Like on all the cruises I have taken the thing that makes them extra special is the crew; and the crew on the Viking VAR is no exception. I have already mentioned Captain Gabor Szegedi and he is the person we see least of but clearly the most important. It is his responsibly to keep the ship safe and try to keep it on time. Keeping it on time on the busy Danube with all its locks is no easy feat, but from what we have experienced so far he is doing a great job.
While he is steering the ship we get to experience the professionalism and charm of the rest of the crew of 50. From the Hotel Manager who is responsible for everyone but the nautical crew; to the Program Director whose main job is to keep us happy and smiling, not always easy, to the ship’s chefs, waiters and bartenders, stateroom attendants and other staff who all actually seem to be working twenty-four hours a day, all with a cheerful word and a smile.
I had the opportunity to spend a few extra moments with some of them. First Oliver Ulz, the Hotel Manager. He is responsible for everyone but the nautical crew. Oliver has been with Viking since 2012 and clearly loves his job and judging by the crew I spoke to he has the respect of all of them. He was born in Austria and trained to be a chef; becoming an Executive Chef and spending twenty-four years in South Africa. He is married with two daughters now making his home in Styria, Austria. After twenty-four years he decided he needed a new challenge and Viking was lucky he agreed to join them as a Hotel Manager using all the skills he had gotten over his career. I asked Oliver if he could choose his own staff and he told me no, Viking has a large HR operation, but he could decide if they stayed with him. He said it was rare he found someone who just wasn’t cut out for the job they were doing. He explained most of the crew had seven to nine month contracts but he was on a yearly contract and tended to work two months and then get two weeks off to spend with his family. When the ship is not sailing in the winter he oversees any repairs and redecoration needed to prepare for the next season. He told me the ship usually is always at least 98% full. Some of the beds not filled may be when a cabin is occupied by only one person. I asked him whether the Program Director has to clear her work with him and he said while she officially reports to him she has her own responsibilities. On the VAR the Program Director is a dynamo named Dawn Vago.
Dawn has been with Viking for seven years and clearly loves her job. Prior to joining Viking she spent ten years as a Cruise Director with Seaborne. Meaning it as a total compliment anyone spending some time with Dawn must think of Julie on the Love Boat. Smart, happy and smiling all the time.
Dawn is from the UK and now lives with her husband, who also works for Viking, outside of Manchester. They have an adopted son who is now three years old and because of that Dawn now only works as a fill-in when needed a few weeks at a time. We were very lucky she was on our ship. As I said I don’t think anyone on the ship has seen Dawn without a big smile and we see Dawn all the time from early morning to late night. She is everywhere making sure guests are safe and having fun. Dawn handles all the planning for the shore excursions and on the Danube cruise that means dozens of them. From the free included ones, a tour of each new city, to the exciting options guests have as add-ons. For example when we docked in Passau, Germany, there was a planned walking tour of the town included and then all who wanted got tickets to an amazing organ concert in St. Stephan’s Cathedral. Beyond that guests had options to take a bus to Salzburg, go a Bavarian Beerfest, or take a tour of Bavaria by bike. Some could stay in Passau for an extra few hours on their own. For all these options Dawn was responsible to make sure they could rejoin the ship which was to set sail from Passau around noon. The tour groups would meet the ship at its next stop. She has to make sure everyone was back on board by dinner and our Captain had to make sure the ship got to that stop to welcome them. It is not always an easy dance to accomplish. But they do it. Now we had one surprise from Dawn when she announced she would perform one evening for guests in the lounge. She blew everyone away. She walked in all dressed in black having let down her long blond hair and told us she would sing a few songs for us. Well her voice is brilliant and she told us she has been a performer for twenty-six years. Her voice was as great as any on Broadway or on the London stage. No one wanted the evening to end.
As I mentioned there are fifty crew on the VAR. I spent a few minutes with two of them. Demitar Tsankov is twenty-six years old and is a waiter and bartender who I saw each morning when I went to the Aquavit Terrace for the early buffet breakfast. He was busy setting out the food and then vacuuming the carpets in the lounge, all with a smile and a friendly good-morning to those of us who arrived there around 6:00 am. Dimitar is from Bulgaria and just started with Viking about six months ago. He went to University and has this BA in management and has begun studying for his Masters in computers/IT. He says he is really enjoying his time with Viking thus far. He loves meeting new people which is such an important part of the job on a cruise ship. He spent a summer in the US working at an amusement park in South Carolina and his girlfriend at the time was working in Provincetown, MA. He said there was no way they could make the kind of money they did there in Bulgaria. He also worked for a company that helped students with their taxes once they came home. He has an eighteen year old younger brother who he is trying to give some direction too as he starts out independently.
Then there is Milan Klisuric, a thirty year old bartender with a big smile a great personality. I sat at the bar for an hour one day with friends and he charmed everyone who came to ask for a drink. Milan is from the small town of Odzaci in Serbia. He told me that one day he wants to head back to Serbia and get into agriculture, he actually owns a small farm there now. Milan has worked for Viking for five years and before that worked for four years for Carnival Cruises. He actually met his fiancé who now also works for Viking (she is working on our ship as well) in Miami; she is also from Serbia. He went to Novi-Sad University and studied economics. Both his parents are in finance. Milan has a nine-month contract and aside from the Danube has sailed on the Elbe. I asked him if there was a fitness facility on the ship for staff and he said there is the track that anyone can use but Viking is great about letting their employees use fitness facilities when they are docked and they a little time off. He goes every time he gets a chance. I asked how many of the fifty others do and he laughed and said about three. But many do their own exercise program in the small crew cabins.
I did manage to chat with a few other crew members but didn’t want to bother them as they are all working really hard. My stateroom attendant has been great and when you pass any crew member in the hall they are always pleasant and smiling. This is definitely a credit to Oliver, the Hotel Manager, as he clearly sets the tone on the ship for all of them. If every Viking ship has a crew like the VAR Viking cruises is very fortunate.
Tags: crew, Danube Cruise, Viking