08. Lauren Vaitkus: Leading the way for women in the cruise industry

When it comes to women working in the cruise industry, they are in the minority – with women accounting for fewer than 2% of mariners employed worldwide.  Lauren Vaitkus is one of only two female cruise directors working for Celebrity Cruises. The company is leading the way in taking action to transform the numbers of women working in the industry, and in 2015 appointed the first American female captain to command a cruise ship.

Lauren is an enthusiastic and dedicated leader, with responsibility for three thousand guests onboard a 122,000 tonne cruise ship plus a department of seventy entertainment staff who are charged with delivering a world class experience to guests every day. It’s almost a 24-hour a day job and with little time to sit back and relax, it was a privilege to speak to Lauren, learn more about what her job involves, and discover more about her career journey.

Lauren explains in the Access to Inspiration podcast how she progressed in her career initially working in retail and hospitality management, but always with a long-term aim to attain the high profile and demanding role of Cruise Director.

Lauren, originally from Australia, and now based in Scotland, became inspired at nine years old when taken on a family cruise to Norway. She was excited that one of the roles of the entertainment staff is to make memories for the guests. As a successful student at high school, those advising Lauren did not encourage her to pursue a role in the cruise industry believing that she was ‘overqualified’ for this type of job, which of course, made her even more determined to follow her dream. You will learn from this fascinating conversation about how perseverance, hard work and a ‘little bit of luck’ have contributed to her success – and why the word ‘responsibility’ is so important to keep at the forefront of her mind.

To find out more about Lauren Vaitkus follow her on Instagram @Lauren_seas_the_world 

Lauren Vaitkus transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to our second series of access to inspiration. Today I’m speaking to Lauren Vaitkus  one of only two female cruise directors working with Celebrity Cruises. A leading cruise line with a fleet of 13 ships. She has a huge responsibility for 3000 guests on the ship, plus a department of 70 entertainment staff who are charged with delivering a world class experience to the guests.

It’s almost a 24 hour a day job. So I’m fascinated to learn about what Lauren’s career journey was to get into this prestigious role as well as the sort of challenges she faces in her demanding role. Welcome Lauren.

Lauren: [00:00:51] Thank you sue great to be here with you.

Sue: [00:00:53] So this sounds like an enormous task, this job that you have as cruise director,

Lauren: [00:00:57] it’s a pretty big role. Yes, there’s a lot of [00:01:00] pressure. It’s ever changing. The dynamic is very diverse, but I love it.

Sue: [00:01:07] So I’m fascinated to find out how you got into the cruise industry in the first place, and then ultimately became Cruise director. So tell us about your career journey.

Lauren: [00:01:15] In all honesty, it’s been pretty varied. Believe it or not, my journey started when I was the age of nine. I took my first cruise as a guest with my family. My Nan, who I was very close to, took us on the cruise. She’d always cruised her whole life and really wanted to now get us into it as a family, and that. So we cruised and I fell in love with it.  I loved everything about it. I love the fact that you can see so many places in such a short space of time. You wake up somewhere new every day. Specifically within entertainment I love the fact that this team were responsible for bringing joy to people, and even at that young age, I kind of got a taste for that bug and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do one day.

I started working while I was at school in high school, local corner [00:02:00] shop, and I started working with the public at the age of 12 did that for a few years and then went into waitressing at a local restaurant. I hadn’t really decided fully exactly what I wanted to do on leaving high school. I was a good student. I studied hard. I, you know, I got straight A’s. And there was just this assumption from my educators that I was going to go on to study law or medicine, and it sort of frustrated me a little because I wanted to be more creative and I knew that entertainment was an industry I wanted to get into and it was kind of brushed to the side and I was told, no, you’re too overqualified for that.

You’re too intelligent for that. Which almost made me more determined to do it. I didn’t necessarily want to go on to university at the time that I left school immediately. I wanted to get out into the working world, make some money. So whilst I was still waitressing through my senior years, I was then offered a supervisory role on a fulltime basis at this local restaurant.

It then developed into me becoming a restaurant coordinator and then a restaurant manager. [00:03:00] Not at all, something that I had intended to do, but. I loved it. It was fun. It was, again, busy, very different. It definitely gave me a taste for real hard graft to the hospitality industry. Just through a conversation with a friend who I’d known for a while. I actually then got into retail, but specifically into makeup artistry. So I’d always been creative and the only makeup I’d done really until then was sort of stage makeup from having performed. From being a very young age, I was singing, dancing, acting, and I was on stage doing shows, amateur, nothing professional, of course, but I got into it that way.

And. I’d had this suggestion, Hey, I think you’d be great on one of the counters, you know, in the department stores as a beauty consultant and beauty therapist and makeup artist, and I thought, why not? Let’s give it a go. Let’s see how that goes. But loved it. Uh, was fortunate enough to work for a great brand who were really, at the time, the philosophy was something that I believed in very much.

It’s all about sort of just making people feel the best [00:04:00] version of themselves. And I really loved that and I was offered the opportunity to perhaps look at opening one of our first stores that we’d had. It was going to mean a move to London financially it was going to be very difficult for me at the time.

So I once again got to what felt like the end of this path, a bit of a brick wall, and I thought, okay, what am I gonna do now? So, uh, still coming back in my mind to the cruise director. I haven’t quite got there yet. Still wanted to come back to that. I actually at that point did put in some applications for cruise lines, got a couple of interviews back.

Pretty much within the same space of about a couple of weeks of getting interviews, I was asked to be a friend’s bridesmaid said yes and felt too guilty about pursuing cruise line industry  as I didn’t want to be a heading away. I had been along with my siblings and my family taking care of my Nan who’d fallen on, well, unfortunately she fell quite ill quite suddenly. It was unexpected and she was the one that I’ve mentioned before. She took [00:05:00] me on my first cruise and she sort of kept telling me, just go for the cruise lines. You know, I’d go for cruise director. Don’t get to an age where you’ll regret having not done it. She really, she really always fancied working on cruise ships.

Then she’d never done it. She said, don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till it’s too late. And sadly, sadly, we lost her quite quickly. So that was it. That was the wake up call. It just made me realize that tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. You don’t know what’s around the corner. So I reapplied to these cruise lines that I’d reached out to a few years prior.

I applied to some new ones too. You know, I’ve got offered interviews and that was it. That was the beginning of the journey. So went through the video interviews and then was offered at the time, actually the position of guest relations officer. So I knew the journey that I wanted to take to get to cruise director was to become what we call activity staff.

Basically the what I like to think of as the memory makers. So the fun ones on board, the ones that take care of delivering all the fun activities, all of the games, parties, etc. [00:06:00] So yeah, I knew that’s where I wanted to start at the time that I was applying, they just want openings for that role. But it was suggested that I look at the position of guest relations officer.

I was entered into the gap pool. I waited a few months for my assignment and that was it. The journey began. I started as guest relations officer. I did a contract there, spent pretty much every moment of my off-duty time with the entertainment team. I was joining in with all of the games, the activities.

The team knew that I wanted to move over to activities and the line had been so supportive with what we call cross training and allowing crew to move over to other departments. I spent all that time recording all my extra hours I was doing. I  Put forward an application for activity staff did a short video, and on the first day of my vacation, I got offered the activity host.

So I was delighted to know I was then coming back from my second contract as activity host, and that really kind of felt like  the turning point. That was it. That was the proper beginning of the journey to [00:07:00] cruise director. Then, so then my following contract, the third one was promoted to activity manager.

That was great because as activity manager, you’re essentially the assistant cruise director. So again, I was shadowing the cruise directors that I was working with, spending a lot of time just as a sponge, really trying to gather as much information, gain as much knowledge as I could with them, get a feel for the role, which is very varied and made sure that the company knew that I wanted to progress and cruise director is where I wanted to be.

It’s one of those things where sometimes you just need to be on the right ship at the right time, and the opportunity can be given to you maybe for a short spell. You try your hand at it, they need you to fill in. And then once that exact thing had happened to me and I’d had a taste for it. I knew for sure that’s where I wanted to go.

So yeah, I was lucky enough in my fourth contract to step up, have that opportunity to step up to cruise director, and here I am as cruise director. A long journey to get here in a sense. And I know, as I say, it sounds a little bit silly that so many things happen by accident that seems an odd term, but I [00:08:00] just mean that they weren’t ever things that I planned or I really intended to go into.

But I genuinely believe that every step along the path has helped me in this current role. Now it’s helped to teach me a lot, given me a lot of great skills that I’ve been able to bring to ship life and specifically to the role of cruise director  as well.

Sue: [00:08:19] Wow. And you’re one of very few female cruise directors in the industry, and therefore, I imagine you didn’t have a, a role model as a woman to look to. Being a woman as a cruise director, what do you think you bring that might be different to the day male dominated industry that it is?

Lauren: [00:08:33] Yeah, it’s a great question. I am one of few indeed, and I like to think that as females we’re known, I believe to be able to multitask more effectively and efficiently than men.

Maybe the men would beg to differ, but no, genuinely I am pretty good at multitasking, I think as well. This sounds really such a small thing, but people are interested in, very interested in what I wear and how I look, just in terms of, [00:09:00] Oh, you know, did you get your hair done today? And you know, there’s a certain level of upkeep that needs to be observed, but that sort of thing brings something quite different.

Even what shoes you’re wearing and people maybe wouldn’t be quite so interested in. Male fashion, maybe some people would be, but overall there’s perhaps a little bit more variety that I can bring to the stage in terms of the way I present myself. But yeah, I think just a slightly different dynamic is always great too. Generally, overall, a lot of our entertainers that we even have on board, are predominantly male, I don’t believe it’s for any specific reason, just simply the way that it is. So I think to then have that balance is always nice to have the female on stage, and. Why not have females in these positions of power right? And responsibility.

Sue: [00:09:46] Yeah. I think that word responsibility that you touched on there, Lauren really resonates with the explanation that you’ve given to your journey to be here, that you sounds like you’ve got a real sense of responsibility. How does that translate to [00:10:00] your work with those that you lead or manage. I’m imagining, and I’ve seen it myself, the sense of responsibility that you have.

Lauren: [00:10:07] Oh, a huge sense of responsibility. Yes. And probably more so than any other management role I’ve been in on land because this is a whole different ballgame. It’s a whole different beast. If you like. When we’re working at sea, you realize that you are of course responsible for delivering a world class product to the guests that we have on board.

We’re looking after 3000 guests every cruise. So that’s huge. And you know, it can be. A once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of them. They may have saved up for years and years to come on this cruise, and there are so many different reasons why people come cruising, but that’s really huge. So that in itself is a responsibility.

In terms of more the team directly. I realized every day that I’ve done it that I’m responsible for ensuring their welfare, their happiness. They’re a way from friends, from family, from their home life. And you know, we all just removing them just as I’m removed as well, but we’re moving them from what’s [00:11:00] familiar and from what’s comfortable at home.

And taking them into this whole different environment that is very difficult to explain to anyone outside of it, outside of this bubble, even if you will. And so that in itself is quite big and you just need to know that someone may always need someone that can listen to them for a little while. The door needs to be open, and that does fall on me, essentially because I am responsible for, as you say, their welfare and their wellbeing, and that’s huge.

And you realize that maybe certain times of the year coming into holiday time when people are perhaps more reflective and are thinking about time that they would spend with loved ones. And if they’re not physically with them, you’ve got to find ways to ensure that they still feel part of a different family, even if it’s not their direct family at home. So in that sense, that responsibility is something that’s been very different for me to learn, but also very exciting as well.

Sue: [00:11:53] With this care that you give to your team and to the passengers, how do you care for you?

Lauren: [00:11:58] Yeah, it’s a good [00:12:00] question. It’s difficult. Yes, it is pretty much 24 hour operation. The phone is always on. The door’s always open, essentially. At sea days are very difficult to take some downtime. My downtime is pretty much time to kind of freshen up and get ready for a second shift. You know, for shows in the evening, what have you, but port days is where we try and take some downtime. So for myself, that might be going ashore and I think everybody needs that.

At some point you need to find time to get outside. Breathe a different kind of air, walk on land and just remove yourself from ship life for even a brief spell and just experience something new. But sometimes my downtime that’s actually just as enjoyable can be during a port day. But whilst everybody else is off the ship, and I actually have a little bit of time to myself without too many distractions, whether it’s even just in my cabin, but actually time to have a conversation with someone at home. Maybe try and watch a movie. It’s rare, but you know, try and do that. And again, just [00:13:00] have something to kind of switch off from.

Sue: [00:13:02] And which countries do you like the best from the ones you’ve seen?

Lauren: [00:13:06] I was hoping that you wouldn’t ask that question cause it’s so tough. Norway will always be one of my favorite countries in the world. It’s always got a special place in my heart. It’s the first place that I cruised when I was nine and that my Nan took me. So there are some very special memories there. I’ve been lucky enough to go back as a crew member too, so for sure Norway.

I absolutely love New Zealand and Australia. Actually, both those countries, New Zealand I experienced for the very first time last year, and it’s just so beautiful. It’s a very relaxed way of life. Everybody’s so friendly. It’s very green. Some of it reminds me of my home in Scotland, except that it’s generally a little bit milder, but there are as many sheep, if not more, so it felt a little bit homely. So I’ve really enjoyed those countries.

Sue: [00:13:50] One of the things that leaders in organizations are very much focused on is about measuring results. And I’m wondering how you evaluate, let’s call it [00:14:00] success for you or results. What are the things that are meaningful for you?

Lauren: [00:14:03] That’s a good question as well. I would say for me, I know that I’ve done a good job if the guests are happy, first of all, the guests and the crew both. But of course we can see it on the guests faces if they’re enjoying something. So for me. If we get a standing ovation in a show, you know, and people tell me as they are leaving the theater, how great it’s been. It’s been the best show we’ve seen on a cruise ship. That’s awesome. That’s the result right there.

The best measure is when I’m doing de-greets on the gangway on disembarkation morning saying goodbye to the guests that have. You know, I’ve almost also become family, especially after long voyages. You become so familiar with them, you get to know them so well. And that morning is always a really fantastic measure and it reflects how the cruise has been.

So if people can tell me that they’ve had the best cruise ever, and you know, they’ve just made so many memories, that itself is success. In terms of the crew. I love watching them progress. So I really like finding what makes people tick, what motivates them. I love to establish [00:15:00] quite early on where they want to be and what kind of journey they want to take.

I myself, have been so grateful for the support that I’ve had to get me to where I am now. So I really want to ensure that I can offer that same level of support and ensure that they are progressing and that they’re being recognized for the job that they’re doing. And maybe there’s more potential that someone hasn’t tapped into yet. So if I can watch them progress and if I see them. You know, stepping up to a different position. That again, is success in terms of watching the crew. Definitely. And my team. Brilliant.

Sue: [00:15:32] And in terms of, you’ve made it sound all like plain sailing so far, like  I think there are more difficult times. Describe to us some of those challenges or difficulties that you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them along the way.

Lauren: [00:15:44] Of course. Yeah, there are definitely challenges, especially in an environment like this. We are dealing with guests from countless countries, nationalities, I guess. Then crew, again, it refers to both different religions, cultures, et cetera. So yeah. You have to be [00:16:00] adaptable, and that’s definitely one of the things that I’ve realized is I’m very organized and I like to have things well planned and. I like to have strategies in place. Actually, I’ve realized that to be successful in this role, you almost need to relax those a little bit. You need to learn that. You’ve got to be ready for change. You’ve got to think on your feet at all times. You really hit the ground running with the job. So I think if you can recognize and be comfortable with that, then you’re going to be successful.

So challenges definitely are, you know. Maybe someone isn’t enjoying something that you’re delivering. They don’t feel that it’s perhaps geared towards them or their, their nationality. So it’s then trying to figure out how we can adapt to ensure that we are delivering hopefully, the best product for everybody.

At the end of the day, it’s inevitable that . 3000 guests on board, I’m not going to be everybody’s favorite cruise director. And that’s okay. And I think it’s just finding that way that hopefully you can connect with the guests and the crew [00:17:00] in a way that at least makes them feel comfortable and they’ll still have an enjoyable experience.

So I think, as I say, it’s just making sure that you are. Delivering the best overall experience for them, basically that you can, there are many challenges, but that’s what makes this interesting. And learning how to overcome them and figuring out how to troubleshoot is always great. And I think being on within a floating piece of metal in the middle of the seat and sometimes not having necessarily the resources that you would have on land is difficult.

But again, it makes you. Think about how you can solve something and resolve a challenge. You’ve got to be a little bit creative sometimes, and if you cannot deliver something the way that you ideally would like, how are you still going to deliver it in an effective way with the resources that you have.

Sue: [00:17:45] Basically, so that adaptability and coping with uncertainty sounds like an important part of the job.

Lauren: [00:17:50] Massively. Yes, for sure. And that’s something that I feel I was very good at before I started. Then I began in this role and realized there was a whole [00:18:00] lot more for me to learn, and now I can comfortably say I’m getting a lot better at it and a lot more effective, and I can work much more efficiently under that pressure and becoming, okay. More adaptable. You just have to, and now I like that buzz of not really being too sure necessarily at first how to handle something, but figuring it out.

Sue: [00:18:19] If we look into the future, what’s your take on where you see entertainment needs to go to fulfill the needs and meet the needs of your customers in the future?

Lauren: [00:18:28] Yeah, again, that’s a great point and something that is definitely being recognized now for sure. I think for us on this line, it’s important that we are catering for a very wide demographic and a very, varied demographic. So we still need to be able to deliver the classics that people want to hear and see and experience. But yeah, in terms specifically of the more millennials, they’re going to look for up and coming technology in terms of our activities, they’re going to want everything to be electronic. I’m sure that they’ll probably come a time where we perhaps won’t be using pencils and paper for [00:19:00] activities and everything will be more the digital age. We’re not quite there yet, and I think that’s healthy though. I think it would be quite dramatic if we suddenly eradicated all of those things.

Sue: [00:19:12] I think the word that springs to my mind from what you’re seeing there, Lauren, is appealing to diversity.

Lauren: [00:19:16] Definitely,

Sue: [00:19:17] and that’s an important facet of what we’ve talked about today and all of the things you’ve had, diversity of experiences in your career. You have diversity of needs to meet from the different passenger groups and entertainers and so on, and that you have a diversity of approaches to how you solve problems.

Lauren: [00:19:33] For sure. I think it’s really important and I think it’s something that I hope. Uh, whilst I hope it to be on ships for a long time, I hope that it will also help me win. Or if I eventually decide to come back to land  I’ve managed to gain these skills that I did not realize I even needed in life, but now that I have them and I’m working on them, then I think it will make me a much more. efficient, [00:20:00] and again, kind of back to the word adaptable, but adaptable individual in pretty much anything that I want to try my hand at.

Sue: [00:20:06] Fantastic. It’s been so interesting to speak to you today, Lauren, thank you so much for your time.

Lauren: [00:20:10] Thank you, Sue. I really appreciate it too. It’s been a pleasure.

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