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Freestyle Cruising

Jim Abbas, Sr. Vice President of Casino Operations at Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. chats with Steve Karoul

Jim, you have been with Norwegian Cruise Lines since 2008. You have created some really great casino experiences on board the ships that you oversee. Can you please tell our readers about yourself including past experience in the casino industry and how you migrated from land-based casinos to on-board casinos and what you feel are the big differences?

I originally broke into the industry as a craps dealer back in 1994 while I was finishing up my undergrad degree. After graduating with a BBA in Management Information Systems, I found myself looking to start a career in my major, which led me back to the casino industry. With a lot of hard work and support from great leaders, I quickly progressed in my career, reaching the position of vice president of information technology for a casino in Louisiana at a very young age. A few years passed and a gentleman I previously worked with asked me to work for him. We agreed that I would build a world class IT team for the property and, when I completed the assignment, I would be trained in casino-gaming operations so that I could further my career. I took quite a pay cut but I knew it was the right decision to achieve my long-term goals. Consequently, I started my career path overland worked my way up in the gaming ranks, where I eventually landed at Norwegian Cruise 

Line with a huge new challenge to revitalize and grow the fleet’s entire casino division. Upon first entering the cruise-line industry I realized that I needed to change my perspective on gaming. No longer was gambling the dominant force as in most land-based facilities. Instead, we were an international resort and destination company which offers casinos to a broad mix of international guests who are primarily on board for a vacation to lavish and exotic locations.

Demographics on board constantly change, the facility moves on a daily basis, and the guest-repeat rate is measured in years versus months or, in many cases, days for local casinos. One of the largest differences between land and on-board casinos are the team members. We have team members from over 50 different nations. These folks are simply amazing; you will not find a better group of people with a passion for delivering outstanding service. Many of our customers come to our ships as our guests and leave us as family.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is one of the market leaders in an incredibly competitive industry. What are some of the key factors that differentiate your on-board casinos from those of competitors as well as from land-based casino operations?

When we redesigned casino operations at Norwegian, and now Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises as well, we focused on delivering a product that our guests want. One item that I found frustrating was the fact that each ship delivered a completely different casino experience. The gaming product and technology of each casino was based on the age of the ship. To resolve this inherent challenge, we made it our top priority to create a consistent gaming experience on all of our ships. To accomplish this goal, we invested heavily in new slot machines and player-tracking systems. In fact, we are the first cruise line in the industry to have a player-tracking system whereby players can choose the language to which they would like to communicate. This same philosophy we are now porting over to the Oceania and Regent Seven Seas brands as we make significant investments into their facilities to make them the most luxurious in the upper-premium and luxury-cruise segments.

Today, it does not matter if you are sailing on a brand-new cruise ship, or one that’s been in the fleet for 10 or even 15 years, if you are traveling on one of our brands, you can expect the same great gaming experience.

We didn’t stop with gaming product and technology. We went the extra mile by adding multiple casino hosts on each and every Norwegian ship to support our best-in-class player-loyalty program, Casinos at Sea. Our program is very similar to the most sought-after casino-loyalty programs offered by land-based casinos. Our guests are rewarded by earning points on both slots and table games whereby guests can earn rewards such as complimentary cabins, spa treatments, and shore excursions. Points are earned on all of our ships and very soon our guests will be able to combine their points to elevate their Casinos at Sea tier in an enhanced program being launched in 2017.

Can you tell our readers about your casino marketing organization? How is it structured and where are your primary target markets for casino players as opposed to general tourists? Is there a difference as to how you treat players from casino co-op programs, casino Junkets or from house accounts?

While there are many elements of our program that are proprietary and I’m not able to share, I can certainly say that we treat all of our guests equally based on their play, regardless of how they come to us.

NCL has worked closely now with the German ship builder Meyer Werft over recent years and the relationship continues to grow. How has their experience as a premier shipbuilding company helped you with customer satisfaction?

Meyer Werft is a great, family run organization that takes great pride in the ships they build. We work closely with the architects and the yard to design our casinos from scratch. We have spent countless hours educating each other to build the best casinos in the industry. Our casinos feel spacious, have the widest selection of slots and table games available and have features that allow us to adjust the layout to meet the constantly changing products that our guests want to play during their vacation.

I have actually been on a NCL cruise with my wife who is a pretty good slot player. We both enjoyed the casino and were very impressed with the professionalism and friendly customer service. We also enjoyed the “Free Style Cruising” concept along with the “Resort Casual” atmosphere. How do you maintain such high service standards across a large fleet of ships located in so many different parts of the world? And, along the same line, how do you monitor all of your casinos? What are the key metrics that require constant review and are these different from those in a land-based casino?

Our team members on the ships are simply amazing. With more than 50 nationalities working with us, we are a melting pot of experiences and personalities.

We hire only the best and at every level we instil a customer service culture to ensure that our guests have an exceptional time on their vacation. Each ship is evaluated based on the results of their guest-satisfaction score cards, and we have a friendly competition between the ships. I do know that a few of our managers have even challenged their counterparts on other ships on their guest service scores, pushing each to do better.

Norwegian’s signature Freestyle Cruising resonates with those who enjoy gambling. Many gamblers are leaders within their fields and free thinkers. They like the openness of our dining programs where you can eat when you want, where you want and with whom you want. If you are having a good run on blackjack, that last thing you want to be thinking about is whether or not you are going to miss your dinner. It’s the ideal atmosphere for guests who enjoy gaming.

Being a market leader is difficult but expanding market share can be even more difficult. Can you tell us anything about future plans for NCL in addition to Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruise Lines?

In the past year, we have spent a significant amount of time and money updating the casinos on all three brands. With the Norwegian Edge™, a $400 million investment program across our fleet of 14 ships, we are bringing forth a new level of guest experience with enhanced products and experiences on all of our ships, including the casinos. In 2017, Norwegian Joy, our newest ship, designed and built specifically for China, will have its inaugural cruise sailing out of Shanghai. These new ships sailing on brand-new itineraries will dramatically increase our marketable audience, allowing us to continue leading the way within our industry.

If you had to pick only one story to tell what would be the funniest or most unusual thing that has happened during your tenure at one of the NCL casinos?

The tale of a $1,000 coffee: Sailing around the world creates a unique set of technological and operational issues, as one of our fleet managers found out the hard way. This fleet manager was heading out to perform a ship visit to meet with the on-board casino manager and their team. After flying to the port of call, he headed to the ship. On his way to the ship he spotted a nice coffee shop with a beautiful ocean view just minutes from the port. He checked his watch; it was 4:50 p.m. local time and ship was leaving at six, so he decided to partake. While sitting enjoying a nice cup of coffee looking out to the dark-blue ocean, his ship sailed by to its next exotic location. What he had not realized is that the ship was not using local time. Because ships change many time zones during their travels, they don’t always change to the local time zone - this is referred to as ship’s time. What started out as a ship visit, turned into a $1,000 cup of coffee.


Jim, on behalf of Casino Life Magazine, I want thank you for your time and also thank you for sharing so many interesting stories and experiences about yourself and about Norwegian Cruise Lines with our readers. Many of our readers are experienced cruisers and gamers so this interview will be of great interest to them. We also want to wish you much success and good luck with all of your new projects and new ships that are currently being built. Safe sailing and continue to “Cruise like a Norwegian” with your unique “Free Style Cruising” concept.

Steve Karoul is a recognized casino consultant with over 37 years of hands-on experience with the best casinos both within the United States and internationally. He is also expert in all aspects of casino marketing. Steve has lived in numerous countries and has conducted casino marketing activities in well over 100 countries around the world. He is an author, a lecturer and an educator who often injects his own hands on experiences and openly shares his ideas and thoughts with fellow industry executives.

Telephone + (1-860) 536-1828 or skaroul@euroasiacasino.com or see www.euroasiacasino.com