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The first thing you need to know about John Chernesky, senior vice president of North America sales and trade marketing for Princess Cruises, is that he often does professional presentations with a puppet that bears a striking resemblance to himself.
That’s just one example of Chernesky’s unusual approach — and the way he approaches life with a robust sense of humor. All these qualities, and more, help make him one of the most popular cruise industry personalities.
In this episode of Humans of Travel, sponsored by Princess Cruises, Kenneth Shapiro (Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TravelAge West) steps in for Emma Weissmann to chat with Chernesky about his childhood, parenting his twin sons and how much he values travel. He also discusses the dark days at the start of the pandemic, his affinity for “The Love Boat,” cruising’s outlook for 2022 and experiencing MedallionClass Technology onboard a Princess Cruises ship.
And, of course, the origins of the puppet.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
Princess' Agent Portal
In This Episode
2:00: Why does John do his sales presentations with a puppet?
7:30: How did John find his way to Princess Cruises?
12:00: What it was like, on a personal level, for John to be behind the scenes during what had to be one of the worst times for the company during the pandemic?
14:10: How are things looking for cruising heading into next year?
17:00: What is MedallionClass Technology?
21:00 What is Princess' new option for group travel?
24:00 How can travel advisors connect with John on Facebook?
Kenneth Shapiro: [00:00:37] Hello, everyone. I'm Ken Shapiro, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TravelAge West. And I'm filling in for Emma Weissmann on this special episode of Humans of Travel, the podcast where we have honest conversations with the MVPs and rising stars of the travel industry, while getting to the heart of who they are as people — and what makes them human.
But don't worry. Emma will be back for the next episode. [00:01:00] Today, it's my honor to welcome a special guest to Humans of Travel. The quote I'm about to read is from his actual professional bio, and I think it gives you a good idea of what we're in for today. “John Chernesky is the senior vice president north America sales and trade marketing at Princess Cruises. Given John's actual work performance and limited intellect, no one is more surprised by that lofty title than John, known throughout the industry for being painfully dry and devoid of any enthusiasm. If you need to catch up on sleep, we highly recommend joining John for this podcast. So, you can take a nap, not while driving. Of course, John promises to talk quietly, but maybe, just maybe, he'll say something that makes you think differently about your business. If that happens, then you promise to only sell Princess Cruises for the rest of your career. Do we have a deal?
So, John is joining us from Santa Clarita, California. Welcome, John.
[00:01:56] John Chernesky: Thank you, Ken. Good to be here. And, yeah, that's our attempt at being humorous.
[00:02:00] Kenneth Shapiro: Well, that's a heck of a bio, but I think it certainly shows that, you know, you tend to lead with humor, which I love. So, okay. Let's cover the important stuff first. There are probably a lot of people in our audience who have seen you do a presentation accompanied by a puppet that bears a resemblance to you. Where did the idea for the puppet come from, and what is the general reaction?
[00:02:20] John Chernesky: So, when we launched the Sky Princess, we had a partnership with the Jim Henson creature shop to do a life-size puppet show, essentially in one of the show lounges. And so we worked with that team, and with John Tartaglia, who's the creative director, to help build a show. And part of the promotion we thought was, “Well, let's create a puppet for one of our employees, and who is the most ridiculous employee that would get full bang for the buck out of this thing? Cause this is a handcrafted — I mean — God knows how much does that cost.
[00:02:54] Kenneth Shapiro: I was going to say, it's not a, it's not a sock puppet for anyone who has seen it. This is a really well done piece of art, really.
[00:03:00] John Chernesky: Yeah. A really high quality… So, they did a whole 360 images of me. And one of the stories goes, I wasn't in the boardroom at the time, but, our creative director was reviewing the stills of the puppet and somebody walked behind them and looked on the laptop. I think it was Jan, actually, our president at the time. And she said, “Is that John?” And so clearly it looks enough like me to be dangerous, but yeah, I got to learn how to use the puppet from John Tartaglia, who is a legend of puppeteering. And let me tell you something. If you've never tried to work a puppet, it is an art and the talent of those artisans to do what they do. I’m super impressed. So I just have fun with it. That's the story behind the puppet.
[00:03:35] Kenneth Shapiro: That's great. What kind of reaction have you gotten from travel advisors and other people when you pull out the puppet?
[00:03:40] John Chernesky: Oh, they love it. And it's just … like it's one thing to have a bobblehead, which of course I do. But it's another thing to have a puppet because it is a really impressive physical demonstration. It's got the big forehead, like I've got, it's got the stupid haircut. I mean, yeah, it's me in a public forum.
[00:03:58] Kenneth Shapiro: and I'll tell you, it really does differentiate yourself. Like when we've done events where, you know, [it’s] sort of a talking head in a box, the talking head in a box, the talking head in a box, and a puppet!
[00:04:07] John Chernesky: it stands out for sure. Yeah, it's fun.
[00:04:11] Kenneth Shapiro: That’s awesome. So well, tell us a little bit about your first job when you were growing up, or your first job out of school, and maybe what you learned from that, that you take with you today.
[00:04:22] John Chernesky: Oh, you know, I think the most valuable, I mean, when I was a kid, I was mowing lawns. I was babysitting. Who would put me in charge of their kids? It’s a mind boggling thing to consider, but I was a babysitter for awhile, (and I) bagged groceries. You know, got out of college. I was a waiter/bartender during college. And then after school, after college, I joined Princess, but I think the job I had during college as a waiter really taught me the value of service, right?
And what, you know … something I will have my kids do is be in a position where you just have to serve somebody. And that means everybody. And not everybody is nice to serve. Right? You've learned the lessons of life and you learn the values of hard work and being you know, supportive and following through and proactive and all the things that go into that I think has been a great foundation for me in my whole career.
[00:05:16] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, definitely. You know, it's something I'm learning now, because my daughter is a senior in high school … actually at college, recruiters are looking for that, that kind of experience, because so few kids really have that real world, you know, just like working at an ice cream shop, or a waiter, or whatever, so it is very valuable, I think.
[00:05:32] John Chernesky: And it's a good reminder of — what do you want to do for the rest of your life? You may want to be a waiter for the rest of your life. That's totally fine. Awesome. Good for you. But if you don't, you'll realize it's hard job. You're on your feet. It's terrible hours. People are rude to you. And so, you may want to study a little harder in college or in school, or whatever, to try and give yourself an advantage or figure something else out that you want to do.
[00:05:53] Kenneth Shapiro: So true. Did you travel a lot growing up? I mean, did you always know that you were going to work in the travel industry?
[00:06:00] John Chernesky: Yeah, not so much. I, you know, when I was a kid, my dad was in the Navy, and so I was actually born in Hawaii and I lived there for seven years and have such great memories of being a little kid in Hawaii. I don't think I wore shoes for seven years. And then moved to Northern Virginia and realized what snow was.
So I moved around a lot, every two to three years as a kid, with my dad in the Navy. It's kind of ironic that I ended up in the cruise industry and on our ships in Los Angeles and San Pedro Harbor. There's the battleship Iowa that sits there right next to where all the ships come in, and that's now a museum for the Iowa.
And my dad was on that ship. I was a 14-, 15-year-old kid when he was the executive officer, and I was on the ship for two days and the guns were blasting off and full service. Here I am, hosting travel advisors on ships that are in LA and the battleship’s right there. So, I definitely never thought I'd go into the travel industry.
That was never a plan. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I still don't and I just, I love travel and I've certainly traveled more abroad as an adult than I ever did as a kid. I mean, travel for us as a kid was driving to see family, you know, for the holidays or something. And so getting into this industry and my kids now are 15 twin boys, and we counted it up. They've done 13 cruises. And I never did a cruise other than on a battleship until I was a grown adult and paid for myself. So little different upbringing. Yeah.
[00:07:20] Kenneth Shapiro: That's incredible. So did you watch “The Love Boat” as a young man?
[00:07:25] John Chernesky: Oh, of course, of course.
[00:07:27] Kenneth Shapiro: How did you find your way to Princess?
[00:07:29] John Chernesky: You know, it was right out of college. was, I went to school at Miami University in Ohio — the Miami University — and my stepmother was living in LA with my dad, and saw an advertisement in the LA Times back when you would look in the newspaper for job adverts right? Or classified ads. And there was a posting for a job, and I was looking for a job. I was a marketing major. This was in the hotel team. I had nothing in my background with hotel services, which was the position, and I convinced them to hire me. And here we are. It's amazing. And so, yeah, “The Love Boat” was a huge part of my childhood. “The Love Boat,” “Charlie's Angels,” you know, “Fantasy Island,” all that kind of stuff. And to think I ended up hanging out and being friends with Gavin McCloud and the Captain Stubing and getting to know him on a personal level was just surreal. And I loved every second talking with him, and I miss him cause he passed away obviously earlier.
[00:08:19] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah. Yeah. That's incredible. So you mentioned that you have you have kids — two boys. So, at the height of the pandemic, you wrote a great article for TravelAge West and it was called Travel Is Dead — Or is it? And you talked about traveling with your kids. And I just wanted to read a little bit of that story right now. You said, "But let me ask a fundamental question. Is it worth it? Should we care enough to salvage our industry or should we just let it wilt on the vine while all of us look for a new career path. Is travel dead? I would argue that travel is the most powerful of antidotes for what ails our society. And it is the most powerful way to bridge the gap of cultural differences.” That's very good stuff, John. Can you talk about some of the ideas in that article?
[00:09:00] John Chernesky: Well, just from personal experience and you know this, Ken, you go and you travel the world and if you visit a different country or you meet somebody here that is from a different country, and you just have a conversation with them, and you share ideas, and you share background and stories, and some are tragic, some are just joyous, and whatever it is, you just grow as a person, I think, experiencing that. And so. You know, having taken my kids to Japan as an example, and for them to experience that culture and to go into it with eyes wide open and learn about the culture and the history and the traditions and being respectful of those, it just makes my kids better people, I think, and makes me a better person every time I travel.
And so I just (think) that the more isolated we are as people, the worse off we become. And it's just, it's that old age of, you know, breaking bread with somebody. There's a great quote by Anthony Bourdain, which I won't, I don't have it memorized, but he basically says, :I don't care who you are. I don't care what your politics are.
I don't care. Whatever, as long as you can sit down and have a civil conversation and let's break bread and have a meal, you can find some common ground.” And I think that just goes a long way. And that's one of the beauties of travel is that you get those experiences.
[00:10:13] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah. For sure. Have you been able to see that in your, your boys just how they develop when they're traveling with you?
[00:10:19] John Chernesky: I like to think so. I think they're very respectful and that transfers to life here and, you know, and I hear from other people, other adults, and you know, “your kids are really respectful, and they're really nice.” And I just makes me feel great. And I don't know where that comes from. If it's not me, it's my wife.
But is that because of travel and they've been on, all these trips, I don't know, but I just feel like it adds to the experience. And I'll tell you, one thing that I think is super important is the art of having a dinner conversation and knowing how to be served and to treat the servers and to interact with them and be polite.
And as having been a waiter, I'm like, listen, don't piss off the person. That's your waiter, right? The other day, pardon my French there, but it's those little things of how you interact and how you carry on conversation, I think could become a lost art. And so, the more we do that with strangers, the better.
[00:11:10] Kenneth Shapiro: Absolutely. Well, okay. We need to take a short break now, but we'll be right back to hear more from John Chaneski after this word from our sponsor
[00:11:48] Kenneth Shapiro: I'm Ken Shapiro, and this is a special episode of Humans of Travel. We're back now with John, senior vice president at Princess Cruises. John, the cruise industry took a lot of heat at the start of [00:12:00] the pandemic, unfairly, in my personal opinion. What was it like on a personal level for you to being behind the scenes during what had to be one of the worst times for your company?
[00:12:11] John Chernesky: You know, it, it seems like 10 years ago that the start of this happened, even though it's only been 18, 19 months, whatever it is. And so, I think back to it and it feels like, wow, that's a different lifetime, but I have to say what was definitely challenging clearly what was rewarding about it was how — we have always said it (at) Princess, that we are a family and we treat each other as we would our family as best we can, you know, it’s a company at the end of the day, but we do what we can. And I've been at the company over 29 years. And there are people that have been there longer. And so that tenure tells you something.
And we really bonded together. I think as a team as we were basically fighting to survive. We had to do everything we could to take care of our shipboard team. Any guests that were still onboard when we had to cancel all of our cruises and get them home. And I felt like everybody just rolled up their sleeves and did [00:13:00] jobs they didn't get hired to do.
And, and through that, I would say, I personally learned a lot about very different things, like new elements of the business that I didn't ever have an interest in, and suddenly you're involved in it and it's like, wow, I'm learning something. So that was kind of cool, but you know, we, we survived it and we grew stronger from it. And the teamwork and the comradery, you just can't replace that.
[00:13:21] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, for sure. And I know I've seen you interact with your, competitors and you have your sister brands. Did it bring all of you guys close?
[00:13:30] John Chernesky: You know, we were already pretty close, but without question that made us closer.
And it was that you've all been through that experience, and you can't help but feel a bond because of it that you survived it together. And I think my colleagues and other brands that are competitive brands, we're all friends and it's a very collegiate atmosphere. And it just has gotten even, even tighter
[00:13:52] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, I can feel that when I, when I see you guys all together and everything. And I think one day there's going to be, a great book may be written about how the [00:14:00] cruise industry responded to this, because I do think that there's a untold story there about that. So, we'll wait for that one. Maybe that's what I'll do in my retirement.
[00:14:08] John Chernesky: There you go.
[00:14:10] Kenneth Shapiro: So, how are things looking for cruising heading into next year?
[00:14:14] John Chernesky: Yeah, things for positive. I mean, we're very encouraged by the booking trends. Obviously we all heard about pent-up demand and people have missed opportunities to travel and they're taking advantage of that.
And there's always you know, I think going forward, we're going to have to deal with. Is there a vaccination requirement? And, how do I fly from the U.S. to Europe? What does that mean for testing? And so people are going to have to do a little bit more work, but I think having now myself been on four cruises in the last three and a half months, mostly for work, once you get there, it's totally worth it.
And so I think the value proposition of a cruise has never been more apparent to me. The service levels are off the charts, compared to some land-based options. I truly believe that we give the best bang for the buck. And the experience you have is [00:15:00] second to none. And health and safety standards are the highest of any travel option right now. They've always been really, really high, and we've kind of had a bad rap and people's misperceptions because it gets reported in the way it does. And the reality is we take health and safety, I think, more stringently than anybody. And nonetheless, the experience. When you get out to the destination, connecting with your family and friends and having fun in a foreign place you just can't beat it.
[00:15:24] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah. And are the bookings coming back, that it feels strong next year and beyond?
[00:15:30] John Chernesky: I do. And I think, you know, we, we've opened up more cruises than we've ever published this far out. So you can book anything in 2022, as well as all of 2023. And that the demand we're seeing is really strong, especially for key markets for us, you know, we're, we're in Brandon, Alaska as you know, and that's a huge area of focus for us and bookings are very strong.
Europe is off the charts because people haven't been able to go there, and world cruises. I mean, that you've seen it across the industry. These world cruises that are selling out because people have [00:16:00] missed the chance and, you know, the typical person who is old enough and wealthy enough to afford a world cruise.
They don't have another 60 years left on this planet probably, and they just want to get it done and tick that box and say, they've done the world cruise. And that demand is a tremendous.
[00:16:15] Kenneth Shapiro: For sure. Well, you mentioned some destinations. Are there any that are your personal favorite or a destination that you feel is a real must for travel?
[00:16:23] John Chernesky: Oh, well, a lady I work with, Crystal, she runs our deployment planning, and she's traveled the world and she gets asked this question a lot: What's your favorite? And she's always saying her next trip is her favorite. Cause she's looking forward to it. Clearly, I have affinity toward the last. You know, I've really enjoyed our trip to Japan.
Japan is just a magical country. To me. The culture is incredible. The service standards, the quality of the food, everything just off the charts and cruising is a great way to do it. And I've also been fortunate to cruise with my kids in French Polynesia, and that place is heaven on Earth. So listen, I would go with the next destination, so, but I've loved them all.
[00:16:59] Kenneth Shapiro: Definitely. So, I'm going to ask you about Princess's decision to invest in the MedallionClass technology, I think that was especially bold. Can you talk about what went into that, and also what the technology is like in practice today, and just a little bit for the people who maybe don't know what it is exactly?
[00:17:19] John Chernesky: Yeah. So MedallionClass is essentially a device that you get, which is a small quarter-size medallion that replaces your cruise card, and it's for everybody. So even though you hear the word class, you immediately think, oh, it's for only for suite guests. No, it's for everybody, no matter what cabin you're in or, or how much you pay, doesn't matter.
And it's really meant to transform the cruise experience by reducing any sort of friction points you might've had in the cruise experience. You don't have to wait in line for things, everything you can have … things come to you. It's essentially giving you more time back to enjoy your vacation that much more.
That's what it's really about. And there's all sorts of features, which we don't have time to go into. But that's really what I like to say. It's a time giver. It gives you back [00:18:00] some time, and the decision of having it across all the fleet … Before COVID hit, we were not sure how many ships it was going to be on.
We were rolling it out, and it's a huge undertaking to update the infrastructure, to support all the cabling and sensors and everything on the ship to make this happen. And once COVID hit, you know, we made the case that having this consistent across our fleet was the best message that we needed all of our crew to know, oh, if I go to this ship, it's not different than, you know what I mean?
It's like all the same from a behind the scenes standpoint and that it was a consistent message across, from a marketing perspective across our fleet, that this is what you're going to experience no matter what ship you're on. And so we've made an investment and as all of our ships come back in the water, they will all have MedallionClass.
And it's great. And I'm really lazy. My favorite feature is, well, I have two features that are my favorite. You can find people in your travel party, where are they on the ship? Wow. So, you can't find everybody. You can find all of the people that you're linked to. I can always know where my kids are. Why are they not in their cabin?... And then two, is you can have things delivered to you. So you can be in a lounge and order up some pizza and whatever your drink of choice is, and have it delivered to you. And even if you walk away and go to the next room, they'll find you and deliver it to you. So I just love that laziness of not having to get in line and having to go someplace to get something.
[00:19:18] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, I think it's really incredible that Princess decided to do this, and weren’t even sure, I think at the time, all the things that could be done with it. I don't know if you're still sure. Of all the things that could be done. It seems limitless in some way. But to make that investment is really impressive. And what's the reaction been from people? Cause I think you sort have to see it in action in order to understand that totally.
[00:19:39] John Chernesky: I think you're right. I think we can do our best and we try to explain it. But at the end of the day, if you live it and experience it, you really walk away and, and people have different reactions. I mean, some people just love the fact that you walk up your state room, door unlocks automatically, and it recognizes you more than anything. That's the favorite thing. It is cool, but I'd rather have, you know, alcohol and pizza delivered to me. So that's my personal thing. The reaction has been great though.
Before COVID, we had the ability to measure what is the net promoter score of that ship and each voyage, which of course is the ultimate measure of any business success. Would you recommend this product and service to your friends and family? And that the score, the net promoter score before, versus after the installation of a MedallionClass, went up double digits. And so, I think that's a pretty good testimony.
[00:20:24] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, definitely. So we've talked before about some of the celebration groups that, you know, we're anticipating for this coming year. Can you talk a little bit about how Princess is working for that, for those groups?
[00:20:35] John Chernesky: Yeah. So one of the things we just I've been working on these past few months and during the pandemic and the pause of operations, we're very busy.
But we were also trying to figure out well, when we come back, cause we knew we were coming back. It was just a question of time. We need to come back with the best version of Princess. And Princess has always been known as a good cruise line for groups. We have very flexible policies, and it's a great way for travel advisors to make money actually, and how we reward them for filling those groups.
And then, but we realized, we weren't perfect. We went on a listening tour, and we talked to a number of travel advisors to say, how can we do groups better? And where is the sweet spot for Princess? And we realized that these small groups that are really family and friends that know each other are the best way to experience Princess, because you don't have to book a lounge or, you know, take over a room with 600 people. t's just, you know, 20 people or so. Together for a family reunion. And so we created this new celebration group program that allows the travel advisor to work with their client. Give them more value back and really help them miss out. Or if they knew they missed out on celebrations, right? Everybody has in the last two years. And so catch up on what they missed out on, whether it was a birthday or graduation or retirement, whatever it was. So we're, we're really excited about this new launch of this new program.
[00:21:49] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you're absolutely right. Everybody has missed out on those things. And when you talk to friends or family or coworkers, whoever everybody says, oh, I had a 25th [00:22:00] anniversary trip, or I had a wedding trip or whatever it is. So it's great that you're reaching out for that. And you know, hopefully advisors are doing the same with their clients. Are you hearing that from advisors, that they're talking about that?
[00:22:12] John Chernesky: Oh, yeah. I mean, when we introduced it on the Enchanted Princess a couple of weeks ago, the reaction was really positive and we've since done some webinars and, and it's, there's a lot to it. And so we, we are, we are working on training, everybody to understand the nuances of it, and we will take any feedback we get and continue to make it better. And it's really exciting to introduce a new element of our, of our business. And we're, we're thrilled for how it's.
[00:22:37] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, definitely. Okay. Well I want to know, is there a secret bit of advice you can share with our listeners that might make their clients cruises an even better? Do you have a personal favorite or hidden gem besides getting drinks delivered at the pool? And is there anything that you would recommend for them?
[00:22:53] John Chernesky: One of the things I talk about a lot is. Not everybody's a planner, right? I get that. But I really want people to get to a destination and have a sense of the activities that are going to do when they're in port. And clearly princess has a great shore excursions program. And I would recommend you book everything through Princess, but the end of the day, book them something because nothing depresses me more than going to Alaska and seeing people just walking around town because they didn't take the time to plan for something. And the most popular ones, the helicopter trips and all that, they do sell out, but not to say walking around town in Juneau isn't great, but if you haven't done a whale-watching trip or been out on a glacier or done a hike, you know, you're missing out. And so I would just try and plan as much of that trip as you can with them, and make sure they don't just leave it to chance when they get there, because you really want to try and lock in those most popular adventures once you do get there.
[00:23:45] Kenneth Shapiro: Yeah, that is so true. That is very good piece of advice. Well, John, we're just about out of time, but where can our listeners go to follow you or learn more about princess cruises?
[00:23:54] John Chernesky: First of all, I hope everyone is following me on Facebook. If not going to Facebook and search for Princess VP Sales. Don't look for my name. It's a work account. So when they fire me, they can keep it going with the next person. That's one way, obviously www.princess.com is our website. And then for travel advisors, we have onesourcecruises.com as our agent portal. That's for all things, you log in all the marketing materials, training resources, and of course our polar online booking engine. So Facebook, Princess.com and then of course, onesourcecruises.com
[00:24:24] Kenneth Shapiro: Okay. And all of that will be linked in the show notes. John, thank you so much for joining us on humans to travel today. I really enjoyed it.
[00:24:31] John Chernesky: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
About Your Host
Emma Weissmann is the Digital Managing Editor of TravelAge West, a print and online magazine for travel advisors based in the Western U.S. She is also the co-host of Trade Secrets, a podcast created with sister publication Travel Weekly.
TravelAge West also produces national trade publications Explorer and Family Getaways, as well as events including the Future Leaders in Travel Retreat, Global Travel Marketplace West, the WAVE Awards gala and the Napa Valley Leadership Forum.
About the Show
TravelAge West’s podcast, “Humans of Travel,” features conversations with exceptional people who have compelling stories to tell. Listeners will hear from the travel industry’s notable authorities, high-profile executives, travel advisors and rising stars as they share the experiences — the highs and the lows — that make them human.