Talking tax on the High Seas
When David Frost died on board the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth recently he was on board as a guest speaker. I recently started this too – marking a new experience for my tax career. Talking about tax is routine, but doing so on a cruise ship was a bit different – especially the day it was hard to keep my footing!
Why cruise ship lecturing?
By way of background, for many years some clients and friends had been suggesting my speaking style, and ability to make tax a little easier understood, could have another use. They suggested I go on cruise ships as a guest lecturer. And for many years I did nothing about it. Then in 2012 I decided to fire up the search engine. Within a few minutes I was on the phone to the leading agency providing cruise ship speakers for the top cruise lines.
Next stage in the process was to fly to England and give a 45 minute talk. The agency is very protective of its reputation with the cruise lines, so won't take anyone onto its books without having seen them present a lecture in person.
Preparing for the lecture meant doing a PowerPoint presentation, normally something I avoid in case of technical hitches. However the presentation was prepared and the flight booked. Once I arrived at the agency I was able to see other prospective lecturers giving their demo, before my turn came. I think I was the first person they had seen who was planning lecturing on tax, tax avoidance and finance. The agency saw that this could be a subject of great interest to cruise passengers. They took me onto their books for the 2013 year. (Most bookings are arranged the previous summer so summer 2013 books the speakers for 2014.)
Where to go?
Having suggested parts of the World I was interested in I was given one of my chosen cruises - Fred. Olsen to Norway, May 2013.
Jumping forward to May 2013 and my wife Felicity was unable to accompany me due to Patrick our son doing his AS exams. So our older son Alex stepped in. He was on a gap year before studying Politics at University of Nottingham from September 2013.
Arrival at the ship - MS Balmoral
Our cruise was on Fred. Olsen's largest ship - MS Balmoral. Still not large compared with some ships these days, it takes 1,350 passengers and has a crew of 510. For the ship enthusiasts out there, it has a tonnage of 43,537. (I was surprised how many passengers would compare the tonnage of the ships they had been on!)
Checking in it a civilised experience compared with flying on a holiday.
Firstly you dump your bags at one place and then park up or have your taxi bring you to the passenger entrance.
Secondly you have a baggage allowance of 90Kg! Useful to pack those clothes a size bigger - for the second half of the journey.
Finally you go though airport-style security scanners and check in with the cruise line staff. They check your passport and give you the personalised card used for going on and off ship, and for charging things to your cabin.
There is no passport control. Indeed that was the last time I used my passport. It stayed in my room safe. On arrival at port you didn't need your passport to go ashore.
A first cruise experience?
This was my first proper cruise. Way back around 1979 I had sailed on SS Uganda to Madeira and the Canaries, but since that was a school cruise in large windowless dormitories it barely counts as a cruise. When I told my wife we ate off those metal trays with compartments for each course I think she thought I was on a prison ship.
The modern experience could not have been more different. The ship was very comfortable and had lots of places to lounge around - whether on deck or inside. Wi-Fi could be purchased and accessed in various locations, and there was a peaceful library with a respectable range of books and picture windows to look out.
This was school term-time so Alex and I were certainly younger than most of the passengers. The vast majority have retired, in some cases early retirement. The company was great. As well as chatting with other passengers we made friends with the entertainers and dancers on board (well as far as dancers I left that to Alex!) Drinks on board were UK bar prices - with a pint costing about £3.20 and a measure of spirits under £3. A bottle of wine was from about £15 and the staff were very happy to keep your bottle over to finish at the next meal.
The staff - mainly from the Philippines - could not have been nicer. They were very friendly and a few would remember our names and our favourite drinks.
I can see now why lots of people, having been nervous of cruising, try it and then become hooked. Unpack once. Sail by night, and arrive somewhere new every few days. No packing, no passport queues, so easy.
Norway and Norway Day on Oslo
Norway day was the highlight. Lots of schools processing in a parade, and all the locals out in their best outfits to watch. Teenage boys in three piece suits with ties, girls in the season's latest outfit. Lots of people in national dress. If you get a chance to visit Oslo on Norway National Day - grab it with both hands. (A brief video from my phone is on YouTube HustonTV - see it here.)
Norway is a beautiful country with a very high standard of living. Sailing up the fjords was breath-taking. Wonderful for photographers.
The prices were eye-watering. Plate of fish and veg in a pleasant restaurant £25. Pint of beer £8. Two coffees and two scones £13. Little wonder a lot of people nipped back to the ship for lunch!
While ashore son Alex even ended up being interviewed for the Norwegian media and featuring in their paper.
The tax lectures
There were only two guest lecturers on the ship - with very different subject areas. The 45 minute lectures were done in the large theatre used for nightly shows - so a stage with about 500 seats on three sides. The speakers wear a cordless mike making them feel like a pop star. For me this was useful as I prefer to walk around the stage rather than stand still at a lecturn.
As the cruise went on the attendance at my lectures increased considerably, peaking at about 200. The most popular lecture was the one on HMRC's prosecutions of the famous and the less famous. People also enjoyed my tongue-in-cheek video called "Tax evasion for pets - the Harry Redknapp System" - featuring Kim the tax-fiddling collie. View it at http://youtu.be/mysNp0X52kU
After each lecture there was a trail of people following me out to ask questions and seek further nuggets of advice. It was interesting to see the range of things people were concerned about.
As both of us enjoyed the cruise this is certainly something I will be repeating - hopefully next time with my wife. Now we have suggested to my agency the cruises which would interest me in 2014.
Cruises depart from various UK cities including Belfast and also from Dublin. By not having to fly to the departure port you can make use of that large luggage allowance!
Then for 2015 I will try to find a cruise that son Patrick can come on when it's his turn for a gap year.
Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – www.huston.co.uk or 028 9080 6080.