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Correction to This Article
This article about lecturing opportunities on cruises gave an incorrect name for a company that helps book speakers on ships. The correct name is To Sea With Z.

Cruise Ships Troll for Lecturers Who'll Keep Passengers Hooked

"It's up to you to give them a reason not to go to the casino or the buffet," says astronomy lecturer Dan Benedict, shown here on an Egyptian cruise last year. Talks are usually scheduled for at-sea days, when boredom can set in.
"It's up to you to give them a reason not to go to the casino or the buffet," says astronomy lecturer Dan Benedict, shown here on an Egyptian cruise last year. Talks are usually scheduled for at-sea days, when boredom can set in. (Astrocruises.com)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Last year, Bill Miller spent 210 days cruising, a costly endeavor for most. But not for the retired New Jersey teacher, who received a free cabin (and sometimes more) for a few hours of his time at sea.

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Miller is an expert in ocean liner history, and for cruise companies his knowledge is worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, paid in the form of stateroom, meals, sometimes airfare, maybe transfers and shore excursions. The generosity stems from the cruise lines' need to keep passengers entertained at all hours of the day, especially during those gaps between eating, sunning, sleeping and port visits.

"It's a trade," said Barry Vaudrin, who hosts an Internet radio show on cruising. "You are getting a free cruise for your ability to lecture on a particular topic. It's an easy gig, but not easy to get."

Over the years, cruise lines have been expanding their enrichment programs and theme cruises in an effort to retain veteran sailors, attract new passengers and enhance the onboard experience. The enrichment programs, for example, entail lectures of 45 to 60 minutes, often followed by a short Q&A period. The courses fit into two categories: destination, which complements the trip's itinerary and may include talks on the history of the port city, local culture and regional cuisine; and special interest, such as home improvement, forensics, jazz and world affairs. This year, for instance, Cunard's roster of speakers includes a puzzle creator, a BBC war zone correspondent, a crime thriller novelist and a Broadway theater producer.

"You can lecture about photography, technology, arts and crafts, or teach people how to play bridge," said Vaudrin, who has worked as an entertainer and cruise director. "Cruise lines look for people with those kinds of skills."

Discussions are usually scheduled for at-sea days, when the risk of boredom is high. Lecturers often prepare three or four talks, depending on the length of the cruise, but may speak only once or twice. They also mingle with passengers and may be asked unsolicited questions about their specialty in non-academic settings, such as at a chaise longue on the pool's edge. "After your first lecture," Miller said, "that's it, you're public property." All in all, though, not a bad day's work for the pleasure of floating around the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.

Theme cruises also offer opportunities to seaworthy educators. Unlike enrichment programs, these special sailings are more concentrated, with one interest taking over the entire ship, such as baseball, knitting or Motley Crue. To satiate the fans, the cruise will hire multiple experts who can speak intelligently on a specific aspect of the same general topic.

"You have a lot people there for a common purpose," said Dan Benedict, a presenter at the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and an astronomy lecturer for 10 years on cruises, including Holland America's eclipse-theme cruise in 2006. "There is more pressure to get things right; there are many more critical eyes."

The responsibility of filling these positions falls to the cruise lines' entertainment department, which looks outside its staff for qualified individuals. No ship experience is necessary, though knowledge and a knack for public speaking are critical. In addition, résumés that feature published works, impressive awards and/or a name with instant recognition stand out among the piles of applications.

"Someone who just read up on ports of call is not qualified," said Paul DiFilippi, director of enrichment programs at Sixth Star Entertainment and Marketing, a booking agency that brings together lecturers and cruise ships. "They need to be able to answer questions. They have to be an expert."

Miller is a prime example. The former public school teacher, who's also a marine history enthusiast, got his start in the 1970s, when he wrote to a British ocean liner offering his lecturing services while the passengers were docked in New York. The company accepted. He then approached other ships about speaking, and after a number of engagements, he became established on the cruise ship lecture circuit. Mr. Ocean Liner, as he is nicknamed, has since sailed/worked on more than 300 vessels and has visited 145 countries on someone else's credit card. In addition, he has written 70 books, a definite boost to his star rating.

"I have spoken 750 to 1,000 times and have a repertoire of 35 talks," said Miller, who is slated for 180 days at sea this year. "But I keep on hand four or five great ones."


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