Interview with Ben Wirz: “Cultural diversity is a challenge nobody can prepare you for.”
Few people are more knowledgeable about the challenges facing the cruising sector than Ben Wirz, Sr. Vice President Operations at Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, a leading boutique river cruise line with itineraries in 21 rivers across 28 countries worldwide. We discussed with him all the major trends in this niche market in Europe, from climate change and global recruiting to CSR and leadership in a fast-changing world.
In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges facing the cruise industry in Europe?
River cruising is a labour intensive business and recruiting the best fit candidates in a relatively dry employment market is a challenge. Other challenges are the increased competition with more companies entering this niche market and climate change since we are dependent on water levels in the rivers.
What is your view on the rise of the sharing economy (eg companies such as Airbnb and Uber) and its impact on the hospitality industry, including cruise?
Competition and new business models enrich the industry and enlarge the target markets. The sharing economy has so far taken a minor role in the traditional hospitality industry and I can’t see how it is going to affect the luxury segment in the near future.
Is the concept of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) relevant in the hospitality & leisure sector? If so, please give an example where you have used such practices in your career.
The hospitality industry is a people’s business that is based on emotions and feelings. CSR therefore plays a major role as it touches on ethical and moral understanding of employees and guests. Cruising and river cruising in particular have the additional interest to keep the communities visited on a voyage intact and healthy in order to provide a pleasant experience for the guests. Nobody wants to visit a rundown village with inhabitants that are jealous of the rich tourists passing by for a few hours.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when moving to a managerial position in the hospitality sector?
How do you help line managers at Uniworld improve engagement and motivation across their teams?
We provide extensive leadership training including topics such as communication, personality types, situational leadership and conflict management in order to empower line managers to make their own decisions. Also we are encouraging every employee to bring forward suggestion on how the product delivery can be improved as this creates ownership and improves corporate identity. Furthermore we have a strong mission and vision that encourages a culture of internal promotions with many case studies of colleagues that have risen through the ranks and are now in top management positions with Uniworld. This encourages younger colleagues to work hard to learn from the older ones.
What language skills do you look for when hiring at Uniworld?
Predominantly English, but any other European language is an addition.
Can you name two or three essential traits that a jobseeker should have to land a job with Uniworld?
Passion, perseverance and pride for ones achievements.
You are a globetrotter who has worked in several countries. In your opinion, how important is international experience for young graduates who have just set foot in the hospitality industry?
International experience is crucial for a career in the hospitality industry. It comes along with understanding and respecting different cultures, and opens your mind to the bigger picture or what is beyond the horizon. Only then you can start thinking outside the box and develop concepts and processes that are in demand by guests from around the world.
If you had one piece of advice for young hospitality workers, what would it be?
Be very clear with yourself on why you want to work in the hospitality industry and what your intrinsic motivation is. The hospitality industry is a tough workplace in difficult environments, long working hours and low pay, but it provides endless satisfaction and possibilities along the way.