Life After Ships: Interview with President, Access Cruise – Shannon McKee

Life After Ships: Interview with President, Access Cruise – Shannon McKee

President of Access Cruise Inc.

After graduating from Texas Christian University with a degree in sales and marketing, Texas native Shannon McKee yearned to see life outside of the Lone Star State. Encouraged by a friend, she applied for – and got – a contract position as a gift-shop sales associate aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship in 1992. So in love with cruising, she journeyed around the globe several times and back, with her last cruise ship job as Cruise Director, followed by shoreside jobs for the cruise line where her final position prior to leaving was Vice President of Onboard Revenue and Shore Excursions. Unwilling to fully retire her sea legs, she launched Access Cruise – based in Miami – in 2010 to help launch exciting products for the cruise industry and assist cruising professionals in achieving success.

What were your initial career aspirations?

That’s pretty much why I ran off and got a cruise ship job – because I didn’t really know. My intent was to go back to school for an MBA. I decided to take some time off and join the cruise industry. A friend convinced me that the best position was the gift shop because you’re only open when you’re not at port. She and I came to Miami, interviewed and got a job. We joined Norwegian Cruise Line on a six-month contract. I fell in love with shipboard life and wanted to expand my horizons beyond the gift shops. I applied for a social-hostess position, was hired, and the rest is history.

What was your professional experience prior to joining cruise ships?

I didn’t have any experience other than working summer jobs and as a waitress in college. Working for my father, a forensic accountant, was really good experience and helped me get the skillsets I needed. Not everybody had great computer skills back then.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the cruise industry?

I loved the “work hard, play hard” mentality. When you had time off, you went to some of the most amazing places in the world that other people were paying a lot of money to see. At that point in time it was just Bermuda and the Caribbean. The door just kept opening wider and wider. I got hooked. I started working up the chain to assistant cruise director and eventually became cruise director. I got to do these amazing experiences that other people didn’t have the opportunity to. For example, we were in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1996, our first or second time sailing Russia. There was a church being renovated that hadn’t been open to the public but the tour operator was able to get access and invited me to come along.

What position(s) did you hold while working onboard cruise ships?

Gift-shop sales associate, social hostess, assistant cruise director and cruise director. Then I was offered a position in the corporate office shoreside. I started in sales then went to operations, then shore excursions, then onboard revenue, back to shore excursions and eventually was promoted to Vice President and oversaw onboard revenue and shore excursions. I left in 2009.

What did you enjoy most about working onboard cruise ships?

When you had time off you had the opportunity to explore. That’s probably what kept me onboard so long. I guess you could call me a bit of a port collector back then. Eventually there were no new itineraries for me to do and I started to lose interest. I’ve done all of Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Alaska, South America, at least one hundred ports.

What did you find most challenging about working onboard?

Somebody else was in control of your life. You missed a lot of family events and things that were happening at home. Oftentimes you were on ships during the holidays. Your friends onboard became your family. You can’t just take off a day or a weekend and fly home. You have to stay there and work your three, four, or six-month contract.

What is one of your favorite memories working onboard?

I took diving lessons and learned how to dive in Bermuda. I also enjoyed water-skiing. Some of my favorite memories were when I could bring my family onboard. My family hadn’t traveled much before that. My mother had never been to Europe, so I was able to share my experiences with her when she came to St. Petersburg.

What skills did you develop in your cruise line jobs that lead you to where you are today?

Everybody on a ship has a work ethic, or they don’t last. It’s a lot of long hours and a lot of hard work – it’s cyclical. You stay until your work is done for the day. When you work shoreside your work is never done. It just keeps piling up. When you’re on, you’re on, but when you’re off, you’re off. So it is important that you’re fully engaged.

Also the ability to work with all different kinds of people of religious and ethnic backgrounds. You work with people representing at least 50 nationalities on a cruise ship. That is not something you would normally encounter in any other job.

What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in the cruise industry?

Everybody has this idea that it’s going to be the Love Boat and they’ll be frolicking around the pool with the passengers. It’s hard work with amazing benefits and perks that so many other people don’t have. Don’t be deluded by this idea that cruise ship jobs are all fun and games.

As President of Access Cruise, what would you consider the most fascinating aspect of your current role?

It’s interesting to understand what drives each of the different cruise lines and how they make their decisions. It’s important for me to understand that so when I’m bringing a product to them it’s relevant. It’s also changing at such a rapid pace. The cruise industry when I started 20 years ago was still a small industry. You have to stay very current with what the trends are.

If you enjoyed Shannon’s story, read more stories about Life After Ships.