Valerie Perry is among the first group of cruise and travel directors for Holland American Line. Credit: Valerie Perry

Let me entertain you: Cruise insider spills all

Author: Kaye Holland

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While passengers are exploring ashore and making the most of their onboard, cruise ship staff are hard at work making sure your sailing goes smoothly. Here Valerie Perry, cruise and travel director at Holland America Line, lets us on in what her job entails and shares her insider tips on how to make the most out of a holiday at sea

Often you’ll find that a lot of crew had taken cruises growing up but I wasn’t one of them -– hadn’t even watched The Love Boat.

I was a video technician and was at a trade show where Royal Caribbean were exhibiting. They had a job going and I gave them my demo reel. As I handed it over, I thought ‘I’ll never hear from them’ but they called me the next day. I was hired – and on a ship four months later.

I worked for Royal Caribbean for four years for them and moved to National Geographic. I was at their headquarters, working in their live entertainment programme. After six years, I started to think ‘Maybe it’s time for a change’. And then, in 2019, Holland America Line (HAL) created the ‘cruise and travel’ director position.

The role focuses more on enrichment education and lifelong learning than a traditional cruise director role. There’s still the fun and games but you can take a bit more away from your holiday too. Now our entertainment host does the trivia games and bingo, and we have a sports host for Pickleball. It means I get to focus more on the information and combine my life at sea background with my National Geographic background. It’s the perfect role.

I saw the position advertised and was actually going out of town to visit my friend in London for a week for my birthday but knew that I had to apply before I left. So I stayed up late one night applying, then took off to London. I came back and did the interview process – and then a month later, I started. I was the first cruise and travel director back sailing in Alaska in the summer of 2021.

Holland America Line has been exploring Alaska since 1947. Credit: HAL

Do you think that more cruise lines will follow suit and introduce a cruise and travel director role?
I think it depends on what their guests are looking for, whether they like that lifelong learning aspect and are looking for more information.

For us, it makes perfect sense. But for other cruise lines – I mean if you are going there looking for the party experience, you might not care about whales.

Do you have a favourite itinerary?
Alaska is my favourite overall. That’s what we, as a cruise line, are known for. We were the first cruise line in Alaska and have been sailing to the state for 76 years. Alaska offers such a different cruise experience from anywhere else.

The way you can just see nature and wildlife and mountains from the ship – I haven’t experienced that anywhere else. Honestly, I can’t get enough of Alaska – there are so many different cruises on offer from the classic 'Inside Passage' itinerary to land and cruise tours. Despite sailing pretty much everywhere in the world, it’s definitely my favourite itinerary.

Aside from Alaska, Canada, and New England cruises are always a highlight. You’ll sail from Boston to Montreal with a stop in Quebec City.

Boston is New England's biggest city. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s the most rewarding part of a life at sea?
Seeing people’s dreams come true. And getting them excited about their cruise experience – where they are going; what they are going to see etc. Here at HAL, we receive lots of repeat customers but on our Alaska 'Inside Passage' itinerary, we also get a lot of first-time passengers.

I met a man last week who had been dragged onboard by his brother and sister-in-law. He told me that had never wanted to cruise – he hadn’t thought it was for him – but now he was hooked.

Conversely, what’s the most challenging part of a life at sea?
Being away from home can be hard although you do grow accustomed to it. And my parents were onboard earlier this week; I have friends coming in two weeks – and more friends after that.

The challenge in this particular role is learning the information for each particular destination. In Alaska, I have done it four seasons in a row so I am good to go.

However last winter I was doing Hawaii and French Polynesia and there’s not a lot of port information on what to expect in these tiny little places. To this end, a lot of backend research went into it to making sure passengers knew what they needed to know. And, of course, sometimes you reach a destination and it’s completely different from what you were expecting so you have to deal with that.

The Hawaii archipelago is made up of eight major islands and 129 other smaller islands and islets.

Any tips for people looking to follow in your footsteps?
In this specific role, public speaking is huge because we have talks that have to be delivered. Cruise and travel directors need the confidence to speak clearly and concisely so that they can be the most helpful they can be to guests.

However you get into the industry is going to help you out – very few people get hired as a cruise director. Work your way up and also recognise that it may not be a straight line.

When I was a broadcast technician at Royal Caribbean, I was filming the morning show and every day I thought ‘I could do this guy’s job. I would love to do this.’

But to do that, I would have had to demote myself and work 10 years to maybe get promoted – and I couldn’t do that either as I had financial commitments.

In the end, I took a circle path by going to National Geographic – and then I came back in once I had the skills. But having that ship experience proved really helpful as I was aware of how everything operated – and knew that I loved being at sea.

Do you have any packing tips to share?
I’m a terrible packer so I am probably the worst person to ask! For Alaska, it’s all about layers – it could be fairly warm or freezing cold but regardless, you’ll need rain gear. And binoculars: people don’t think to bring binoculars on a cruise but in Alaska you’ll need them for wildlife watching.

For me specifically, I look at how long the cruises are. This contract, I am only doing a seven-day cruise so I only need seven outfits. When I was doing 35-day cruises, it was far harder. But I actually have a schedule of what outfit I wear on what day now, which makes life easier.

If you could invite anyone to a HAL cruise, who would it be and why?
Samantha Brown, the American travel host. She was on Eurodam last year but I was on Nieuw Amsterdam.

Most recently, Samantha was onboard Rotterdam but I was onboard Eurodam so I keep missing her and would love to rectify that.

Samantha was a host at the Travel Channel for 15 years but is now the co-owner of her own production company with her husband and has her own show, Samantha Brown's Places to Love. I’m a big fan.

Samantha Brown is a travel expert and the host of Samantha Brown's Places to Love. Credit: Samantha Brown
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About Kaye Holland

Kaye is a London-based wordsmith who has written for a range of publications including The Times, The Independent, The I, Culture Trip, The Sun, and ABTA among others. In June 2022, Kaye joined the Real Response Media where she looks – together with Lucy Abbott – after the World of Cruising website. Want to get in touch? Kaye can be reached at: [email protected]