Cruise Industry Employment
The Pros & Cons

By Ruthanne Johnson

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, October/November 2003.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Most of us have seen the massage school commercials promoting the opportunity of traveling the world as a bodyworker on a cruise ship. These ads usually highlight the chance to see other cultures and experience their rich traditions. But some critics liken this particular career opportunity to a slave labor of sorts, causing me to pause and wonder: Why in the world would therapists disregard these grim warnings? Were some therapists unaware of the long workdays, low pay, cramped living quarters and cafeteria-style food? On the contrary, most knew of cruise work's downside but were willing to try it anyway. When all was said and done, they even spoke positively of their experience. So, what are the facts? Is it as wonderful as the commercials portray or is it more like the grueling reality industry critics claim? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Not All Roses
I remember traveling as a passenger on a cruise ship, thinking what fun it would be to work on one of the big party boats. I could rub elbows with the best of the best, skip down the gangplank with the rest of the passengers when the ship docked and make good money besides. Sounded like a win/win situation to me. But then I spoke with one of the ship's massage therapists after she'd just finished a grueling 10-hour shift in the ship's spa -- I happened to be her last massage. She told me of the long hours, low wages and tiny cabins. This young girl from Great Britain said she'd always wanted to see the world, but didn't have the resources to do so. So she signed up with one of the leading cruise ship spa operators. "Now, all I do is work, work, work," she complained, adding that she was usually too tired to see the sights when the ship docked. I heard what she was saying but couldn't help noticing that she seemed comfortable in the relaxed atmosphere of the ship's spa. Then she tried to sell me a plethora of spa products, adding that it was the only way the spa employees made any kind of money. Surely this is not the opinion of massage therapists on every ship, I thought, as I gave her a $10 tip and moseyed on my way.

If working on a cruise ship is as dreadful as I've heard, then why do so many of us landlubbers seek employment on these vessels? There's even a vast number of Internet websites dedicated to helping massage therapists find cruise ship jobs. I realized as I began interviewing massage therapists employed in this area that the opportunities offered are only as good as one makes of them. There are pros and cons in any business, and the cruise industry is no different.

Reality Check
Massage therapists with fantasies of traveling like a paying passenger need not apply for cruise ship employment because employees are hired to do a job. Before boarding for their first contract, massage therapists are trained anywhere from one to six weeks and taught to perform a variety of treatments. In addition to massage therapy, the ship's salon typically offers a host of other treatments such as reflexology, cellulite services, body wraps and salt baths which help employees sell a greater number of beauty products. The main source of income for employees is derived from commissions on services and products sold, as well as tips. A busy spa schedule ensures everyone is making money. While the ship is at sea, passengers love pampering, and a 10- to 12-hour shift is not unusual. Slow days come when the ship docks and the previously trapped horde of passengers stampede en mass for the mainland. Most companies pay employees in cash at the end of every cruise. Depending on the company, employees will also receive a small base pay in addition to commission and tips. Total income can range from $200-$800 per week, and sometimes higher if the cruise is at full capacity.

For extra cash, massage therapists at Judith Jackson Sea Spas sometimes volunteer babysitting in the ship's daycare or as hostess in one of the ship's restaurants. Daneil Blood, a CMT from Sandpoint, Idaho, says, "It was a good way to make extra money. There are no living expenses on board and because of this I was able to pay off my debts and save money." Blood spoke highly of her experience during her three successive contracts with Judith Jackson Sea Spas, and she is considering a fourth.

Additional duties expected of spa employees include a spa wipe down at the end of each day and a port cleaning at the end of every cruise. The port cleaning involves a top-to-bottom cleanse of the ship's spa. Rank among the crew is observed at all times, and all crew members must stand at attention when in the presence of the ship's captain.

Most spa management companies sign employees to service contracts anywhere from five to eight months in duration. Passports are a must and crew members must submit to a drug test and physical exam before being hired. Immunization shots are required, and employees are also certified in first aid and trained to perform weekly emergency drills aboard the ship. Employees usually work aboard one ship for the full tenure of their contract and may end up visiting the same ports numerous times. This allows ample opportunity to become familiar with the countries and peoples visited. The ships may voyage on one or two itineraries throughout a contract, but most travel a set winter and summer route. Time between contracts is mostly an individual decision, but three months seems to be the average.

Fran Cegalka, CMT and owner of the Institute of Therapeutic Massage and Movement in Nashville, Tenn., worked as a scuba and snorkel instructor aboard cruise ships for three and a half years. "The crew usually signed up for their next contract before leaving the ship," he says. "That way we knew we were coming back. I visited 40 countries during my tenure and still keep in contact with many of the people I met when I visited the various ports." Cegalka considers his experience on cruise ships invaluable. He was even able to save enough money to enroll in massage school, graduate and eventually start his own massage school.

Unless you have been with a company for more than one contract, choice of ship or itinerary is not an option. After the first contract, employees may request work on a particular ship or route. The world cruise spa schedule is great for exploring many ports but is usually much less active than the shorter cruises because of its older clientele and the duration of its itinerary. More free time can be found on the longer cruises, but employee income is much less.

Nathan "Zeppo" Young, a CMT and recent graduate of the Utah School of Massage Therapy, works the 108-day world cruise aboard the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner in the Judith Jackson Sea Spa. Young originally signed up to see the world and to work doing what he loves -- massage. "I used to earn $600 to $700 per week," he says, "but now I am on the world cruise and usually only make around $200. The longer cruises are dead, and sometimes I go a week without a client." But Young added he has much more free time on the longer cruises. "Because it is slow, most days we have free time to explore the ports. Then we also have our normal one and a half days off every week." When asked via e-mail if he would sign on for another tour of duty, Young writes, "I will definitely sign up for another contract and would not want to work in any other capacity besides a massage therapist on the ship's spa."

The ship's spa continues to be one of the most highly regarded jobs on board. Usually perched atop and toward the front of the ship, the spa often has views unparalleled to other areas on board. On some ships, employees have a small sitting area just outside of the spa where they can take breaks between clients.

The spas are bright, clean and nicely decorated, making for a pleasant work environment.

The dormitory-style employee living quarters usually house two people from the same employment area of a ship. They have been described as cramped, with bunk beds and locker-sized closets -- basically just a place to sleep. Sarah Freeman, manager of the beauty salon and spa on board the Radisson Seven Seas Voyager describes the rooms: "The cabins are small, but adequate. We have private bathrooms, TV, desk, chair and telephone." Blood says, "Mostly, people hang out in the halls or crew areas during time off." Crew areas include their own deck, bar, dayroom, gym and cafeteria.

Another common complaint among employees continues to be the food. The cafeteria-style food is often described as bland and repetitive. "I used to be a vegan, right before joining the ship," Young explains. "That was a huge paradigm shift as the food is not tailored for the health conscious. When at all possible, we go ashore to eat decent food." Young also stays away from the crew bar because of the allegedly poorly ventilated smoking areas.

Lack of privacy might also be considered a drawback for some. One aspect of an employee's job is to try and make the cruise as enjoyable as possible for the passengers. When on board, crew members are always expected to be "on." Young says, "It is really hard to get quality time alone, but I collect beach glass, rocks and other small things from around the world and have created my own personal Zen garden. Time in my garden helps me get away." On one hand, the inability to find personal time can be a difficult problem for those working on cruise ships, but, on the other hand, many employees rave about the lifelong friendships they have made. Perhaps in such close quarters people are forced to get to know one another and, therefore, form special bonds among their shipmates.

Of course it's always nice when there's time to explore the ports once the ship docks. Often employees can volunteer to help the ship's tour guides as a tour escort on passenger excursions. This can be an inexpensive way for employees to visit the popular spots of a port town. Most times help just means handing out water bottles and helping passengers find a bathroom. Other times, crew excursions are planned for nominal fees. For just $25, Young was able to experience a Costa Rican rain forest canopy tour, and Blood remembers a special crew breakfast when the ship sailed into Sydney, Australia. "We sat on the deck and watched the sun come up as we came in under one of the huge bridges. We could see the beautiful Sydney Opera House off in the distance. It was spectacular."

Those employed in the cruise industry have never described the work as easy, but they maintain it can be rewarding. Another important thing to know is there are no health benefits or retirement plans with these companies. Non-management employees are considered independent contractors and, therefore, do not enjoy traditional full-time employee benefits.

Do Your Homework
Every job has positive and negative aspects, and employment in the cruise industry is no different. Work in this particular field is not for everyone. It can be taxing, but at the same time, extremely rewarding. So the question remains for individuals considering employment on a cruise ship: Do you feel the positives outweigh the negatives? You have to consider the hard work, long hours, cramped living quarters, mediocre food and lack of privacy. But you must also consider the valuable work experience and the wonderful opportunity to travel the world safely and glimpse some of its fabulous sights. Then there's also the opportunity to make lifelong friendships and the prospect of making and saving money. As with any job, do your homework before applying. The more you know of the cruise industry, the company you will work for and the type of work you will be performing, the more satisfied you will be as an employee.

Ruthanne Johnson, CMT, SMT, is a Denver-area freelance writer.

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