Heike Berdos: Another reason you’ll love Azamara®
Are you a people-person? Then you’re in the right place. Because at Azamara you’ll find the best staff and crew anywhere at sea.
Our Hotel Directors are friendly, observant and highly experienced, they’re also genuinely interested in our guests. No issue is too small (or big) for their personal attention. And the beautiful thing is that you actually get to know them on our smaller, more intimate ships.
We’re delighted to introduce you here to Heike Berdos, Hotel Director extraordinaire, and one of many people who make an Azamara voyage different from all the rest.
Q: Heike, where were you were born and how did you get into this career?
I was born in Bonn, Germany. My dad was a chemical engineer and we moved to Algeria, North Africa when I was two years old. At age seven, we moved back to Germany so I could go to a proper primary school. Then we moved to Montreal where I was home-schooled for three years, and back to Germany again where I finished high school and started hotel school. After hotel school, I worked for three years at the reservation and front desk for a private hotel in Bonn, Germany.
Q: That’s a lot of moving! And I assume you picked up different languages along the way.
Yes, definitely, languages are one of my strengths. I spoke English, German, French and Spanish by the time I finished school. Then my best friend’s uncle told me about a container company in Italy that was expanding into the cruise line business and looking for German-speaking hostesses. So I learned Italian too.
That was my first job on a ship, and it eventually led to Celebrity Cruises, thanks to a Greek tour operator who guided me and thought I could do better. Before Celebrity, I had been working in shore excursions in five languages, but at Celebrity everything was more focused on the English speaking market. I missed the different languages and was looking for new challenge and experience, so I moved to positions in guest services, guest relations, chief concierge, onboard marketing manager, then assistant hotel manager. I am so happy and grateful that I passed through all those positions. I was promoted in 2006 to hotel director.
When Azamara was started in 2007 I came onboard as hotel director. I was part of the opening team onboard the Journey, then opened the Quest shortly after, where I stayed for two years. I’ve been back on the Journey for the past four years.
Q: So you can easily relate to most jobs on the ship, can’t you?
Absolutely. And I know how new crew members feel their first days onboard. I vividly remember my first day working on a ship, like it was yesterday. I boarded on the second day of Christmas, 23 years old, and had to join the ship in dry dock when it had no electricity. A very Merry Christmas, I thought! It was so sad leaving my family. Today whenever we get new crew members I think of that—not that they would ever be in that situation! I always reach out to these people. It’s not a given that you just get onboard and start up. You can feel lonesome at first.
Q: Family life?
I’ve lived in Athens, Greece for 13 years. I was married but had a friendly separation about five years ago. My ex-husband is a captain on Celebrity. We get along well.
Q: What kind of vision did you have for Azamara when you started?
The first ship I ever worked on had a capacity of about 600 guests, and I had forgotten how beautiful it is to work on a smaller ship. My first step onboard was like coming home. I felt I could really grab this experience; it was familiar. I’d had some doubts about whether this was what I really wanted, but only after three days I said, “I’ll stay!”
The first start with Azamara was not very easy since it had a brand new name and standards and needed awareness and identity. However the crew that I encountered on board were so ambitious and eager to get the brand started, it was exciting to lead them toward a very much-wanted success. They were a hard-working group of people who came from different companies and experiences, and showed me great respect and support from the very first minute I stepped on board. It made me feel that I could really make a difference. I had never had that feeling before.
Q: What was your top priority?
Bonding with the crew and learning the ship. I needed to see the hardware, understand the knowledge base, the manpower, scheduling and everything else. It took months. We hardly took breaks because we were so eager to get it right. Everyone on that ship was ready to give it their all. We were a real team working together and that was so beautiful.
The first six months were transitional. The ship’s personality was not yet formed, and the guests who came to us had children but obviously we weren’t a ship for children. Slowly but surely we moved forward…marketing picked up and with the second ship (Quest) launching in October 2007 there were a lot of lessons learned. That was a much softer start.
Q: What are some of the things you did to build your team?
Guests often say, “Your crew is so happy, what are you doing?” It’s because together we’ve created a special atmosphere and ambiance that makes you feel you are not a number, you’re an individual and you can contribute. My number one priority is to listen and acknowledge that each of us has a unique character. Every personality is different and I respect that.
I am a very hands-on person, which is easier on a small ship. I can walk the ship several times a day and be out and about. My office is always open. Everyone who goes to breakfast, lunch or dinner pretty much passes by. They can always come in, ask a question, no hesitation about that. Being approachable and being one of them is so important to me.
Q: What are the qualities you value in the Azamara brand?
First and foremost, sincerity and personality. You can train someone how to carry a tray, but you can’t train them to be friendly, sincere or how to have a happy personality. I value working with people who want to be where they are.
I’ve done other cruises and I see huge differences. The friendliness and willingness to engage wasn’t there. On other ships I see people do their jobs, fine and well, but something is missing. You can choose the nicest hotel, the nicest ship, but if the staff is not right you really notice it. I certainly notice it when I travel now.
Our ships aren’t the newest, but when you go into one of our restaurants or bars, you don’t get a rubber-stamp style of service. With us you have a friendly chat, a smile, and people who remember you from the previous day. And when our crew asks, “How was your day?” you know they actually want to hear about it.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
There are no typical days, and that’s a joy! On port days we are up and about when the tours go out. We always try to be visible and available then, because that’s a good time for guests to talk with us. And when guests return to the ship I try to be at the gangway to ask them about what they did.
Collecting feedback is important, and not every guest runs down to the desk to provide it or fills out the forms. So talking with guests on a casual basis is very important to me and all our key players. We really want to hear what guests think. It’s how we get better.
I have team meetings every morning or sometimes every second morning if we’re very full and busy. Throughout the day there are events, and more so on sea days: cocktail parties and brunches, loyalty events, a barbecue or gelateria, plus a mix of mandatory meetings with people who report to me on a dotted line.
Every evening I look at the next day because each day is different. And that’s so nice. It’s not like other cruises that repeat the same itinerary over and over—it’s not like “every Tuesday is Naples.” That variety keeps my brain going and keeps me creative. So I schedule my team around the changing days. In between, I try to keep up with emails. And I do spot checks in various areas around the ship of course. All the time. A walk around with the chief housekeeper, the food and beverage manager, spa personnel and or many others.
Q: What do you like most about your job, and what personal qualities make you good at what you do?
I love people. Crew and guests alike, they are all my customers. And I like different religions, cultures and languages. I think in every person there is someone good.
I’ve learned that with careful listening and by putting myself in someone else’s shoes, I can solve most problems. If someone is unhappy about something on the ship, I do not take it personally. Even when we can’t change what they’re unhappy with—the slow Internet, for instance—it’s an opportunity to explain why things are the way they are. I can talk about bandwidth at sea and bandwidth onshore in a way they’ll understand.
Time and patience is what you need. And I have a lot of patience. To me, every problem is an opportunity. And every unhappy guest is an opportunity too. I encourage my staff to think that way as well. I enjoy seeing my team grow and learn and them being able to “turn a guest or situation around.” And they come back and say, you know what, the guest was so friendly and things really got better.
Q: How do you spend your free time onshore?
I love travel and plan my free time around that. I mostly read travel books and National Geographic. I love to read about different countries.
I also love sports, and I work out and run a lot. I run onboard too. I relax by turning on music and getting on the treadmill. It lets me switch off for 30 or 45 minutes. There is one port in the Mediterranean, Kotor in Montenegro, where we have an opportunity to go for a hike with any guest who wants to join. That is great fun too.
Q: What are your favorite places to explore by ship?
Any place you’re curious about! An Azamara voyage is the perfect way to get a taste of places you might not go on your own. For each of us, there will always be places that feel more different or foreign. Sail to those places with us! You’ll get an amazing travel experience plus a lot of familiar comfort onboard.
Q: Favorite AzAmazing Evenings?
My two favorites were in Haifa, Israel, and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. In Haifa we were in the ancient theater and they graciously served local foods, no plastic, everything was original tableware including little wooden cups. Sevastopol was great too. I can give two thumbs up for both. These events are only going to get better and better.
Q: What do you love to eat?
I’m a healthy kind of person. I think I could live on salads, fish and chicken. Though sometimes I do want a filet mignon, medium rare. That’s the beauty onboard, there’s a large variety for everyone. And the menu choices change frequently.
My favorite less-healthy dish is the baked Brie in Aqualina. And I do love the cheese plate choice, especially the French hard cheeses. I could eat the fresh Buffalo Mozzarella from Naples by the bowlful.
Q: Favorite nightlife?
The best nightlife is onboard! Our deck party of course. What better restaurant than our pool deck at night, with a beautiful view, great food and music. Off the ship, I’d choose St. Tropez and the Cote d’Azur, Ibiza, Barcelona, Bangkok and Rio…it’s all great.
Q: Favorite itinerary or city?
My favorite city is Seville; last year was the first time we sailed there via the Guadalquivir River, and we were the biggest ship that had ever docked there. The mayor came onboard. It’s stunning! They open a bridge and it looks like there’s no space at all, but we made it through. I think we sailed in at 10:30 or 11 PM. It was packed and people there greeted us and were laughing and clapping, and our guests of course were so excited. It was beautiful.
Q: Funniest experience?
The biggest fun in general is when we’re up on deck and serve the guests. Surely the equator crossing was one nice experience. They plastered us in some sticky substance and threw us in the pool! That was a little crazy.
Q: Best praise from a guest?
What I truly enjoy is hearing “The crew is so friendly. I don’t know what you do, they are so amazing.” And at the end they sometimes say, “It starts from the top.” It’s nice when guests recognize that. We do try to lead by example.
Q: I hear you were on a voyage with Roger Moore…excuse me, James Bond.
Yes, and what a gentleman. He traveled with his wife and was so kind. He loved Aqualina and had a favorite table by the window. He was never too tired to say good evening, and would stand for every lady passing by. He even offered to do a Q&A in the Cabaret for guests. As soon as he had the mike and you heard his voice, you thought that’s James Bond, that voice! Our cruise director Tony handled the event wonderfully, he was so well prepared. Afterwards Roger Moore said, “I’ve done a lot of interviews, and wow you did a fantastic job.” Afterwards he let guests take photos with him, too.
Q: Is there a motto you live by?
We only have one life, and we always have to live as though there might not be a second chance. So we have to give 100%. I give as much at the end of my contract as I do at the beginning. I want to always end on a high note and leave the best impression. It’s the same way when I go on vacation. I want people to think, wow she’s full of energy to the last moment! I only slow down when I get home. When I last got home I slept 11 hours, and only then thought, I guess my body was tired.
Q: What do you most enjoy about working with Azamara?
It feels like family with just two ships. We’ve created a very special ambiance on board amongst crew members, and that feeling extends to our new and repeat guests. In addition, we have such great support from our onboard colleagues and our shoreside team. Larry (Pimentel, CEO) makes me feel that I could pick up the phone and call him anytime. And when I call Bert (van Middendorp, AVP Hotel Operations), my direct manager, I feel I’m speaking to a very respected friend even though he’s my boss. Because of our size and how we grew together, I feel that each individual in our company is really a part of our success. We’re listened to and well respected. Our feedback is valued. I don’t believe there are many companies like that. I’m happy to be part of one.