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Fast Talk: Douglas Ward

Sharp-eyed cruise expert Douglas Ward knows his industry inside out. He got his feet wet 38 years ago as a bandleader for the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, and eventually became a cruise director for Cunard. Now, as president of the Maritime Evaluations Group, he still spends more time on water than on land, evaluating and rating hundreds of ships for the annual Berlitz guide Ocean Cruising and Cruise Ships . We recently caught Ward on one of his rare days at home in Southampton, England (four days before he embarked on the 905th cruise of his career), to ask him about cruising today. Here, he fills us in on how world events have affected the industry, the next cruising hot spots, and why he won't be starting his own cruise line anytime soon.

1. How often do you travel for work?
I'm on a ship about 250 days a year. In my career, I've spent more than 5,000 days at sea, or the equivalent of almost 14 years.

2. Can you offer some suggestions for first-time cruisers?
When choosing a ship, think carefully about your vacation budget. Smaller ships are generally more inclusive than larger ones, where costs can add up quickly: a cappuccino, a bottle of mineral water, ice cream. Also, the food quality on smaller ships—such as those in the SeaDream, Seabourn, and Silversea lines—is far superior. Sometimes they'll pull into ports and buy local fish. You can't do that with big vessels. I also like tall ships, of course—they're nice and romantic.

3. How is the current travel climate affecting the cruise industry?
There are many ships in the Caribbean and Alaska now; because of the competition, there are tremendous bargains. Prices today are as low as they were in 1980. Cruise lines are also introducing extra services and being more inventive—not just placing chocolates on the pillows, but coming around with cool towels and refreshing sorbets on a hot day.

4. How do you stay so well informed?
After I left Cunard in 1979, I wanted to find out more about the industry. So I learned all about safety codes and ship building. I still need to keep current with these regulations, since my ratings (I evaluate ships on more than 400 individual points) have to be accurate and objective. I talk to the lines quite regularly, and I also send them private reports after I've been aboard a cruise, just to let them know what things need attention. I'm known for spotting details. I also get about 3,000 letters and e-mails from passengers every year. They really help keep me informed as to what was good—and bad—about their trips.

5. What's the next big destination?
I think Southeast Asia will grow in popularity over the next 10 years, even with SARS. Australia and New Zealand, too. And the Middle East, though it will take longer. Until the countries in the Persian Gulf area get together and issue a blanket visa, it won't be a viable destination. But it may be in years to come.

6. Any other predictions?
The Queen Mary 2 [maiden voyage, January 2004] will likely become a benchmark. It'll be the largest passenger ship in the world, with a tremendous sense of space and grandeur. It will even have a planetarium. Of course, it's one thing to build the largest ship in the world; running it—and a 1,200-member staff—is something else entirely.

7. Would you ever want to start your own cruise line?
I've thought about it, but you really need to be in the world of finance to understand how to operate a large business like a cruise line. I'm not a finance man. In today's economic climate, you need the very best people around you, the best management team, to succeed. It's not an industry to go into lightly.

8. What's your second-favorite method of travel?
If someone offered me a Concorde ticket, I wouldn't refuse it. I also like small, upscale trains like the Pride of Africa in South Africa, the Orient Express in Europe, and Scotland's 36-passenger Royal Scotsman. They remind me of small, exclusive ships, and offer incredible views of the surrounding countryside.

9. Do you think you'll ever get tired of cruising?
I've been in this industry for 38 years, and it hasn't happened yet. However, I do get tired of the airplanes. I fly about 200,000 miles a year—that's 40 times around the world—between various ports. I'm sick of the hassles: delayed flights, canceled flights, lost luggage.

10. If you weren't doing this, what do you think you'd be doing?
I'd probably still enjoy being in the musical field. Perhaps in my next life I'll be an orchestral conductor.

Interviewed by Jaime Gross

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