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
But a funny thing happened along the way.
Quite unexpectedly, Signature of Excellence took on a life of
The bold initiative infused the Holland America Line fleet with
nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worth of product and service
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
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
“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
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
“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,”
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.
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
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
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
“I’ve done everything from working on ships to the operations
side and the service side. I basically grew up in the industry,”
And Kruse clearly still finds the industry exciting and
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
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