Windstar Cruises CEO Hans Birkholz

Windstar CEO discusses the status of the fleet-wide renovation, 2013 itineraries and new travel agent promotions, resources and fams By: Mindy Poder
Windstar’s CEO Hans Birkholz believes that the fleet-wide refit is best exemplified in the newly-christened Amphora Restaurant. // © 2012 Mindy Poder
Windstar’s CEO Hans Birkholz believes that the fleet-wide refit is best exemplified in the newly-christened Amphora Restaurant. // © 2012 Mindy Poder

The Details

Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises is halfway through its fleet-wide Star Treatment project, an $18 million refurbishment of the Wind Star, Wind Surf and Wind Spirit sailing vessels. All of the staterooms have been completed fleet-wide and the Wind Star is completely done with its top-to-bottom refit. The Wind Star’s extensive update exemplifies what’s in store for the Wind Surf and Wind Spirit’s public spaces, which will be completed in November of this year. Both vessels will be done by their Caribbean seasons, with projected completion dates of Dec. 1 for the Wind Surf and Dec. 22 for the Wind Spirit.

In the end of December, Windstar will host a travel agent event in the Caribbean to showcase all three yachts in their newly renovated states. CEO of Windstar Cruises Hans Birkholz discusses what else Windstar is doing to reach out to agents as well as what travel agents need to know about the renovation and the future of the cruise line.

What was the main reason behind the fleet-wide refit?

From the guest experience perspective, the vessels needed renovation. We responded with some of the best renovation work which has been done on any small luxury cruise ship in the industry.

What has the response been to the Wind Star, which is the first vessel to be completely refit?

The guest response has been overwhelmingly positive. People feel like they have arrived. They feel comfortable on the ship yet, at the same time, they realize it’s going to be a very special trip which is exactly the feeling that we wanted them to have. In fact, we measure our guest satisfaction quantitatively after every cruise and the scores are going up.

The Wind Star renovation has also been a great booster with the staff members, who are extremely proud of the renovations and the working environment that they are in.

Which are your favorite examples of the Wind Star’s refit?

Our goal was to create an updated version of a very comfortable and elegant place where you can relax. We capture this particularly well in the lounge in the way we designed little areas to hang out. We also did it in the restaurant, where you feel like ‘wow, I’m in a really cool, hip place for dinner, yet it’s not garishly fashionable.’

We also wanted a sense of connection between the different areas of the vessel, and I think we achieved that. Through the design, you’ll notice the treatment of wood. The boardwalk helps connects one end of the vessel with the other end of the yacht. The wood treatments we put in the hallways and the warmth that you feel from those treatments, along with the new lighting, also helps tie everything together.

What distinguishes the Star Treatment refit?

People sometimes forget that we also put a huge investment in all three yachts’ sails. We have 69,000 square feet of sail area which covers over one and a half acres of sail area, and they’re all brand-new sails. They look absolutely fantastic. We’re sailing more, and we’re giving that luxury sailing experience that you can only get on Windstar Cruises.

What sets your itineraries apart? 

We’ve also done a lot of work in developing itineraries that are famous city and hidden cove-centric. That’s always been a hallmark of Windstar Cruises — going to places that are off the beaten path yet, at the same time, are extremely interesting in order to give you that authentic perspective of the destination.

We constantly have people in the field walking the dirt and making sure that the experiences that we deliver are ones that are authentic to the area and have the interest level to get people excited, but also that work and that we can deliver in a comfortable way. For example we have people in the Baltic looking at how we are doing in getting ready for 2013. We have someone in the eastern part of the Mediterranean planning out the 2014 itineraries. It’s a commitment we’ve made to give people a great experience — not just in choosing the ports, but also in developing the activities that we do in the different areas that we stop.

Also, we have a phrase here, internally: A.I.P., which stands for Authentic, Intimate and Participatory. That’s what Windstar is all about when we develop itineraries or activities onboard. We don’t want to give people another bus tour. We want to give them something that they can take home and really cherish.

Can you tell us about the new itineraries for 2013?

They showcase this idea of going to places you really want to see — such as Edinburgh — but visiting some of the smaller ports and harbors in the Scottish Coast that you may be less familiar with. We want to give you an authentic perspective of the place to which you are journeying.

Gaelic Explorers: It goes from Dublin to Edinburgh and stops in places including Portrush, Peterhead and some wonderful places that are best reached by the water and a little bit off the beaten track. Not a lot of cruise companies spend eight days in Scotland and Ireland, but we do and guests love it. We have sold out one cruise, and we are way ahead on another. We are up 150 percent in the Baltic because of the new cruises that we’ve introduced.

Provence and the Cote d’Azur: In the Mediterranean, this itinerary goes between Nice and Barcelona and stops in a variety of famous cities and hidden coves. You’ve probably heard of Cannes, but maybe not Sete. It’s a wonderful experience in that part of the world.

Footsteps of Faith: It goes between Athens and Alexandria and stops in places in Turkey, Cyprus and Israel which is having great response right now.

Casablana and the Canary Islands: A Morocco itinerary that goes from Lisbon to the Canary Islands that is also doing really well. 

Europe’s West Coast Odyssey: This goes up northern Portugal and into France and stops in places such as Porto Portugal for a little wine to La Coruna, a beautiful seaside port in northern Spain, and then stops in France in San Milo for its famous cathedral, and Cherbourg, which is near the D-Day landing sight, and then to Portsmouth, England.

Idyllic British Isles: It goes from Portsmouth, England up to Dublin, Ireland and stops in places in Cornwall and Wales, including famous spots you may have heard of, such as Waterford, England and some you haven’t, including the wonderful Scilly Islands off the coast of Cornwall.

Have you made any changes to the way Windstar works with travel agents?

We’ve made it easier to do business with us. As an example of this, we have just launched our travel agent portal which is an online mechanism where travel agents can sign up and download all the information they need to sell us — from educational materials and training to marketing collateral to information about specific promotions.

Agents who sign up with us receive a bonus $100 commission on their next booking with Windstar.

We’ve also made it very easy for agents to come onboard and participate in a fam trip. We offer a $499 fam rate. The interesting thing about fam trips is that we see a huge increase in bookings from agents who go on fam trips. They almost pay for their trip and then some by going on this fam. 

What would you like to do better?

If there is one thing that I’d like to do a better job of it’s to get more agents out on our yachts. Once you experience it, you come away saying ‘wow, this is totally different than any other cruise experience. It truly is 180 degrees from ordinary.’ We make it easy for agents to get onboard so that they can tell their clients about us and sell our product.

Are you happy with how travel agents are selling your product? 

They’re doing great. Since last year, we are up 20 percent within the agency channel in terms of bookings. I think it’s a response to the engagement that we have between Windstar and our field sales and our key agency partners out there. It also has to do with our commitment to making sure that we have the best product possible out in the marketplace. I think that the agency community is responding and excited about what they’re seeing at Windstar so they’re selling us.

What can travel agents do better?

Continue to engage with us. We got a wonderful product and a compelling business proposition for them in terms of commission structures and overrides. We are a niche product and we are different which takes a little upfront learning on the agents’ part, but they will find that it’s extremely worthwhile. We have very loyal guests, so when agents put someone on Windstar, they can be guaranteed that the clients will have a great time and book again.

We’ve got about 25,000 travel agencies that sell us, so there is a lot of upside with Windstar.

How should travel agents qualify clients for a Wind Star cruise? What are the right questions to ask? 

Are you looking for something more adventuresome? Are you interested in a sailing experience? Is quality of service and food important to you? 

At the end of the day, the ideal client is looking for something that is a little more ‘wind in your face,’ or relaxed and comfortable, and authentic — a romantic sailing experience. 

Is there anything else in store for Windstar that travel agents should be aware of?

We’ve got some product enhancements that we are continually doing. We are putting in a new themed restaurant into the Wind Surf. We’re updating the menus for the Caribbean to be more destination-centric. We have the new itineraries that we have developed for the 2013 season.  Most importantly, we are very focused on doing our part — which is delivering a great product that the travel agency community can sell.

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