Cruise director rides the high seas of blogs

June 21, 2007

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

The Carnival Liberty was approaching Messina, on the coast of Sicily, when cruise director John Heald issued an urgent plea over the public address system.

"I have some obligations on the ship today, so I won't be able to go ashore." Heald's booming voice shook the morning cobwebs from the Liberty's 3,100 passengers, myself included. "Will someone please be kind enough to bring me back a cannoli?"

Ten hours later, Heald's office resembled an Italian bakery.

That's the rapport Heald builds with passengers. Most cruise directors are so busy with organizational priorities that guest interaction is limited to announcing the daily activities agenda, introducing production shows, hosting an occasional comedy skit and making five-minute appearances at cocktail parties.

Not Heald. He doesn't just host skits; he's the star, even if that means stripping to his T-shirt and shorts and rolling his "extra-medium body" — Heald's assessment, though he's losing weight — across a stage. From start to finish, Heald is a dominating presence on a cruise and so respected that he is routinely assigned to the launch of every new Carnival ship.

Prior to an itinerary's debut, Heald visits each port with a camera crew to produce a video shown on in-cabin TV screens and advising passengers which excursions offer the best value — and which are clunkers. His live daily TV shows, also transmitted throughout the ship, are apt to take off on any tangent. His frequent discourses on the PA system can be hilarious, but Heald is also the ultimate salesman; if anyone can coax a reluctant passenger into a revenue-producing casino, spa or gift shop, it's Heald.

Advice and entertainment

Now sailing on the Carnival Freedom in the Mediterranean, Heald is enjoying a broader impact. In conjunction with the Freedom's launch in March, he started a daily blog ( that combines solid advice with his witty perspective on life at sea. Assisted by his wife, Heidi, the Freedom's assistant cruise director, Heald answers as many as 60 questions a day — with topics ranging from appropriate dinner attire to his campaign aimed at making Angelina Jolie godmother of Carnival's next ship.On one blog, he professed his disdain for automated messages: "It is everywhere," Heald mused. "Heidi and I were walking along the beach in Sorrento and when I saw a big seashell, I picked it up to listen to the sea and was greeted with, 'If you want to hear the sea in Spanish, push 1.' "

On another he responded to a blogger whose travel agent told him only people with tattoos book a Carnival cruise: Not only was the agent wrong, Heald bristled, but "What's wrong with tattoos? I have one of Angelina Jolie."

When Royal Caribbean, Carnival's main competition among mass-market lines, recently appointed Karin Stahre-Janson the industry's first female captain, Heald wrote, "This blog is not going to lower itself to be part of the stupid humor that she will no doubt have to face. Let's wish her good luck and also good luck to the ship's cruise director who is going to have to provide extra activities every port day because by the time she's parked the ship it will be lunchtime."

Carnival initially hoped that Heald's reports would focus short-term attention on its new ship. But three months later "this blog thingy," as Heald terms his endeavor, has attracted 350,000 visitors and achieved a top 25 ranking among the more than 1 million blogs of, a blog-hosting service.

Hosting a cruise

It's generated so much interest — and bookings — that Carnival has scheduled the "John Heald Bloggers Cruise" on the Freedom's Jan. 19-26 sailing from Miami to the western Caribbean. According to the cruise line, Heald will host a variety of special events.Heald, 42, had no maritime background growing up in England. "I was a commodities banker," he told me aboard the Liberty. "I was making tons of money, too, but I was miserable. Much to my parents' horror, I answered an ad and went to sea, starting as a wine steward."

A cruise director since 1990, Heald routinely dons jeans and a baseball cap on Day 1 of a voyage, before he becomes familiar to passengers, and he wanders about the ship seeking out uninhibited individuals he deems the perfect foils for his comedy routines.

"I'm happiest when I'm onstage," he said. "I want to help people see that life is still good, it's still precious. Laughter is more important now than ever. And audience participation, if done correctly, is just as entertaining as when you pay a professional $20,000 to do a 25-minute show."

Thanks to his blog thingy, Heald's stage now has a worldwide audience.