Norwegian Cruise Line boss Kevin Sheehan says going undercover transformed his view of the company. He spoke to Ian Taylor ahead of his speech at The Travel Convention next week

Reality TV can curse a company’s image as easily as prove a blessing. Yet Norwegian Cruise Line chief executive Kevin Sheehan is so positive about his experience on Undercover Bossin the US that he will be at Abta’s Travel Convention in Turkey next week to talk about it.

Sheehan says: “I was new to the industry when I did the show so it was a great chance to get under the skin of the company and see the work the crew do. We instituted a bunch of programmes and got significant improvements in guest satisfaction as a result.”

He spent several days as a crew member on Norwegian’s Pride of America sailing around Hawaii, and more time on Norwegian Epic.

On each, he says: “I spent a day as a deckhand, another day cleaning cabins and toilets, and a day with dining room staff – and I made a mess of everything. I failed miserably at all the tasks.

“We had a ruse to explain the camera crew. I was presented as a person competing for a job as part of a show. We were rated on each task. My hair and beard were dyed.

“It was hysterical at times. By accident I served dinner to a group of people who knew me, and they didn’t recognise me.”

Sheehan found a difference in the way the ships were run. “Pride of America was launched in 2006 and everything was routine.

Epic cruise boss learns from time on deckwas new and feeling its way,” he says. Also, the crews differed because Pride of America sails only around Hawaii.

“By law, a significant portion of the Pride of America crew are American,” says Sheehan.

“It’s different to any other ship in the industry.” The Epic crew were more multinational.

Sheehan says he was struck by the need to ensure the right diets for crew from diverse backgrounds.

It also made him think about “the quality of their lives off duty”. He recalls: “Walking around one ship, I was amazed to see everyone recognise this one crew member, and the crew remembering everyone’s name. It gave me a sharper appreciation of the crew.”

As a result: “We made a lot of changes. For example, there was an ice skating rink at the top of Norwegian Epic that had to be set up every evening. There were hundreds of pieces, each weighing 70lbs, and women crew members doing it. It was back-breaking work and a disaster in my view. We discontinued it.”

The Undercover Boss programme aired in the US in September 2010. Sheehan says he had seen nothing before it went out.

Fortunately, he says: “It was a smashing success. We got 10,000 letters and emails from guests following the show. It has been shown several times since. Every time it airs, things pick up nicely.”

Unfortunately, this has not been enough to counter wider difficulties in the market.

First there was what he refers to as “the tragedy in Italy”: the Concordia disaster in January.

“The timing was horrible. It happened in the peak of the peak. It had a pretty significant effect.”

Then the euro crisis and wider economic woe came on top.

Yet Sheehan says: “The industry has been through difficult times before and returned to form because of the fundamentals: cruising is phenomenal value. The UK has been tougher, but I’m cautiously optimistic the market is beginning to turn.”

One reason for his optimism is the launch of new ship Norwegian Breakawayin May. He says the ship will “stop traffic” when it sails into New York.

Kevin Sheehan will speak at Abta’s Travel Convention in Belek, Turkey, on October 10.