Q&A with Orlando Ashford, President, Holland America Line

Q&A with Orlando Ashford, President, Holland America Line

Cruise Critic caught up with Holland America president Orlando Ashford in Sydney, where he talked about taking his first cruise, the launch of Koningsdam, and the new live music venues onboard the rest of the fleet.

Welcome to Sydney, where Noordam (pictured above) and Amsterdam are sailing this month. Are you seeing more Australians on Holland America ships?

A: The great thing about being a globally diverse business is that we cruise all over the world and we’re able to flex. The vast majority of our passengers have been American but that’s starting to adjust so places like Australia are playing more of a role in filling our ships.

What’s this year’s focus for Holland America?

A: This idea of classic style, celebrating our 140-year history, while creating room for the modern twist to take us into the next 140 years. Our other focus is our enriching journeys. We travel to 400 ports around the world for people who want to touch, feel and taste a destination. I want to encourage people to consider us for their vacation options, not just for cruises but for anyone wanting to do something with their friends and family.

After a successful career in human resources, what surprised you about the cruise industry in your first year in the job?

A: I started with Holland America on December 1st 2014 and on December 5th I took my very first cruise in life, so I took this job without being a cruiser, which everyone finds funny. What I liked about the business, I liked the challenge, it tapped into my HR background because this is a people-intensive business – it’s about creating connections with guests, connections with employees, connections with crew. I’ve travelled, lived and worked all over the world but not on cruise ships, so I’ve been understanding the dynamics of doing it on a cruise, which I wasn’t aware of, and other people like me, who need to be made aware of it. Now, a year in, I get it. I’m a good personal advocate for people like me. A plane seems faster but if you’re trying to go to multiple locations and you only have a week or two weeks vacation, how can you squeeze so much in? Get on a cruise and you’ll see multiple ports in a short window of time in a much more efficient way than if you tried to fly or drive to all of those places, checking in and checking out, and costing a lot more.

What surprised me about the industry is the level of affinity that people have for the product. I’ve worked for Motorola and Coca-Cola and there was a lot of connection and affinity with those brands but it pales in comparison to the amount of affinity that our guests have for what we offer. It’s very personal. This is “my” cruise line, this is “my” room, this is my brand of tea that you always have for me. So all of the things that we do have a personal reaction –sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s difficult. But that’s part of the fun, part of the challenge: how do you protect and celebrate the things that have allowed us to be successful for 142 years but creating room for that modern twist? You have to let things evolve and bring people along with you, while inviting new people to participate at the same time.

Q&A with Orlando Ashford, President, Holland America Line

Is it difficult to introduce modern changes to a cruise line that’s known for being traditional?

A: We’re finding if we’re thoughtful about our new partnerships and we’re thoughtful about celebrating and protecting what we’ve done, while elevating it at the same time, we can introduce the new and bring along people who’ve been with us — and that’s the magic. For example, we’ve had wonderful music on our ships for a long time and now we’ve gone into a partnership with Lincoln Center, so we are now introducing Lincoln Center Stage on our ships with musicians of that calibre. So we’ve taken what we’ve always done — a string quartet — and clicked it up a notch. For the experienced cruiser, they’re seeing an elevation in the offering. For a non-cruiser, if you tell them you’ve got string quartets, they may not know what you mean, but if you tell them you have Lincoln Center, they will know what to expect.

Also in the Music Walk, which is what we’re calling it, is Billboard Onboard, B.B Kings Blues Club, DJs, duelling pianos, sing-along, trivia, so you’re coming out of a show and looking at what to do next, what do you feel like? Passengers are already experiencing this on Eurodam since it came out of dry dock, and it’s standing room only, people spilling into the halls. Our teams are reporting that it’s amazing, they’ve never seen this kind of energy. So we’re doing what we’ve always done, whether it’s great music or great food, and enhanced it. And we’re learning what works on the new ships and migrating it to the rest of the fleet.

I want people to look at the fun, the food, the music that you can get on a ship and think that’s better than anything I’m doing here on land; it almost has nothing to do with being a cruise, the ship just happens to be the vehicle.

Will this year’s new ship, Koningsdam, ever come to Australia?

A: I don’t know. Can they make the [Sydney Harbour] bridge bigger? Can they put a little hump in it? We could bring it here but that’s the challenge. Koningsdam will start in Europe and then come to North America to do the Caribbean. We’ll have another Pinnacle class ship in two years, so with two new ships, we have some different options to consider with her.

Aside from our rapid growth, what value does the Australian market have for Holland America?

A: This is a market with 4.4 per cent penetration so understanding what happened here that enabled that, what turned Australians onto cruising? I’d love to see other parts of the world embrace cruising in the same way. I’d also like to educate Americans and other countries to embrace personal time, family time, recharge time and carve out more time for vacations. I think I could become president off of that platform!

So have you given more vacation time to your employees and crew?

A: That’s a tough one because we’re trying to provide excellent service so our crew works really hard and long hours, so we’re trying to make sure we invest in them. One of things we’ve done is dedicate some outdoor space on our ships to the crew so they can go outside and recharge, not in the depths of the ship. Each year we look at ways to enhance not only the guest experience but our employees and crew too. I have ‘coffee connections’ onboard with the crew to hear from them what they think we could do better.

What is the purpose of the new office?

A: We’ve upgraded the suites and put money into delivering more immersive, experiential learning in the destination space through partnerships with BBC Earth, Afar magazine and Utrip to provide personalised, customised content. We’re excited about the 40+ destination guides that have been launched on our website and we’ll have all 400 done by the [U.S] summertime so that a person can think about where they want to go and what they want to do there, based on their personal interests — art, history, culture, food. You can choose which cities you’re interested in and what they want to do there and Utrip filters it. It’s getting two times the engagement and it’s working. It’s fun, and that’s what planning a cruise should be.

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