01 Dec Life After Ships: Interview with Sr. VP Global Strategy & Marketing for GuestLogix – Dan Thompson
After graduating from Michigan State University in 2003 with degrees in communications and marketing, Canada native Dan Thompson embarked on a career onboard cruise ships that spanned his 20s. He’d sailed on family vacations and knew it would be a good fit. With an eye on becoming a cruise director, he started as a member of the cruise staff onboard a Royal Caribbean International ship and moved into jobs with The PPI Group, a concessionaire for cruise ships.
Today the 34-year-old is senior vice president of global strategy and marketing for a publicly traded technology company in Toronto. “A little part of me felt like what I did on cruise ships wasn’t going to translate to the corporate world,” explains Thompson. “I tried to let my corporate employers know that working on cruise ships was more than piña coladas and doing limbo on the beach. I’m one of the few young senior executives in the Canadian marketplace and it’s really a byproduct of when I worked on ships.” He also credits his work ethic and an acute ability to read other people, a skill he honed on cruise ships immersed in a diverse workforce.
What were your initial career aspirations?
I don’t know that I had any. When you go to a big school like Michigan State you feel like there’s a whole world out there and you’re worried you won’t make the right decisions. I struggled with that leading up to graduation. I felt like I had so many opportunities that it was hard to pinpoint exactly what I wanted to do.
What was your professional experience prior to joining cruise ships?
I had held only part-time jobs. I worked as a bartender throughout college at a fairly large nightclub.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the cruise industry?
Growing up in Canada we developed this need to find the sun. My dad really latched onto cruise ships. He could never pinpoint one Caribbean island he wanted to go to. We took eight different cruises growing up. I remember sitting in the front row of a show onboard watching the cruise director and saying to myself, ‘He’s so cool.’ I was 11 years old and thought he was a super star.
It was an interesting interview with Royal Caribbean International in that they had me stand up in front of the room – there were only two people in the room – and give announcements, coaxing people to come to pool games, up to the pool deck or bingo in the lounge. It was an audition I was extraordinarily unprepared for.
What position(s) did you hold while working onboard cruise ships?
As cruise staff, you really are the staff of the cruise director. I worked two contracts with Royal Caribbean International on Radiance of the Seas. Then I worked half of a contract on Voyager of the Seas and moved to port and shopping guide with The PPI Group for four and a half years. I worked for three different cruise lines: Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.
What did you enjoy most about working onboard cruise ships?
I like the autonomy to design your own destiny. Ships are little floating cities and you really can do anything that you want. Even if you end up working for ships in one capacity when you first start, it can lead you down multiple paths that you never would have seen on your own, but end up being the thing that you never realized you dreamed of doing. There isn’t a job in the world that doesn’t exist within the confines of 70,000 tons of metal on the water. I saw so many others find that path, such as starting as a waiter and later taking courses to become an engineer on the ship.
What did you find most challenging about working onboard?
It’s a strange situation where you work and live in very close proximity with people who become your family. I have a very close relationship with my biological family but you make such close relationships onboard because of what ship life is like. The most difficult part was saying good-bye, not knowing when you will see these friends again. People leave on a weekly basis and it does tear at your heart.
What is one of your favorite memories working onboard?
When you are working seven days a week you are not able to leave your job. You are immersed in work for six months at a time. But what is beautiful is that when you are literally immersed in the daily grind of cruise ships, all of a sudden you look up and there’s a sunset over the island of Maui and you realize ‘Look at where I am.’ Or you look up and see 400 people in a conga line.
What skills did you develop while working on ships that lead you to where you are today?
When you are so tied to your job and so passionate about what you do every day, work becomes engrained in what you do, so that everything that you see and do revolves around your job. The biggest aspect that has given me career success is that I had the willingness to put my whole self into a job.
What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in the cruise industry?
I went in with a desire to either be a cruise director or to have a fun six months. If you remain open to all of the opportunities that lie before you on a cruise ship the sky is truly the limit. Know that you can achieve what you want within the confines of a cruise ship. It’s a strange microcosm and environment in that if you want to become an award-winning chef, you can start as a bartender on a cruise ship.
As Senior Vice President of Global Strategy and Marketing, what would you consider the most fascinating aspect of your current role?
We are a global company and I work with people from all over the world. My time on ships gave me a wealth of experience and exposure to experiences I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I had to start at a lower plateau at this company – as a marketing specialist – but was able to arrive at where I am today at lightning speed.