Alene Keenan knows from personal experience the challenges and rewards of working on a megayacht. She created Yacht Stew Solutions to help teach all aspects of service. From tea service to teamwork, and caviar and cheese service to confidentiality, Keenan stresses the key professional requirements. When she’s not teaching in the classroom or onboard, she’s imparting words of wisdom through her regular columns with the crew newspaper The Triton.
In this Leadership Series interview, Keenan explains how communication is the key to success in both owning and running a yacht. As she says, “If you are the captain, you can see what is going on. If you are a charter broker, you have feedback from your clients. If you are an owner, you have to tell us how we are doing and what you would like us to do differently.” She also gives great insight into how owners and their captains can improve standards of service across the board.
Q: You spent nearly two decades as a stewardess. What are some of the biggest lessons you learned in that role?
A: Some of the biggest lessons I learned are:
- There are amazing people in the yachting world, including owners, guests, captains, and crew. We work really hard and make a lot of personal sacrifices, but we get to have an unusual and privileged lifestyle. I finally found a career where I get paid to be “dysfunctional,” and I get to travel. I don’t think I will ever be normal again.
- I truly believe that service is the highest calling there is, and that if you can do something that adds value to the lives of others, you can’t go wrong. Some days will be really great, and some days will be not so great, but overall, it is splendid. Every person you touch can go forward and touch someone else.
- I was on a yacht in New York City on September 11, 2001, and that day changed my life forever. I saw leadership in action in a way that I could never have imagined, and ever since then I have wanted to be a true leader and to serve to the highest degree. We were there for weeks afterwards, and had the opportunity to help every day, in some way. I will never be able to erase the picture in my mind of all those firemen climbing up all those steps in full gear…talk about being called to serve!
- Learning never ends. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Q: What convinced you to create Yacht Stew Solutions? After all, there are multiple crew-training programs worldwide, so did you see something missing from those programs?
A: I just have a different perspective, and I am passionate about training. My first job on a yacht was with Donna McBride for four years, who later went on to create the American Yacht Institute, so I couldn’t have had a better experience starting out. The only formal training I had was with the Sacks Group in the early 90s, and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a butler. I have read everything I can get my hands on since then, and it all comes out in my training at some point.
I like to teach people to have autonomy and to find some purpose in their life and their work. For the most part, I think people will try to master their work, given the right encouragement. Eventually, I think we could make the world a little bit of a better place. But then I always was an optimist…
Q: How has Yacht Stew Solutions evolved since its founding? For example, do you find yourselves offering more behavior-specific training versus meal-service training? What about the ever-growing international aspect of yachting: Do you offer more cultural-understanding training these days?
A: Every training session is unique, but it is always about service standards and expectations. What standard of service is expected? And what could be improved about the delivery system?
If there are problems onboard, someone has to define them. If you are the captain, you can see what is going on. If you are a charter broker, you have feedback from your clients. If you are an owner, you have to tell us how we are doing and what you would like us to do differently. If you can’t tell us what you want, how can we deliver your dream?
In my management classes, I find that most of the time stews have a vast body of knowledge, but it is not organized into a system. Stews don’t always have a lot of empirical data to work with. A lot of our work revolves around soft skills and concepts that are hard to quantify. It has to become intuitive.
As for the international aspect, I love teaching International Protocol and the various styles of service. I have had a lot of students from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, for some reason, and it is so interesting to have them all in the same room exchanging information and asking questions. I am very interested in different perspectives and work ethics. I am excited about learning more about China. I think it is the next emerging market.
Q: Yacht Stew Solutions offers multiple-day curriculum choices. Are these taught in a classroom setting, or do you ever tailor packages onboard yachts?
A: Yacht Stew Solutions has many training options available. Actually, I prefer to do training onboard, because then we are creating a team and they are using the actual tools they have to work with. It makes so much more sense than trying to get time off one by one to attend classes. It is cost effective as well. I love doing workshops and seminars because a lot of people can get training for not so much money. I am developing courses to take online as well. As for certification, there are no requirements at this time, but we are working on that. I would like to see people get credit for their hard work and life skills. And I would like to commend those who take the initiative to get training, often at their own expense and on their vacation time.
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