John Heald, Carnival Cruise Lines’ senior cruise director
Carnival Cruise Lines
John Heald, Carnival Cruise Lines’ senior cruise director, has become the most famous cruise director since Julie McCoy of “Love Boat” TV fame. Except John’s not on TV. His blog, boasting thousands of readers, has changed the way cruise lines interact with their customers by building online communities.
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 5/6/2008 6:38:50 PM ET 2008-05-06T22:38:50

It’s hard to keep up with John Heald, Carnival Cruise Lines’ senior cruise director. Not only is he the most popular guy on the ship, but he’s also the most famous cruise director since Julie McCoy of “Love Boat” TV fame. Except John’s not on TV, he’s taking the Internet by storm with his blog.

In his blog, Heald answers questions from readers and offers travel tips and photos of various ports of call. However, the big draw Heald says is the “emotional rollercoaster” of life on a cruise ship — both on deck and behind the scenes. No other cruise line has ever attempted this up close and personal interaction between crew members and cruisers. Clearly, Carnival’s gamble has paid off.

Mr. Popular
Until you’ve walked the deck of a cruise ship with John Heald you haven’t experienced what it’s like to be really popular.

“John, John!” a woman shouts. She runs up to him, giving him a big hug telling him how great a time she and her husband are having. More people come over and before you know it’s a crowd of dozens. Another gent puts out his hand and gives John a pat on the back, “Great show. We’re having the time of our lives.”

On and on it goes. John stops and chats with his “guests.”

It takes John over twenty minutes to walk with me from Carnival Freedom’s Victoriana Show Lounge at the bow of the ship to the stern to the comfy confines of the Habana Bar, where he plops his exhausted body into a plush leather wingback chair. He orders his usual Diet Coke and pulls out a Cuban cigar finally in total relaxation mode. “It’s like that all the time,” he chuckles. Indeed, nobody can work a cruise ship like John Heald.

As I interview him, a man comes in the bar and yells “John” – I couldn’t help but think of Norm from Cheers. Indeed, everyone knows John’s name on the ship and now off the ship thanks to his blog or as John calls it the “blog thingy.”

Carnival’s blog bonanza
The blog was originally launched as part of the Carnival Freedom’s inaugural European cruise season. Heald’s engaging personality and candid commentary proved so popular that he continued writing the blog, which celebrated its one year anniversary last month. It continues to set new milestones, with the number of total page views approaching two million and daily visitors increasing 55 percent in April.

“No one ever thought that was what was intended to be a several-month long exercise to help us introduce the Carnival Freedom last year would turn into a blogging phenomenon. John’s blog has taken on a life of its own,” says Gerry Cahill, Carnival Cruise Lines president and chief executive.

Indeed, the blog has spawned a “Bloggers Cruise” of all things. In January, Heald hosted the first cruise on Carnival Freedom that attracted more than 800 of Heald’s biggest fans. The success of that cruise has led to the second annual “John Heald’s Bloggers Cruise” aboard the Carnival Fantasy from New Orleans February 7-12, 2009.

All this online success has not gone unnoticed by Carnival’s competitors. Holland America, Cruise West, Majestic America Line, and Lindblad Expeditions now have their own blogs where cruise enthusiasts can learn all kinds of behind-the-scenes from building new ships to daily cruise logs. Still, none has come close to John’s success.

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Blog buddies
What’s been the biggest surprise to John has been the continuing popularity of the blog while he’s not cruising. “I am shocked that people are still interested in what I do while I am off the ship,” he laughs. “This wasn’t what it was supposed to be about.”

Case in point: Heald’s humorous daily reports of his recent trips to Denmark and Finland to research shore excursion choices for the new Carnival Splendor’s inaugural Northern Europe cruises this summer was a hit. He will serve as that ship’s senior cruise director throughout its Northern Europe, Mediterranean and Caribbean programs.

The blog has not only managed to impress its readers but have turned them into active posters. “This blog ‘thingy’ has become part of daily life for many,” he says. “They have their cup of coffee while reading and post comments.” Clearly John’s blog has gone viral by tapping into cruise fans everywhere. His real life onboard experiences and candor in documenting them have been refreshing. A few months ago he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a neurological disorder that causes paralysis of the muscles on one side of the face, but it didn’t stop him from blogging. Indeed, it further endeared him with his blog buddies.

Ed and Pat Konefe of Michigan have even devoted their own blog to John’s blog and try to book most of their cruises with him. Robert and Suzanne Schneider of New Jersey have cruised Carnival 57 times; 40 of those cruises being with John. “John is the best cruise director we’ve sailed with,” says Robert. They too try to book all their cruises with him as cruise director. They are just two examples of the many fans that actually book cruises on Carnival because of John.

So, how long will John keep blogging? He had originally intended it to be only a few months; however, that all changed with the blog’s popularity. “I don’t see an end in sight,” he chuckles.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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