Leon Worden

Summer's over. So what? Go cruising

By Leon Worden
Friday, September 3, 1999

ust one in 10 North Americans has ever been on a cruise. To the folks in the big, six-story building on Town Center Drive, that leaves a whole lot of fish to be reeled in.
    “You don’t get seasick on a ship that’s 100,000 tons with stabilizers,” said Lee Robinson, vice president of reservations and customer service for Princess Cruises. Robinson, one of the people inside that big, six-story building, shared some of the silly preconceptions the non-cruising 90 percent have.
    “Some people think (a cruise ship) goes out and floats around on the ocean for seven days and it comes back.”
    There’s a lot more to it than that— as the 5 1/2 million people who take a cruise every year know, Robinson said.
    Growing the market for cruising and making people realize that it’s an economical alternative to land-based vacations is high on the to-do list for Princess Cruises, which will move the rest of its corporate offices from Century City to Valencia in a year and a half.
    Already 750 employees in Valencia handle everything from payroll to booking reservations, at a rate of 20,000 incoming and 3,000 outgoing customer calls a day. After the move, some 1,600 employees in Valencia will oversee the entire 10-ship cruise line— which, with another 300 to 1,100 employees per ship plus port personnel, is one of the three biggest cruise lines in the world, reaching more worldwide destinations than any other major carrier. By 2002, 12 ships will be able to accommodate 1 million passengers a year.
    The decision to move to Valencia was more than a simple location change.
    After starring in “The Love Boat,” which “really promoted cruising as a vacation option,” Robinson said, Princess added its trademark balconies to its ships, instituted 24-hour dining and built the largest cruise vessel in the world, the Grand Princess. Passengers could party all night, 16 stories over the ocean, in a glass-enclosed nightclub. The cruise line’s onboard service ranked number one or two in the industry.
    Travel agents were less kind, ranking Princess around the middle of the pack.
    “Our goal was to become the number one customer service cruise line in the industry,” Robinson said.
    So starting in 1997, Robinson moved over from sales and reinvented the company’s approach to customer service, visiting call centers around the world to see what they were doing right. “Our goal was to raise the bar in every phase of customer service,” he said.
    Ultimately 122 different steps were taken, including the move of the customer service department to Valencia.
    Now, 80 percent of customer phone calls are answered within 20 seconds, compared to 7 to 10 minutes before the overhaul, and the average time a customer is on the phone to make a reservation is just 5 minutes.
    Part of the winning equation was what Santa Clarita had to offer.
    “The quality of employees we’re finding in Santa Clarita is very, very good,” said Robinson. The company employs a lot of college students and part-timers with flexible schedules. “The education level is much higher than other areas we looked into.”
    But job opportunities aren’t limited to the entry level. Yes, many employees in the more permanent positions still live outside of Santa Clarita, transferring to Valencia less than a year ago. But most live within 20 miles, and as jobs are vacated through natural attrition, opportunities avail themselves for SCV residents interested in careers in customer service, management, computer programming, finance and other fields.
    That’s good news for Santa Clarita’s workforce— and for all the other businesses that benefit from having a neighbor like Princess Cruises. According to a study released this summer, the cruise industry spent $738 million on goods and services from suppliers in California during 1998— especially benefiting the transportation, communications and manufacturing sectors.
    “Crossing many industries, this partnership means 24,240 California jobs and a stronger state economy,” said Cindy Colenda, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines.
    Here’s to a healthy partnership for Princess Cruises and the Santa Clarita economy.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

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