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Be My GUEST: Why Interior Courses are Vital

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Like many others, I thought that interior training courses were unnecessary money-spinners, after all, we all managed fine without these courses before, didn’t we? Well I’m not sure that most of us did, not at the beginning of our yachting careers anyway, and this applies regardless if we came from strong hospitality backgrounds or not. 

As Lynne Edwards, interior trainer with The Crew Academy, points out, “ If I owned a yacht or were chartering one for $200,000 per week, I certainly wouldn't expect to be served by someone who was "learning on the job" - possibly from someone else who learned on the job - bad habits and all!”

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Fair point: this is a superyacht, not Starbucks.

The story of my first 24 hours on a yacht, back in the mists of 2001 is instructive as to why courses are necessary- to protect the yacht, the guests, the other crew…and your self-respect.

If courses had been required (or even existed) back then, I would have known not to use furniture polish on yachts. I would also have known to spray any product on a rag, rather than straight onto the dining table, to avoid overspray or stray drips from the nozzle. And I wouldn’t have ruined a $10 000 raw silk chair on my first morning on board

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Let’s move on from that debacle to my first breakfast service later that morning.

If my fellow new stew had also done a course and learnt about the dangers of furniture polish, she wouldn’t have used it to polish the varnished doorstep leading out to the aft deck.  And if she hadn’t done that, it’s unlikely that I would have slipped on the oily step while carrying a basket of croissants out to the guests; croissants which then found themselves flying through the air to land on Madame’s lap, coating her green silk robe in warm, buttery flakes. 

If I’d done a course, I might have known how to clean the green silk robe when it arrived in the laundry, to where I’d been banished after the disaster.

As for my first attempt at silver service? No comment.

My first 24 hours on a yacht couldn’t have been more disastrous - yet everything that went wrong could have been avoided if I’d done one of the GUEST approved Interior Training Courses that now exist.  The GUEST program has been painstakingly designed by the PYA to create a curriculum and career path for yacht stewardesses, giving them an official qualification that can also be used ashore. The program has three levels: Introduction Level, Operational Level and Management Level, combining formal study with practical experience on board.

It’s not without its detractors; many captains still consider that a hospitality background is enough when hiring interior crew.  I feel the need to point out here that I had been in hospitality nearly eight years when I joined yachting. I’d been a waitress, bartender and barista, even a restaurant manager, and was fairly good at all of those things.  And yet joining a yacht was like entering a parallel universe, one for which I was completely unprepared.

But then, who among us is prepared for work on a superyacht? Unless you had a very strange upbringing, it is unlikely that you’d start your adult career knowing how to arrange flowers, sew, silver serve, make perfect beds, care for marble, decorate tables and cut cigars.

Yachts are full of expensive things - that painting you’re not quite sure how to dust may well be worth millions, probably more money than will pass through your hands in a lifetime. That vase that you’re not sure about? Well that’s solid silver, and worth a quarter of a million pounds. Don’t use Ajax Antibacterial on that one.

Above all, it is unlikely that you already know how to deliver sophisticated, unobtrusive service to billionaires.  Do you know your Russian service from your French? How do different cultures signify they have finished their meal? What do you mean your Russian boss wants his dessert when the other guests haven’t even finished their entrée? 

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As Lynne Edwards points out, “Given the way that the superyacht industry has evolved over the past two decades, it is a naive and flawed premise to think that a young, inexperienced interior crew member can cope with the rigours of the job at hand from both a physical and psychological stance without proper training.  Why, when all other departments aboard from Engineering to Deck to Galley are expected to undertake proper training, can interior crew not be afforded the same recognition?  Contrary to some ill-informed opinions - there are indeed specialised skills to be learnt by interior crew, which will not have been picked up in their everyday lives.  The job is not all about serving food, making beds and cleaning toilets!"

There is a lot to learn: in skills, in etiquette, in attitude. You are bound to make mistakes. These foundation interior courses are vital in helping new stews avoid the major ones, and to have the confidence necessary to join a yacht and immediately offer a high level of service to guests, while not being a drain on the other crew.  From the individual’s perspective it is obvious: without confidence you will never be good at your job and you will never enjoy it.

In an ideal world the chief stew will have time to train you slowly and well, but in a busy season there is rarely time for that. The industry has developed enormously over the past decade, and just picking someone off the dock who’s done a bit of waitressing and putting them on service that night is no longer acceptable.

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This need for training does not apply only to new crew. The service standards differ enormously across yachts, even when they’re the same size and are used for the same purpose.

You could easily meet a stew who has been chief for five years, but doesn’t know some of the basics, because he/she never learned them on their yacht because the owners weren’t into fancy service or didn’t drink alcohol. Or there’s the chief who had risen up the ranks without ever doing laundry as there was a designated laundry person, or had never been needed on deck to help with docking. Yet the captain interviewing her for her next role will almost certainly assume that she has these skills - she’s been on boats for five years, after all.

And that’s not the worst of it. When chief stews feel there are gaps in their knowledge, but don’t have anyone to teach them, it can lead to a culture of knowledge-guarding, fearing that their junior stews will show them up. That is bad for absolutely everyone involved, and can be avoided through good training.

Helen Warren of Sovren House Group admits that the above situation does occur, stressing that “it is important to have forums, seminars or refresher training to ensure the chief stewardess is doing her job well.” 

We all have gaps in our knowledge; the beauty of GUEST accredited interior courses is that they standardise the skills that interior crew need to have in order to be an asset and develop their skills, at any stage in their career.

These gaps are also magnified as yachts get larger and interior teams are split into departments: housekeeping, service, laundry etc.  When this happens, as Helen Warren points out, “interdepartmental training is paramount to create continuity for the owner and yacht and the ability of the interior staff to grow up the interior work ladder.”

Interestingly, the GUEST accredited courses also require a tender-driving course, an inclusion that puzzled many, but in my opinion leads to a more rounded, competent interior crew – without the need to interrupt a deckhand to be driven ashore to get the boss' newspapers.

A new and positive trend towards knowledge sharing is beginning to emerge online – a good example being the Facebook page ‘Yacht Stewardess Tips’, run by Superyachting South Africa’s Isobel Odendaal. (You can also read Isobel’s monthly column, ‘Stew Tips’ in our Interior section)

There is also a growing trend towards on board training, where Abacus & March excel. There can be no substitute for training on a yacht, becoming familiar with the surroundings and atmosphere, as well as the challenges of small pantries and narrow stairs and companionways.  

Whether these courses should be mandatory or not is an argument for another time, but it is increasingly obvious that large numbers of aspiring crew are doing these courses just to be considered for their first jobs. It is a trend that will almost certainly become industry standard, and I suspect that in a few years, an interior training certificate will be as necessary when signing up to a crew agency as your STCW and ENG1. However, some people may still need convincing that existing stews at all levels should have more training to increase skills, job satisfaction and longevity.

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As Isobel from SYSA wrote in a recent piece for Yachting Matters, ‘It will take time for people to realise its benefits, which include less damage to yachts, higher level service to guests, a higher level of disciplined, responsible and professional crew joining the industry, a shallower learning curve on board, less training and supervision of new crew, (and) recognition of experience and training of steward/esses already in the industry (through Certificates of Competency)…”

I cannot see the argument against interior courses. I also support the GUEST accreditation for training schools, not only because it offers standardisation and weeds out ineffectual courses but, more importantly, it gives stewardesses a real career path, a sense of achievement in an industry that often underestimates their skills, and gives them qualifications to take with them when they move ashore.

Further information:

The PYA: Guidelines for Unified Excellence Service Training

*Image Credits: Flickr/MikeMozart Flickr/Sheri Edwards Flickr/Commercial services

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