What does the future of luxury cruising look like? We sat down with Jeffrey J. Wielgopolan, Senior Vice President, Learning & Development at Forbes Travel Guide to get the inside scoop on how cruise lines can aim to provide a five-star experience. Wielgoplan, one of the hospitality industry’s foremost service experts, has worked with hotels, restaurants and spas throughout North America, Europe and Asia to improve service, staff confidence and knowledge, and to further properties’ understanding of Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star standards and expectations.
Can you tell us a little bit about your role, Forbes Travel Guide, and the Forbes Travel Guide Star Rating Standards?
The Forbes Travel Guide standards are the only set of globally applicable service and facility criteria for luxury hotels, fine-dining restaurants and spas. They are refined annually with input and guidance from the industry by way of the Standards Advisory Committee and our insider experts, along with the data we collect from thousands of properties around the world to observe and react to trends in the luxury segment of the hospitality industry.
My role as Senior Vice President of Learning & Development is to lead a team of 20 globally based trainers who have more than 500 years of industry experience. We work with hotels, resorts, restaurants, spas, luxury residential, and now, cruise lines on how to deliver seamless, thoughtful, engaged service. Our training is unique in that it has no modules or catalogue of courses, but instead it is completely hands-on and personalized. It is us in the stateroom with the housekeeping team or in the main dining room with the service staff.
After having rated over 2,000 hotels, restaurants and spas around the globe, can you share what some of the standout characteristics of a Five-Star experience are?
I always dislike reading stories about how Five-Star service is combing the ocean to find someone’s wedding ring or closing down Fifth Avenue to march an elephant down it. Five-Star service is about tailoring standards to meet a guest’s expectations, to make them feel comfortable and welcome, and most importantly, to create a sense of place. A guest should truly feel as if he or she has to go “there” to have that experience.
There’s also an energy to the property. Staff members should be proactive in their greetings, genuinely smile, and truly be happy to see you and proud of the place where they work. That energy is extremely contagious.
What helped form your perspective on luxury and quality?
I think that my time working at Tru, a now-shuttered fine-dining restaurant in Chicago, greatly impacted my professional career. We won a James Beard Award for Best Service in the country, and to get there, we consistently asked ourselves, “What’s the best way to do something?”
From setting a wine glass so that the watermark was at 6 o’clock, to pouring water exactly in unison, to grading each table on an A-through-C scale at the end of the night, these details allowed to us to challenge what guests thought of a fine-dining experience.
Why do you think luxury-minded travelers are increasingly interested in the cruising experience?
Luxury travel today is all about personalization and an experience. There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace over what the difference is between the various brands, and also, the various ships. But luxury travelers want to have service that is thoughtful, anticipatory and tailored; it shouldn’t be scripted or feel like you’re just another passenger.
What are some things cruise lines need to keep in mind when managing the guest’s expectations of a luxury experience?
I think that cruise lines need to think more of how they market the destinations, and not necessarily the ships themselves. When I see advertising for cruise lines, the majority of what is shown is the activity on the ship. The unique aspect is that the world is at your footsteps, along with the amenities and services available that rival any hotel or resort.
The realities of how a diverse staff can consistently deliver high-quality service are constantly changing. How has technology, specifically, affected the service industry? How do you feel this will continue changing? We are beginning to see some technological advances, such as quicker embarkation/disembarkation, along with touch panels, higher-speed WiFi and connectivity, and even streaming services where guests can watch their own television content.
With regards to the crewmembers, having clear standards and an easy-to-understand sequence of service is the best step in terms of consistency. But also, the diversity of the crew is part of the appeal — to be able to have conversations with people from all over the globe is a connector.
You’re on a cruise because you love to travel, so being able to speak to people about their home is something that links us all.