Making Excellence a Signature

A 2003 initiative continues to lead Holland America Line in the right direction

By: Ana Figueroa

When a cruise line with a tradition of excellence that dates back nearly 135 years announces that it’s time to make some changes, no one expects overnight results. And so it was with Holland America Line’s much-vaunted Signature of Excellence initiative. Launched in 2003, the comprehensive upgrade and enhancements program gradually took shape over the subsequent three years.

But a funny thing happened along the way.

Quite unexpectedly, Signature of Excellence took on a life of its own.

The bold initiative infused the Holland America Line fleet with nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worth of product and service upgrades.

Ranging from fanciful to functional, the Signature of Excellence enhancements have by all accounts proven successful, especially in one major aspect: They’ve raised the profile of a venerable line in need of shaking a stodgy image.

There is nothing stodgy, for example, about the Signature of Excellence-wrought Culinary Arts Centers, presented by Food & Wine magazine. The “show kitchens” have made Food Network-style cooking demonstrations and high-profile guest chefs a fixture on Holland America Line sailings.

Other Signature of Excellence upgrades, such as the Explorations Cafes powered by The New York Times, have proven just as innovative. Music listening stations and specialty coffee drinks make surfing the net at sea a much more pleasant experience than the sterile bank of computer terminals available on most other lines. Additional Signature of Excellence items include a fleet-wide expansion of the Greenhouse Spa and Salon and new teen areas.

Staterooms on the Holland America Line fleet have taken on a Signature of Excellence touch as well, with amenities such as the customized and highly comfortable Euro-top Mariner’s Dream Beds.

“Holland America deserves a lot of credit for everything they have done with the fleet in the past few years. But, believe it or not, I get more comments about the new bedding than any other improvement,” says Pat Webb, owner of Galaxsea Cruises & Tours in Pomona, Calif.

Anyone who knows the cruise industry, says Webb, knows that a seemingly innocuous item like bedding is a big deal.

“It wasn’t that many years ago that you could take a cruise and discover that the passenger before you broke the bed and it remained unfixed. Or, it was hard as a rock. People didn’t really expect the beds on a cruise ship to stand up to those in a fancy hotel. But Holland America really started a trend,” says Webb.

Indeed. Upgraded bedding and other stateroom amenities have become practically standard in the cruise industry in the three years since the Signature of Excellence program was first announced.

Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery, and Holland America Line executives are well aware that they have inspired something of an upgrade frenzy in the industry. What they didn’t realize is that the Signature of Excellence initiative would continue to inspire the company internally, even after all the original enhancements were in place fleet-wide by the end of 2006. (Earlier in the year, the 1,918-passenger ms Noordam debuted with all Signature of Excellence upgrades built-in.)

“We knew there was life after Signature of Excellence. But it became so much more,” says Richard D. Meadows, Holland America Line’s executive vice president of marketing, sales and guest programs.

“We discovered that once you turn on creative energy, it’s hard to turn it off. It wasn’t something that we started and stopped,” says Meadows.

Holland America Line president and CEO, Stein Kruse, puts it this way: “It’s something that became part of us,” Kruse says. “Signature of Excellence has allowed us to redefine our mission statement and redefine what our objectives are. We see it as a new platform for taking the line into the next decade.”

Wasting no time in seizing upon all that creative energy, the line decided to replace its slogan, “A Tradition of Excellence” with “A Signature of Excellence.” And it has moved forward with numerous new programs that weren’t necessarily part of the original enhancements.

For example, the line will retrofit three of its Vista-class ships with the popular Pinnacle Bar and Explorations Cafe venues. And the ships’

capacity will be enlarged to 1,918, to match that of the Noordam.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the original Signature of Excellence enhancements are evolving. The line’s next series of vessels is set to debut in 2008. The aptly named Signature-class ships will be the largest ever built for Holland America Line, at 86,000 tons, with a passenger capacity of 2,044. The first vessel in the series will be named ms Eurodam, and it will feature an Explorations Cafe powered by The New York Times. But, this cafe will be located on the starboard side of the Crow’s Nest, providing a scenic backdrop for guests as they surf the Internet and sip their coffee.

The Eurodam’s staterooms, of course, will feature all the Signature of Excellence premium amenities, including those Euro-top Mariner’s Dream beds. The ship will also debut two new eateries; one Pan-Asian, the other, Italian.

The Signature of Excellence creative spark has also crossed over into the line’s land programs. Holland America Line guests in Alaska this season will travel in style on 39 Explorer Coaches equipped with video screens, reading libraries, a snack and beverage service and more. The coaches will also feature 50 percent more leg room than in previous years.

“We didn’t originally think about ideas for the coaches,” says Meadows. “But, again, it’s something that came about with the whole notion of excellence and the desire to provide a more premium experience.”

In today’s cruise market, it is sometimes hard to distinguish a “mainstream” or “contemporary” line from one that dubs itself a “luxury” or “premium” line. Kruse believes product consistency delineates the latter category.

“We really had a disparate fleet in 2002 and that was a motivating factor for us,” says Kruse. “Some of our ships were older and didn’t have the latest accouterments. We saw a real need to bring a feeling of consistency and certainty across the fleet, and we’ve done that. We have a very homogenous fleet now, and the public is the beneficiary of that.”

For the time being, getting the word out about the newly invigorated Holland America Line is still a work in progress. Executives hope that a sleek new consumer ad campaign will work some magic. The campaign will run through 2008 in a variety of upscale publications, including Vanity Fair, Travel& Leisure, Food & Wine and Saveur.

The ads feature exquisitely photographed images that look as if they’ve been pulled out of a Vermeer still life. A pear. A string of pearls. A Japanese lantern. The photos are accompanied by a single word, such as “sublime” or “luminous.” Juxtaposed against a dark background lies a “hidden” Holland America Line ship. The hoped-for effect: present cruising in general (and Holland America Line in particular) as intriguing, elegant and inviting.

“We are not changing our brand; we are changing how we communicate about our brand to reach the youthful mindset of baby boomers,” says Meadows.

“Fifty is the new 30,” he adds. “The whole point is to recognize that people today are different from their grandparents.”

Galaxsea’s Webb, for one, thinks that Holland America Line should be lauded for recognizing that the industry needs to attract new cruisers.

“Far too many people have been on 20 cruises, and all they want to do is drive down the price. So, I definitely applaud what Holland America is doing, trying to appeal to the consumer at large that has never cruised,” says Webb.

Although the line says that the average age of its customers has decreased across much of its product line, some perceptions still persist.

“I do a lot of ship tours, and I see a lot of elderly passengers boarding the Holland America Line ships,” says Joyce Curran, of PNR American Express Travel in Marina Del Rey, Calif. “I’m not going to put a 35-year-old couple on a ship where everyone’s going to bed at 10 o’clock at night.”

Kruse admits that old notions about Holland America’s clientele may take awhile to change, but he is convinced that they will.

“We have really evolved in the last few years. We made a bold and substantial decision to invest in the brand, in the product and in the service we provide. All of those were tied together under the Signature of Excellence initiative. And, they have come together in a beautiful way that really resonates,” says Kruse.

In the year ahead, the line expects to roll out even more new projects and ideas in an effort to redefine itself in the premium market, says Kruse.

“Something we really cherish is the fact that the company has been around for a long time. Being able to continue that is fabulous,” he notes.

No doubt about it. The line that began its life shuttling cargo and passengers from the Netherlands to the New World at the end of the 19th century has come a long way. But, Holland America Line’s ongoing pursuit of excellence is certainly paying off.

Kruse Control

If Holland America Line’s man at the helm, Stein Kruse, is not as flamboyant or outspoken as some CEOs at other lines, it may be because his achievements speak for him.

The Norwegian-born Kruse is president and chief executive officer of both Holland America Line Inc. and Windstar Cruises, both units of Carnival Corporation & plc. He first joined Holland America Line in 1999 as senior vice president, fleet operations, overseeing all of Holland America Line’s and Windstar Cruises’ operations. He was named president and chief operating officer in 2003, and chief executive officer in 2004. Prior to that, Kruse served in numerous other industry positions, including stints as executive vice president and chief operating officer for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises and president and CEO for Seven Seas Cruise Line.

Kruse credits exposure to ocean travel at an early age as the inspiration for his lifelong career path.

“As a 17-year-old, I sailed on a cargo ship around Africa for two months, then back to Norway. That was incredible,” says Kruse.

After completing military service, he started with the Norwegian America Line. He has been in the industry ever since. Along the way, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University and also graduated from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.

“I’ve done everything from working on ships to the operations side and the service side. I basically grew up in the industry,” says Kruse.

And Kruse clearly still finds the industry exciting and challenging.

He is proud of the fact that cruising provides “a good product at a good value.” Kruse is especially proud of the variety of the Holland America Line product.

“We have more than 500 cruises. We go to more than 60 countries and 300 ports. We visit all seven continents. I think we have such a broad appeal because of the premium product that we offer,” says Kruse.

And, even though he is the man in charge, Kruse still finds time to study customer comments.

“We are very aware of the importance of good service as it relates to our customers,” he says. “We exist because of our customers.”