By Paul Motter
Kevin Sheehan, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, appeared on the CBS show "Undercover Boss" last Monday night. In disguise, CEO Sheehan works a few menial jobs on NCL ships, supposedly to give him teachable moments about operations at the company.
First Kevin is a deck hand aboard Pride of America. His manager, John from New York, who was rightfully unimpressed with Sheehan's job skills. But let's be honest, using a hammer and chisel to chip away rock-hard maritime paint from a solid steel capstan is hardly a job requirement for the cruise line CEO.
Next Sheehan moves over to the Norwegian Epic, the newest and biggest NCL flagship sailing out of Miami. His next undercover job is Sports Program Manager, coordinating outside passenger activities such as the rappelling wall, basketball and the unique version of "ice skating" invented by NCL which actually involves rubber mats and a type of greasy lubricant.
As a regular cruise ship Epic has roughly 95% foreign origin crewmembers - still Sheehan gets another American for a manager, Jessica. She coaches Sheehan the legal releases passengers must sign before using any sports equipment. We see Sheehan saying "Gee whiz" as Jessica points out several different places where the passengers must sign and initial the form. Then Sheehan says "Hey, if we had passengers sign just one of these forms to cover all of the activities onboard we would save a lot of time."
Really? I find it hard to believe Sheehan didn't already have this idea planned. Royal Caribbean has been using a singular sports release for a year and their guests can even agree to it online before the cruise starts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery between cruise lines.
Finally, Jessica and Kevin set up the ice skating, which Jessica refers to as "the worst job on the ship" although I believe she means just within her own department. The pair lifts dozens of rubber floor mats with curvy connecting pieces. We see an unidentified foreign helper stressing "Like a puzzle!" to Kevin when he apparently can't figure out how the pieces fit together (really?). After toting the rubber mats, pounding the interlocking parts with a rubber hammer and applying the goop we see just one passenger show up to "skate."
Repeating "My back is killing me," Sheehan appears depressed. "I can't believe we make our staff people do all this work for an activity that no one cares about." Jessica agrees and we hear her say "...and that's what makes people not want to come back to the Epic again." Wow, that must have been the tail end of a long speech about various problems with the NCL sports program - and supposedly she didn't know she was talking to the CEO of the company - television magic. This was probably one of the most "teachable moments" Sheehan had on the whole episode - so why didn't we get to see it?
In the end, Sheehan decides to do away with NCL ice skating - good idea. Royal Caribbean has real ice skating with a frozen rink. The NCL version is a pale imitation and I already read one other article that wrongly said "we learned from this show that cruise ship ice skating sucks." I think RCL would be a little upset about this misrepresentation of their version of ice skating.
Next Kevin meets his first foreign manager, Silvia, a waitress on her seventh 10-month contract. Funny, she is the only crewmember sharp enough to recognize Sheehan. In an area where perfection really counts Kevin is most inept. He is slow, barely manages a full tray and can't find anything in the kitchen - but he isn't a professional waiter. This part of show taught us nothing, unless you don't already know how hard it is to become a waiter.
Finally we see Kevin's last manager, yet another American (what are the odds?). This is cruise staff member Michael, a veteran of several theme parks and a whiz at memorizing passenger names. Sheehan "goobers" through a dance routine all staff members must do for the NCL "White Hot Party." In fact, both Michael and Jessica wonder in private interviews how Sheehan can even work at a cruise line with such terrible social skills.
In the end Kevin reveals his true identity to all four people. Then, like a fairy godmother he bestows a special company favor on each of them; two get immediate promotions and the other two are given free cruises for their families. Sheehan also agrees to have NCL arrange and host Silvia's wedding.
But what changes does Sheehan have planned for NCL? There are some vague mentions of an internal "train and promote employee program" which he says already exists at the company "becoming more available." But when it comes to what he plans to do to improve the passenger experience, all we learn is that there will be no more "ice skating" at NCL.
As a CEO Kevin Sheehan is well known and liked at NCL, and he did a fine job on this show. NCL had no say in the final version that would be aired, so I wonder if they expected somewhat different results?
You can still watch the entire episode online. If you want to discuss it, go to or forum: Undercover Boss.