Secret to Crystal’s Success: ‘The Crew’

Hubert Buelacher, hotel director for Crystal Serenity
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By Gerry Barker

Photos by Gerry Barker

Since its beginnings in the late 1980s, Crystal Cruises has been among the most honored and awarded cruise lines in history. And the secret to their success is not-so-secret: Their service. Just ask Hubert Buelacher, a 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry, now serving as hotel director on Crystal Serenity.

“The hallmark of Crystal has been, and always will be, the crew,” he said in an interview during a recent sailing from Miami to Puerto Rico.

Hubert Buelacher in his office aboard Crystal Serenity

Austrian-born, Buelacher served as executive chef aboard Crystal Harmony, which launched in 1990, and later, was executive chef on Crystal Symphony. When Harmony was sold in 2005, Buelacher left Crystal and spent the next nine years with three different cruise lines, including Seabourn and Silversea.

In 2014, he rejoined the Crystal family, and it was smooth sailing until Janaury, 2022, when it was announced Crystal’s parent company, Genting Hong Kong Ltd., was shutting down the cruise line over unpaid debts, news that rocked Crystal’s staff, guests and the entire industry to its core.

The news left the company adrift, literally, and Burlacher was among a skeleton staff of 65 assigned to maintain the ship. “It was a very difficult time for both people employed like us and the crew members (who lost their jobs).”

One can imagine the elation that followed the announcedment in June, 2022, that A&K Travel Group Ltd. had acquired Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, and after an extensive refurishment, both would be back on the seas in 2023.

Crew members on Crystal Serenity pose for a holiday photo

Buelacher said emails were sent “to every single crew member employed when we shut down, and in the first 10 days, we got over 90% response back.” When Crystal did relaunch at the end of July, over 80 percent of the former crew was back onboard. Noting that between “50 and 60 percent of their clientele are repeat passengers,” they are “happy as they can be to be back on Crystal.”

The new owners spent $150 million refurbishing the two ships, and Buelacher was able to have input on the new touches, which included expanded and upgrades suites and in the case of Serenity, a new lounge area on deck 6.

“The ship is better than before,” he said, adding “it was amazing what they did in a short time. I think there were people who thought we could pull it off.”

The Stardust Supper Club

Not all the money was spent in the public facing areas. He cited the ship has a completely new wastewater treatment system, shoreside power and a backstage service area for the popular Stardust Supper Club.

One of the big changes was reducing guest capacity. Formerly, Serenity hosted up to 1,040 guests. Now, it tops out at 740. With a crew that numbers 528, Buelacher said that’s almost a 1-1 ratio, which only reinforces their service reputation.

The new lounge on deck 6

While much of the ship is still how guests remember it, one major change was removing the casino to make way for the new deck 6 lounge, which has had some passengers asking for its return. “Guests consider the casino as entertainment,” he said. “If you don’t want to go to the show one night, it’s another option. I spoke to one guest who said they lost a lot of money, but loved the casino.” He said there has been some discussion on bringing it back.

As hotel director, Buelacher oversees food and beverage (“very important — we are famous for our food and guests say it’s even better than before”), housekeeping, entertainment and accounting.

One of Crystal Serenity’s 27 butlers

Another change on the new Crystal: Every stateroom, from the smallest solo category to the penthouse, has their own butler. Serenity has 27 butlers altogether, including two females (“we still call them butlers,” he noted). Each one services 10-12 rooms, and they receive “very detailed” in-house training. Many are promoted from within.

On our cruise, having a butler took a little getting used to, but I have to admit how much I miss not getting a bucket of chilled champagne and canapes delivered every afternoon.
With so much on his plate, does Buelacher miss his days as executive chef?

“I go in the kitchen and taste food at least once a day,” he said. But he recalled what his first supervisor told him when he was promoted: “You aren’t the chef anymore — focus on the staff.”

His role as chef returns when he takes his time off and returns to Austria (he serves three months on, three months off). “My wife doesn’t cook so when I am at home, I cook everyday. She loves it.” While his specialty is French cooking, what’s his signature dish? “Wienerschnitzel,” of course

With Crystal back up and running, the future looks brighter than ever. They are even looking at potentially launching four more ships — two ocean-going and two expedition — in the coming years. He noted both ocean ships will have a capacity of 650 guests.

With cruise vacations surging, Burlacher said “the competition never stops — that’s why the crew is so important. You can have the most beautiful ships, but if you don’t have the crew to run it, it doesn’t matter. This is what makes Crystal unique.”

With the next two cruises sold out, and heavy bookings for the upcoming world cruise, their guests agree with Buelacher wholeheartedly.


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