Embarking on a new adventure in marine operations

Rebecca Gibson asks Jethro Beck about his new marine operations role at American Queen Voyages and the challenges facing river cruise operators

Embarking on a new adventure in marine operations

Born and raised in Scotland, Jethro Beck began his maritime career at the age of 16 as an engineering apprentice on an LNG tanker out of Brunei, Borneo.

Over the past two decades, Beck has captained vessels for Holland America, Shell Oil and Global Marine Systems. and served in marine leadership positions for Holland America Group, Carnival Corporation and ultra-luxury start-up The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. In January 2022, he started a new venture as vice president of marine operations for American Queen Voyages, taking responsibility for the nautical, technical, compliance, safety and security operations of its river cruise fleet.  

Why did you take the new role?  

Growing up in the tiny village of Strathy in the far north of Scotland, I can tell you river cruising is not what I first thought of when I embarked on a career at sea. However, I’ve been following the evolution of American Queen Steamboat Company – now American Queen Voyages – since before I moved to the USA, so I was thrilled when the company approached me regarding this role. While I’m sad to leave an amazing team at The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, this role at American Queen Voyages affords me the opportunity to immerse myself in a new division of overnight cruising that I’ve previously only seen from afar. I’ll now get to work with exceptionally talented professionals, both onboard and ashore, who have been extremely welcoming. So, in essence, I get to learn something new, travel to the most beautiful parts of America and work with amazing people, all while getting paid. It’s a win-win!  

How have your previous roles at other cruise organisations and captaining ships helped to prepare you for this new position?  

While my tenures at Carnival Corporation (Holland America Group) and The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection were very different in several ways, yet they both had one thing in common – they were both periods of great personal and professional growth.  

After having spent my entire career at sea, my position as director of marine operations for Holland America Group was my first foray into shore-based vessel management. A few months after my wife and I moved to Seattle to take that position, Holland America (which already had Seabourn in shared management) merged with Princess Cruises and P&O Australia to form Holland America Group under the parent umbrella of Carnival Corporation, very similar to the recent merger of American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines as part of Hornblower. The multiple-brand and shared-services approach to vessel management, the evolution of robust compliance, and world-class training programmes are the major experiences that have prepared me well to take on this new position. 

The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, on the other hand, exposed me to the business side of vessel management. Reporting directly to CEO Douglas Prothero and being part of the executive team there really allowed me to graduate from thinking about daily operations into thinking long-term business strategy. Of course, The Ritz-Carlton name is synonymous with ultra-luxury and exceptional service, and I was lucky enough to work very closely with the hotel operations team at The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. My time spent with the exceptionally bright, industry-leading talent over there really took my understanding of hotel operations, and guest experience, to another level. 

Having held command in my previous position, I can bring an elevated level of understanding of the unique burden of responsibility ship captains bear in their daily operations. I have also gained my Steam and Motor 3rd Engineer Licenses, helping me negotiate the more unusual elements of vessel operations. 

Can you give us an insight into the daily tasks of a vice president of marine operations and whether they have changed since the pandemic? 

I’ve been asked what marine operations is over the years and it’s not an easy answer to put in a box. On any single day, I can be involved with any issue that arises from the realms of nautical, technical, safety, security, environmental protection, port operations, human resources, recruiting, maintenance, guest experience, emergency response and more. But the tasks we complete on a daily basis can be summarised into two simple statements: deal with whatever just happened, and do whatever is necessary today to make operations successful in the future. 

When it comes to Covid-19, we’ve had to remain nimble with the flux in protocols and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. As with most of the country, staffing challenges arise due to isolation requirements, social distancing and personal protection guidelines mean adjustments to operating processes and procedures. Travel disruptions trickle down to affect project management targets while supply chain issues left unchecked can affect onboard operations. The good news is it’s all manageable, and the management of communicable disease and illness has always been part of operating a vessel. For a long time, cruise vessels have had stringent operating and reporting requirements for influenza-like illnesses and norwalk-like viruses, for example. 

What are some of the biggest nautical, technical, compliance, safety and security challenges facing river cruise operators?   

One of the biggest challenges we face is retaining young talent. When you operate vessels which are either lower in tonnage or lower in propulsion power than the regulations require for license upgrades, it becomes challenging to retain young officers who are hungry for professional growth. However, that hunger and desire for self-improvement is exactly the type of personality trait we look for in passenger operations. 

The second is river congestion. It’s clear river cruising is a growing market and is experiencing increased popularity akin to the situation we faced while I was involved with International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators and the Antarctic expedition market. There’s already a great amount of mutual respect and understanding amongst, and between, river cruise operators and the ports we visit. With the projected future number of vessels operating on the rivers, we’re going to have to use that understanding to find some creative solutions to make sure we can all offer first-class port experiences to our guests. 

What are your top priorities for helping American Queen Voyages overcome these issues? 

Although there are many similarities in how river cruises operate, there are some fundamental differences, so my short-term goal is to absorb as much knowledge as I can to ensure I’m as valuable as possible to the organisation. Another short-term priority is to successfully complete our current plan for off-season lay-ups, which are golden opportunities that you don’t get in ocean cruising. Having a successful return to service is a key. 

In the mid and long term, it’s all about ‘value’. A common theory of success in business is that an organisation must create and/or capture value in order to be successful. Cruise lines, for example, create value by offering a product for which guests are willing to pay a premium, and the goal is to capture some of that value in the form of profits from ticket sales. If we approach all elements of our business with that mindset, we’ll ultimately be successful. 

The definition of value is fluid in this case, but the principle applies. With this perspective, some areas for exploration are creating value for our crew members through improved training and professional development programmes, risk mitigation and process standardisation, and increased operating efficiencies. We also want to create shared value with our competition through long-term strategic port planning. The use of existing and emerging technology, and the analysis of data, will play a big part in how we move forward in marine operations. The goal for marine operations is to use modern technology to aid in data-informed decision-making, allowing us to provide safe, secure, efficient, and environmentally sound experiences for our guests and crew – all while retaining the rich heritage, legacy and traditions that keep them returning year after year.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
04 April 2022

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