Meet US born SBF Member Gary Glading, the ultimate Cruise Director with vast experience in various prestigious cruise lines.
Gary moved to the UK when he was two years old and later on studied in Switzerland. He was principal singer in Allez Lido both at the Stardust, Las Vegas and at the Lido, Paris, before furthering his career on cruise ships, where he started as a singer in the production shows, then had his own act and later on became Cruise Director. When he's not sailing, Gary lives in Northern Italy where he has an animal sanctuary.
Read his interview and find out about how his career has evolved to become the Cruise Director on board the NCL Jade...
Can you please tell us about your childhood and education?
I was one of sixth children in eight years. The eldest is four years older and the youngest four years younger than me, so I'm right in the middle and I think I learnt how to be a diplomat.
...the second my head hits the pillow I'm out, because I know I've done my best. You cannot do better than your best...
You're old enough to understand what the eldest is going through and you're still not too far from your own childhood, that you've got sympathy with the younger ones. It was like a circus at home. I was always the black sheep of the family, always full of ideas. I was probably too good at school, because I kept being pushed into grades ahead, got one scholarship after another for certain schools and then I ended up getting a scholarship for a school of my choice. I choose Lausanne in Switzerland. I got my masters degree there.
How did you made your break into singing?
I met Marlene Dietrich in Switzerland. She was a regular client at a spa which was owned by the people who were kind of my godparents through my scholarship. It was Marlene who organised my audition with Donn Arden at the Lido in Paris and he hired me as a singer to open the new show at the Stardust in Las Vegas. I stayed there for a year and then I came back to the Lido in Paris, because they needed a lead singer for Allez Lido. I was there for three years.
Can you tell us about your singing career and how you got into working on cruise ships?
I didn't want to do another contract at the Lido, as after awhile it becomes like automatic pilot. Also, they were clamping down on you doing extra work and I used to enjoy doing TV work, films and song writing. That was really what had kept me at the Lido, as it gave me the opportunity to do those extra jobs. So I went on a Bluebell Tour of Great Britain. Whilst I was on that tour a producer saw me and offered me the lead in West Side Story in the West End. The problem was that from having worked mainly abroad and in the provinces in Britain, I didn't have my full equity. They tried to work it out with the union, but the union wouldn't budge. However they said that they also did cruise ship shows and offered me a contract on a ship. So I started working on cruise ships. First as a singer in the show, then as an act. After I became the Cruise Director, as well as doing an act as a one-man show and classical piano recitals onboard. I worked continuously as a performer until 1998, when I moved into the cruise line office.
How did you become Cruise Director?
It all happened very quickly, when one day they found the present Cruise Director, drunk under the piano. My initial reaction was: "absolutely not, I don't know what a Cruise Director does" and they said: "well quite frankly, neither did he!". Point well taken! My first ship was the Mermoz for Paquet Cruises, a French line. The strange thing was that many years later, when I was Head of Entertainment for Costa Cruises, we bought out Paquet and the woman who had originally hired me, ended up working for me.
You were Director of entertainment for another cruise line for 9 years, what did that involve?
In the beginning, the idea was to join the Miami office with the general office in Europe, as they were fighting against each other. Once that was achieved and the budget was under control, I was hiring 770 people every six months - cruise director assistants, all the cruise staff, multi-lingual hostesses, all the artists , musicians and technicians for a fleet of 12 ships.
Then when we started to do in-house productions, I had to write the shows and produce them. When I say produce them, I mean that if sets came in and I wasn't happy with them, I would be in there with a saw, a hammer and a pot of paint and my assistant at the time, Karen Langford and I would be sewing things on costumes. They are still using some of my shows now and that was six years ago. I came up with themes... One of the shows was called H2O and it involved anything that floated. We had a big pirate swinging from the ceiling, an underwater number, a big tap dance number on a war ship, a Noah's arc number. Another show was called Circles of Life, based on the song by Elton John, we had a hula-hoop number, a casino roulette number and rings of the olympic games number. Everything had to be circular to fit into it. Another one of our shows was The Theatres of the World and with that we had a lot of flexibility. When we did a number from a nightclub in Copacabana, it could be sung in Portuguese or in English, depending on who the passengers were or where the ship was going, The same thing for the Lido in Paris, we had La Vie en Rose, it could be sung in French or English. The fact that I had worked around the world and had worked on ships, made it so much easier for me to know what shows would work internationally. I had a very good rapport with the Cruise Directors. I didn't try to micro-manage from the office, but they knew that if they talked to me, we were talking the same language. The budget was coming under control and we getting rid of the stupid things and investing in the right things. So while the budget was cut down, the passenger satisfaction levels went right up, as the guests were getting a better cruise experience. It was also more satisfying for the people working out there, because for the first time they had someone in the office who was one of them, instead of some businessman who had never worked on a cruise ship. It's a whole different world onboard. You understand the claustrophobia that can set in, you understand that it's a world where everything is magnified and it's for 24 hours a day - you are living, working and eating in the same place. It takes a different kind of person to know that.
What made you go back into working on board?
Without wanting to go into details, I decided to quit the office. For 1½ years, I did freelance work, where companies that I had worked for, would call and say: "we've got a French charter, or a German group, who can we hire?". So I was like a consultant.
...It's like a 'camel tanking up' and hopefully all those happy memories will last until that hump goes down and then it's time to get on another cruise...
I was very happy doing that - it allowed me to stay at home and write my book, of which I'll tell you about later. Then one day I got a call from a headhunting company in Monte Carlo, a sort of supplier of people for cruise ships from captains to entertainers. They said that P&O Cruises were looking for a very experienced cruise director, so I said: "if I hear of anyone, I'll call you" and they replied: "no Gary, they are insisting that they want you!". I just laughed, because I hadn't been a cruise director for ten years and I didn't think that I could do it anymore. At that time the Pound Sterling was very strong and the salary was very favourable, so I thought that If I earned more money, it would be better for my animal sanctuary - I'll tell you more about that later too. This is how I went back to sea. When I got there, there was only one ship that I had to worry about, only one language - I had never worked on a single language ship and that's when I realised how much I had missed the British people. We have a common heritage, a common sense of humour.
I could do game shows like What's my Line and they all knew it. I thought it was absolutely wonderful and why the hell did I leave ships? I loved working there and I stayed for 3½ years. Unfortunately over the last 1½ years, the Pound just took a nose dive and I was loosing a lot of money and it was becoming difficult for me to meet all the demands of my animal sanctuary. The day I got home on my holiday, I had three calls from different cruise line companies. I thought it was friends playing a joke, then I realised that the embarkation and disembarkation dates of the senior officers were online and that was how the companies knew that I would be home on that day. One of these companies was NCL. For the first time, they had a ship based in Venice and they didn't know the continental European market very well. As it was their first season there, they were expecting to have mainly British and American passengers and they thought they only needed a hostess to take care of the few French, Germans, Spanish and Italian guests. Then, when they actually tabulated how many berths they had sold in Europe, they had over 2200 guests out of 3000 who didn't speak a word of English. So they panicked. The President of NCL, at the time, who used to work for Costa and knew me personally, said: "we must find out where Gary is". Eventually they found me and here I am.
What are the roles of a Cruise Director?
They're multiple - you've got the administrative side, which is preparing the daily programmes and all the activities, basically using who's sent out from the office - all the entertainers. When they embark, you have to choose the night that they are going to work. Motivating the team, monitoring what's going on. The Assistant Cruise Director would deal directly with the cruise staff, although they all report to me, then there's the technical team, including broadcasting, the show people, the musicians, the children's programme. I've got heads for all those departments and I oversee everything. I have to make sure that the programming makes sense and it's reflecting the demographics, not only the nationalities, but also the ages. Then there is my public role, where I'm out with the guests, I present shows and game shows. I dance with the ladies, because I enjoy social dancing and it gives them an opportunity to be more involved. Then there is the safety aspect. The Cruise Director is one of the major senior officers onboard - I have 3½ stripes. There is only the Captain, the Staff Captain, the Hotel Director and the Chief Engineer who are above me, so in an emergency, I have a major role and I take that part of it very seriously.
It's evident that you are very sincere, take your job very seriously and love being around people. What does it take to be a good Cruise Director?
I think that you have hit the nail on the head - someone who is sincere.
If your heart is in the right place, you can't go wrong. People ask me how many hours I sleep. Well, I don't sleep hours and hours, but the second my head hits the pillow I'm out, because I know I've done my best. You cannot do better than your best. All I can do is make sure that whenever I'm with the guests, they have a good time. I also have to look after my team and I take that very seriously. They've all got their lives and their problems and in most cases I'm old enough to be their father and they can come to me and pour their hearts out. It's also about good organisation, you have certain deadlines and I think it's a matter of courtesy to the guests to be on time and a matter of courtesy to my colleagues to furnish what they need to do a good job on time. I'm very conscientious about that. I'm here to work, I understand that's what I'm here for and I wouldn't take the company's money if I wasn't giving them 100%. They give you 100% everyday and you are a thief if you don't give it back. I may sound very simplistic, but I'm a simple person and that's how I feel.
You are highly involved in all the production shows. As an insider, what do you think makes the NCL shows so appealing to the audience?
First of all my boss, Richard Ambrose, is a very passionate man and he knows very well what he is doing. He's really on fire for entertainment, he's brought the production shows in-house, which has given us much more control over what we are doing. He is also a humble man and he listens to the people onboard. He asks for the truth.
...It's a whole different world onboard. You understand the claustrophobia that can set in... everything is magnified and it's for 24 hours a day - you are living, working and eating in the same place. It takes a different kind of person to know that...
My report isn't all glory, it's honest, because he has to see what I've gone through and he will understand what the results are, either financial results or passenger satisfaction results. Luckily, they are usually very, very good on both accounts, because we are all working very hard and he is giving us the tools that we need. It's extremely important to get that support. As for the guests, the world is going through a dark period and I think, more than ever, people really need entertainment. There's a lot of unemployment and those people who are working, are working extremely hard and are expected to produce more, sometimes for a reduced salary. So they need that full pull away, which they can find on a ship and the nasty part of travelling is taken away. Also a lot of guests are either too busy to go to the theatre, the show's on too late, or it's too scary to go into the city. Onboard they get pampered. They can have their dinner in a wide selection of restaurants and then just walk down the hall and see the show. There are two shows a night and you can do as much or as little as you like. Also, it's like a 'camel tanking up' and hopefully all those happy memories will last until that hump goes down and then it's time to get on another cruise. It's not that it's addictive, but they realise how therapeutic it is for them to be able just to get away and unplug. If they come on with their kids, they know that their children are going to be well looked after. The programme is very well developed and multi-lingual. The children are broken into age groups and the facilities are excellent. All the staff have the certification, so you know that the children are monitored at all times. There are CCTV cameras everywhere and it's a safe environment. For parents, that's one of their biggest worries removed. In other words, if the kids are happy, the parents are too.
Can you tell us about your funniest story on board?
I've had a million of those! There's one story that I still think is funny. People ask me how I've learnt my languages
- well, I think as a musician, you pick up languages easily or at least you can repeat the sounds faithfully and I also have the kind of character where I don't mind laughing at myself. If I make an absolute fool of myself, I'll be the first one to laugh. Back to the story - it was the first time that I had to do the full travel talk on a Costa ship in Italian and I had 1,200 Italian guests in front of me. We had just got the passenger credit cards, that you use to get on and off the ship, open your stateroom door and I was explaining that you could also use them as an onboard credit card, but I said that the only place that you can't use them, is in the 'casino'. The guests all started screaming with laughter, so I started to laugh, but I didn't know what I was laughing about! Finally I said: "obviously I've made a big mistake! Can somebody tell me what I've said?". A passenger came up and whispered in my ear: "in Italian… 'casino' means 'brothel'". So I said: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I don't think that we offer that service onboard, but if we did it would probably be best to pay in cash anyway". For the rest of the cruise, the guests came up to me and said: "Gary, where is the casino?..." I have never made that mistake again!
You have a menagerie of animals that you have collected throughout your travels and an animal sanctuary in the north of Italy. What are they exactly?
Before 9/11, things were much simpler. Even some of the captains would have lap dogs onboard and world cruise passengers brought their dogs too. So as long as I had medical certificates for the animals that I brought back, there was no problem. The sanctuary is called
Hanalei Animal Sanctuary Onlus.
I have 6 donkeys, 32 cats, 4 goats, and about 25 chickens along with geese, ducks, rabbits and wild boar piglets.
Without a doubt, it's the most rewarding thing that I've ever done. For me it's heartbreaking to see an animal that needs either medical attention or just a home and be loved and looked after. Sometimes they have been abandoned and in terrible condition. It's wonderful to see them become affectionate and responsive. I remember when the donkeys first came, we held our hands out with carrots and they just pulled back, because they had been beaten in the past. Now, it's so rewarding when they see you and they come and nuzzle up against you. There is something tremendously satisfying about that.
I know it's only in a very small area in the north of Italy, but if everyone did just a little bit in their own area... a lot of drops make an ocean.
You have written a book. Can you tell us more about it?
It's called Stars, Staterooms and Stowaways, a colourful tale of life at sea. The stars are literally, big, big stars - most of them from the golden age of Hollywood - Ginger Rodgers, Shirley MacLaine, Ester Williams, George Murphy, legends from the world of sport, politicians - people who I've interviewed onboard. The staterooms are the passengers. I don't know what happens to people when they come to sea, but there are some hilarious stories about some of the passengers. Then the stowaways are the animals that I used to sneak back onboard. There are also some very touching stories about some of the animals that didn't make it. So it's strictly anecdotes and a very easy book to read, because there's no plot and the stories are all independent. It's not meant to be Shakespeare, it's just to show people how fun cruising is. It's doing very well. It's for sale on Amazon, Smiths, Waterstones and it was book of the month in Japan. I've turned over all my royalties to the Hanalei Animal Sanctuary and the money goes directly into the animal sanctuary account.
Have you ever composed any songs?
Yes, I have. I've composed for a Welsh singer, Iris Williams. She sang the song He was Beautiful, back in the 70s and I've written a song entitled Once in Each Life for her new album Catch My Dreams.
What has been the highest moment in your career?
...As for the guests, the world is going through a dark period and I think, more than ever, people really need entertainment...
My greatest satisfaction is creating and so when I was Head of Entertainment, the thing that gave me the most satisfaction was the production shows. However, I would say that I have two highest moments in my career and oddly enough, they are both in the past year. To hold the book that I've written, that I didn't publish myself, that someone else thought was good enough to put their money behind it - that really was something very special. Also the song that I wrote for Iris Williams and has been recorded. You can actually buy an album that has one of my songs on it. Nowadays it's all CDs and DVDs, but a lot of my career happened before those things. So my life is all happy memories and a few photos, but now, with my book and the song, there is a permanent record and that makes them very satisfying.
Thank you Gary for this great interview and for helping us to give to the SBF members the NCL article & interviews! Best of luck with your career, your book and your composing!
Assistant Cruise Director onboard NCL Jade
Can you please tell us about your background?
I grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I attended a music school at the same time as regular school. It was my dad's dream to have a son who could play the violin and my older brother wasn't interested, so I was kind of pushed into it. Then I moved over to playing the guitar with my brother. I played and sung in a band for many years. When I first joined the ship I had a choice between working in the galley, the restaurant or the bar. Since I love cooking, I choose the galley, but at the time my English wasn't very good, I didn't really know what the galley was. I then was able to work my way from there into the cruise staff. In five years I've gone from being Junior Host to the Assistant Cruise Director. I don't like to watch my career happen, I like to be one of those people making it happen. If you make mistakes, you learn. If you don't make mistakes it means that you aren't trying. It's just important that you don't make the same mistake twice.
Have you only worked for NCL?
Yes and I'll only ever be with NCL. I love this 'Free Style Cruising' concept. When I go on vacation, I like to decide what I want to do, where I want to eat and what I want to see. With NCL the guests have that and I can see that they are happy.
Thank you Senad and best of luck with your career!