By Mimi Kmet
As Crystal Symphony’s shore excursion manager, Jim O’Conner works with Crystal Cruises’ land programs staff, as well as his own staff on board, to plan unique, unforgettable experiences in the many ports the ship visits.
You might say he’s the ship’s baron of the bucket list. Want to fly in a MiG fighter jet while the ship is calling at St. Petersburg? He can make that happen. An African safari during a world cruise? No problem. A cooking lesson with a chef/restaurateur in Canada’s Magdalen Islands? Yup.
I had a chance to speak with O’Conner during a luxury cruise recently about his job and what makes Crystal Adventures ashore special.
How did you become the Shore Excursion Manager aboard Crystal Symphony?
I’ve been on cruise ships for 34 years. Crystal was looking for someone to plan shore excursions for its World Cruises; and as a World Cruise manager, I’d done 15 of them.
Take me through the process of creating a shore excursion for Crystal Cruises.
The groundwork starts in the office. The V.P. of land programs goes into the field and looks for suitable ports that have the infrastructure to accommodate a ship our size and for a good variety of tours. Straightaway, we find a suitable, experienced operator. We try to keep it to one operator. It’s a lot easier to deal with. Maybe we’ll find four operators. Then, we get proposals from them and see what they have on offer.
What sets Crystal Adventures shore excursions apart?
We like to keep the group sizes small for more personalized attention. On bigger ships these days, you’re getting 500 people on a particular tour. We try to provide “boutique” experiences, and we try keep the capacity to, let’s say, 10 people. And then, we can tailor the tour to guests’ needs and add some special touches. We’re always looking for ideas to do something different, perhaps something you can’t do on your own. For example, we can get into the Vatican museums and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg for night visits after they close to the general public. It creates something special.
How did the “You Care, We Care” voluntourism program come about?
We started visiting places like orphanages on other tours, initially; and people liked it. We presented the voluntourism idea to our operators. The operators and local authorities were very keen on it, so it took off, and it’s available nearly all around the globe now.
Give me an example of the impact a voluntourism excursion has had on a participating organization.
One of our biggest achievements was in Cartagena, Colombia. We went to a children’s home. As it turned out, there was a dentist from the Los Angeles area on the tour, and he later returned with about 10 other dentists and looked after the children. This is an example of how worthwhile it is.
What are your most popular types of shore excursions?
We always have a basic panoramic tour in a port — something simple with less walking; a motorcoach tour. Beyond that, it depends on where we go. If we go to Alaska, it’s the complete opposite. Flightseeing is huge. Everybody wants to fly over the ice fields and glaciers. Also, people really like cuisine, especially international cuisine; and they like to go to local cooking classes.
How did the Overland Adventures come about?
They grew out of our World Cruises, because World Cruises have a lot more sea days, and guests have more time to venture off the ship without missing the ports that the ship visits. For those tours, we look for sites that are inland. If we go to India, there’s the Taj Mahal, for instance. If we go into Thailand or Vietnam, there’s Cambodia. We’ve offered safaris in Africa. It’s harder to do that on a cruise that’s only a week or 10 days long. So, on many of those itineraries, we offer pre- and post-cruise land programs.
What are some of the other different, exotic shore excursions available to Crystal guests?
We’ve provided flights on a MiG fighter. They’re out of a military base in Moscow; St. Petersburg is the port. From South America, we go to Antarctica. We charter a jet for about 60 people that lands at one of the bases. Guests go out on Zodiacs and snow trek vehicles through these bases. In addition, we went on from there with a boutique tour for six people. They stayed overnight at the base, sleeping in the bunks among the scientists and base workers. That took off amazingly. Tours like the Antarctic flight are gone as soon as they go online; and then, we have a very long wait list.
Do you custom-build excursions for private groups, like families and corporate groups?
We offer private cars, and guests can book them online. When those guests come on board, we sit down and discuss it with them, if they want to plan the details in advance.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve had from someone who booked a private car?
I had a group that booked a car and driver to travel through New Zealand. Money wasn’t the object, so I found hotels for them, and I had helicopters land on the hotel lawns to take them out over volcanoes and to jet boat rides. I lavished it up. We can do almost anything, and it’s a good challenge.
Is that the most fun and rewarding part of your job?
Yes, it’s always a big achievement, especially when you see the “wow” on people’s faces. It’s also the big events we do. We started positioning the ships in ports with big celebrations and fireworks on New Year’s Eve. We were in Hong Kong last year, and we’re going to Rio this year. A few years ago in Sydney, we chartered two boats that accommodated about 500 people each. Nearly all of the guests went out on them, and away we went through the parade of lights. We had bands from the ship and lavish seafood buffets, as well as open bars and fine wine and Champagne. The night went spectacularly. We’re going to do it again in 2017.
For a glimpse into Jim O’Conner’s world, peruse Crystal’s nearly 3,500 Crystal Adventures ashore.
Featured Image: Jim O’Conner, shore excursion manager, Crystal Symphony (Photo by Mara Wells)