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Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010

Photography fan ends up manager on floating hotel

James Deering served Masa, other top chefs to chart course in hectic cruise line industry Barbara Bayer

James Deering planned on being either a professional photographer or a psychologist. Instead, it was the call of the sea that steered his life. For 16 years now, the American citizen and Tokyo resident has held management positions on the world's biggest cruise lines. In a few days, he will don his uniform, four gold stripes on each sleeve, and set sail, managing what will be his 30th ship.

News photo
Following the sea: Cruise ship general manager James Deering relaxes in his Tokyo apartment last month . just weeks before setting off on the Noordam, which will be the 30th cruise ship he will have managed. BARBARA BAYER

The 58-year-old Deering rose "through the ranks on the food and beverage side" to become general manager, or hotel manager, as it is called on some lines. One of four senior officers along with the captain, chief engineer and staff captain, Deering will be on duty 20 hours a day, seven days a week and "running every minute."

Deering's job entails near-overwhelming responsibility. Burnout comes quickly. "The energy levels that you have to maintain are just so high."

He will go for "four to six months straight," then take anywhere "from five to eight weeks' holiday to recover," and "go back and do it all over again." Every five to 10 years, Deering says, he has to take a longer break to fully recoup, which is what he has been doing for most of this year. He is about to join Holland America Line's Noordam in Barcelona, Spain, then return to Tokyo in February briefly before heading out again.

Just what is so exhausting about his work? Mostly, the sheer magnitude of the job aboard today's massive ships. The biggest ship now, Royal Caribbean's Oasis, is 360 meters long, has 19 decks and carries more than 6,000 people. Deering's last ship employed 1,250 crew members. All but 100 of them worked for him.

"I do everything a hotel manager does in a big hotel," he says. "It is a big hotel, a floating hotel." His last "hotel" had 1,558 rooms, which on land would have constituted the biggest establishment in Tokyo. Galleys for the 12 restaurants and 18 bars serving a total of 13,000 meals each day were spread all over the ship.

In addition to the front desk, Deering is in charge of: human resources, security, housekeeping, all short excursions, all shops, the casino, beauty salon, Internet cafe, a hospital, a morgue and all interactions with government officials at ports of call.

The Michigan native got his first look at a cruise ship while he was a photography student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. While working at a San Francisco studio photographing food he was asked if he would be interested in taking a two-week cruise to take pictures for a brochure. "I thought, 'I get paid for this?!' " Deering went and was enthralled. "I fell in love. It was really amazing. I said, 'I have to do this. I have to work for a cruise line. ' "

Though it would be many years before Deering actually found his way into the cruise industry, his life began preparing him for the work. While still studying, he took a job as busboy at what was then the hottest restaurant in Frisco — Chez Michel. It was run by a French Moroccan and Deering, of French and German ancestry, got the job because he spoke French.

Michel, a Golden Gloves boxer, "famous for punching out his waiters," knew little of the celebrities who would appear every night at the restaurant. "I was amazed at the celebrities coming in," Deering remembers. "I'd see Bob Dylan walk in and Michel would just look at him, and not being dressed very well, he'd give him a lousy table. I'd think, 'Oh, Lord! ' "

One night, Deering was standing not far from the door and blurted out his surprise when Diana Ross walked in. "Michel heard me and came running over. I thought he was going to punch me but he asked, 'What did you say?' I said, 'That's Diana Ross!' And he was like, 'Who's that? ' " Some time later, Michel rewarded Deering for "knowing so much about celebrities." He gave him a new job greeting guests and cluing him in to the stars. "It was great. I got to meet every celebrity in Hollywood."

By that time, Deering had given up his plans to become either a psychologist or a professional photographer. At the restaurant, he was taking home $2,000 in tips every week. "At Berkeley, they had some recruiters from the state of California who were going to offer me an intern position at a mental institute for $12,000 a year. I was thinking, 'Wait a moment, there's something wrong here.' "

In all, Deering spent eight years working at Chez Michel's, during which time he was taken under wing and given an extensive education in food, wine and cooking.

Another of Deering's early experiences was working alongside the famous Masataka Kobayashi at Masa's, another hotter-than-hot San Francisco restaurant. Opened in 1983, Masa's soon had "people flying in from New York and Europe for dinner." Kobayashi, a Japanese chef who had studied classical French cuisine in Switzerland, had leaped to fame in New York while at Le Plaisir. At Masa's his blend of Japanese plate design with classical French cooking was unique. There was a 100-dinner limit per night and reservations, Deering says, had to be made three years in advance.

One day, the White House called wanting to make a reservation for George H.W. Bush, who was coming to town and had "decided to have dinner at Masa's." Deering told them, "Sorry, but we are fully booked for the next three years." He refused to bump guests who had literally been waiting years for a table. "They would have killed me." Despite repeated pleas from the White House, the president eventually was forced to have dinner elsewhere. Turning down the president, Deering says, "was one of my greatest joys."

After Kobayashi's mysterious death in 1984, Deering went on to a variety of restaurant-related work. He established several restaurants for others, and his own, the Chameleon Restaurant, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

While working as a professor at the Hospitality Management School of Nova Southeastern University in Florida, Deering also developed the first hospitality MBA program in the United States.

In 1994, Deering began his work with cruise lines, starting as hotel service operations supervisor with Royal Cruise Line. He continued with impressive positions as hotel manager and food and beverage director with Star Cruises, hotel director with Norwegian Cruise Line, passenger services director with Princess Cruises, and hotel manager for Holland America Line. During the same period, Deering also established two American Clubs, one in Beijing and one in Shanghai.

Deering's love of the sea and cruising is, sadly, not shared by many Japanese. Though China is being targeted as the next big market for the cruise industry, Deering feels Japanese would make the perfect cruise ship passengers, due largely to their tendency to "buy the best." They are also appreciated, he says matter-of-factly, because they "rarely complain."

Japanese cruises do exist, but according to Deering, are still relatively expensive and use ships that are "very small and very Spartan," he says. "They have lots of linoleum floors instead of carpeting, lots of vending machines and are more like ferries."

Also, many of the best offers are not available in Japan as the non-Japanese corporations have yet to cater to the Japanese. "It's a matter of the Japanese travel agents getting together with the cruise lines and working something out."

In a business where profit is driven by on-ship revenue, companies "would make far more profit if they got the Japanese on board," Deering believes. "But they would have to work harder."

In addition to needing to provide for Japanese-language needs, they would also have to meet the Japanese "higher expectation level." Though Deering says he automatically places Japanese on the VIP list on his cruises so that they receive the service they would normally get in Japan, it's not what Americans expect or are offered, a sad truth he blames on the general decline in service in the U.S.

Deering himself has a long-standing love affair with Japan and all things Japanese, a love rooted in his 25 years spent living on San Francisco's Russian Hill. "I spent most of my time in Japan town." He first set eyes on Japan in 1972. "When I got off the plane in Haneda, I said, 'This is where I belong!' I was just enthralled. I have no idea why."

Now, he counts "all Japanese food," sake and the service mentality here as some of his greatest loves.

Time off the sea is now spent in Tokyo with his wife, Aileen Zevely, a fellow American, university English professor, and professional harpist. The two met while Zevely was performing . . . where else, but . . . on a cruise ship.

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