows.
As well as the planning and scheduling of activities and events, I also take part in a lot of the shows. One unique feature on board Royal Princess and her sister ship Regal Princess is that we have a TV studio, Princess Live, where we film a daily show telling the passengers what’s going on around the ship. Our production shows are specially created for Princess Cruises and the dancers and performers spend 4 weeks rehearsing in our studio in Los Angeles before coming on board.
We also like to be creative in coming up with different events, shows and activities, like the “Hollywould you?” show that you saw Deputy Cruise Director Dan come up with in Episode 2. On longer cruises like the transatlantic crossing, there are many more days at sea and that gives us plenty of opportunity to come up with new events.
A big part of my day is also walking around the ship and meeting the guests, to ensure they are having a nice time. I’ll be there to meet and greet at the shows and am available at the end of the show if guests have any questions. I try to walk around the lounges while activities are taking place, to see how well received they are and what the passengers are enjoying. A big part of my job is being the face of the ship, being seen by the passengers here, there and everywhere. There’s nothing I like better than when people say “Are there three of you on board?” because they’ve seen me all around the ship.
For passengers a cruise can be a glamorous experience but what’s life like behind the scenes for the crew?
For the crew it’s like any job in that you have your hours and you work hard. The crew take pride in what they do and they want to give a great service. Princess are very good to work for because they understand that not only are we working on board but it’s also our home, so there are plenty of facilites available for the crew. We have a crew library, gym, internet, recreation facilities and there’s the position of a crew welfare coordinator to organize activities and events for the 1350 crew. All the staff facilities are on Deck 5 where we have Plaza Court, the crew’s buffet style restaurant.
Some crew will be very active in their downtime, others will just want a rest and recharge their batteries. If we are in a port of call I definitely like to get off the ship and have an adventure and a wander, but now I’m on board with my husband we try to spend time off together when our schedules allow. On sea days things are very busy for the crew but on shore days the managers will ensure that each crew member has some time off to go on shore if they wish and there are organised shore excursions as well.
So what are the highlights of your job and are there any bits you don’t enjoy?
The highlight of my entire time with Princess has been the Royal Princess naming ceremony. I was on board the ship for 6 weeks before her launch as part of the crew getting the ship ready in the Monfalcone shipyard and it was a great experience to see the ship develop from a shell through to her launch.
I was also involved in the preparation for the Duchess of Cambridge’s visit for the naming ceremony, making sure that everything was ready for her presentation on board, right down to the background music and making sure the microphones were working. I was invited to come shore-side to watch the ceremony, then afterwards we went back on board and the Duchess came into the piazza, and all the crew gave her a big cheer as she came in. She met some of the crew in the piazza, and was given a tour around the ship and then then we had a reception for her in Club 6.
On a day to day level, I love it that no two days are the same, so even if you’re doing the same run, the guests change, the crew changes, so there’s always a lot of variety. I absolutely love seeing passengers when they come back and remember us, when people come up and they want to have their photo taken with you because they want to remember you. It’s so rewarding when the guests are having a great time or they’ve enjoyed all the shows and you feel that you’re adding to the passenger’s holiday experience.
One thing that I don’t enjoy is when there are big storms and the seas are rough. When I first started I used to get quite sea sick but luckily I’ve got my sea legs now. Depending on the shows we have planned, if we have a rocky night we might need to reschedule and change things around, for instance if there’s a juggling act. You always need to have backup plans, as if mother nature’s not on your side and a potential port day turns into a sea day, you have to be ready to keep everyone entertained.
What was it like being part of the ITV documentary “The Cruise Ship”?
It was really fun experience. Although I’m used to filming a TV show every day on board Royal Princess, it was a bit strange at first to have the camera there all the time. The crew filmed with us every day for 6 weeks, at meetings, backstage, at lunch and when I was getting ready to do a show. Whatever we were doing they captured it, but after a while I just forgot the film crew were there.
We let the passengers know that we had a film crew on board and what we were doing it for. There was huge excitement from the crew and the passengers and a lot of the passengers contacted the desks to ask “how do we get involved?”.
For me it was fun to take the camera behind the scenes. There’s cruise director Sam who’s out on the front line but then I want you to see behind the scenes because I pretty much am that bubbly, crazy person all the time, it’s not just a face for when I go on stage.
When I saw the episode I was fine about seeing myself as I’m used to seeing myself when we play back the shows we film on board. It was quite a unique experience to watch the show with all my family as I’m home on vacation at present, so when I saw it on the telly I thought, “Oh my goodness, it’s a real show!”
What are the favourite destinations that you’ve visited on a cruise and why?
That’s a tough question because there are so many gorgeous destinations. I love all the ports in Italy, because there’s so much on offer, from the culture to the food to the places to visit. Venice is a very special place to visit on a cruise, especially the sail in or the sail away which is so beautiful. Whether you want to be romantic or fashionable or fun, Venice has it all.
I’m also a sunshine girl so I love the Caribbean. Tortola in the British Virgin Islands is a favourite place, with little hideaway beaches and deserted islands. You can find a beach with hardly any people and it really feels like paradise.
Aruba was one of the first places I visited when I first started working on a cruise ship and holds a fond place in my heart. I had such a great time when I visited, I think it was the combination of the crew that I was with and the day that we had, it was one of my first memories that has stuck with me. The beaches on Aruba are beautiful but the downtown area is also lovely with nice shops and restaurants. I’ve been to all of the Caribbean islands but Aruba is one that I’d go back to tomorrow.
How do you manage to combine family life with your job on board Royal Princess?
My husband Denis is the Hotel Controller on board Royal Princess and also appears in the ITV show, The Cruise Ship. I’d almost given up on love, but when I met Denis when we were both working on Ruby Princess I knew he was the one! We met in the January and got married in the April, only 4 months after we met.
Since we got married we’ve managed to be on Royal Princess together and in between our contracts we try to get some real life time together with no pagers or alarm clocks. I’ll go back on Royal Princess in October but we don’t have confirmation of Denis’ schedule yet. Sometimes the uncertainty of where we’ll be working next can be unerving, but if we’re apart we make sure we speak to each other every day and we’ll always make it work.
In between contracts I also like to spend time with my friends and family and to see my god-daughter. Working on the cruise you sometimes miss out on those family occasions like birthdays or Christmas. That’s the lifestyle that we choose, but I really make up for it when I come home. I love London, so from my home in South Wales I’ll try and go down, to catch the shows and do a bit of shopping. When I’m not working I also like to travel and when Denis comes home in September we’ll be off on holiday so you’ll probably find me in nice beach resort, cocktail in hand.
Do you have any tips for newbie cruisers?
I’d advise guests to get involved, have a lot of fun and not be shy, because at the end of the cruise you’ll probably never see those people again! When you first get on board, adventure around and explore the ship, it’s great fun getting lost. I would definitely read the ship’s daily programme and mark the things that interest you, because there’s so much going on and you don’t want to miss out on anything.
Or of course you could just sit on the deck and do nothing, a cruise is a great opportunity for you to tailor your holiday to do as much or as little as you like. If you love visiting new destinations, do a little research before you come and don’t be afraid to ask the crew for tips. They have a lot of knowledge about the ports of call and are always happy to share their experience with you and to give you advice on where to go and what to do.
More articles about Royal Princess
The remaining episode of The Cruise Ship is airing in the UK on ITV Friday 1st August or watch the episodes on catch-up. You can follow Sam Hawker Thomas on her Twitter accounts @Sammyeyelash and @TCSSam and follow the social media conversation hashtag #TheCruiseShip. For more information about sailing on Royal Princess, visit the Princess Cruises Website.
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