On A Similarly Different Path To Excellence- New Blood

In this first of a three-part series, we take a deep look at the evolution of three different cruise lines and the people behind what we think is one of the most relevant changes to business-as-usual to come about in recent memory. 

Cruise lines brand onboard venues in an effort to differentiate themselves from one another. New ships bring new features.  Older ships get redone. At-sea Internet gets faster.  Menus change. New ports are added.  Scary ports are avoided. Value remains good. Life goes on for the cruise industry in much the same way as it always has, updated as new technologies, shareholder expectations and traveler interests evolve.  Except for a handful of cruise lines that strike me as being not just ahead of the curve but on a course to define it.

We begin with Holland America Line and some interesting developments we saw in action not long ago aboard newly remodeled ms Eurodam.  Visiting the ship while docked at Port Everglades, I got a good feel for what passengers would experience on a full sailing, all condensed into a four hour visit.  In a previous post we tagged Holland America as a cruise line in transition, crediting new President Orlando Ashford and his fresh set of eyes for a smooth move from the past and into the future.  Introducing the concept of Collective Intelligence, a process that draws on the capabilities, knowledge and abilities of everyone in the organization to craft new onboard programming, we saw the result of that effort touring Eurodam. It was impressive.  It worked.  A brief rundown of that experience will drive the point home.

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We began with a tour of upgraded suites that will compare and compete favorably with those of other lines, even the newest of ships.  Thoughtfully added: lots of digital age features that include LED and USB in their description as well as luxurious bathrooms.  A suite-style passenger or not, that’s significant on the eve of Royal Caribbean’s introduction of new ‘Suite Class’ that starts May 1 as well as a number of new ships entering service this year with high end accommodations standard fare plus other efforts by other lines to lure luxury travelers.  Holland America Line will now have a fighting chance in this arena.

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Moving along to a reception in the line’s first Gallery Bar we found a cozy space lined with an interesting mix of art ranging from portraits to landscapes, still-life and more.   Bringing the space to life, an exclusive cocktail menu by celebrity mixologist Dale DeGroff  who happened to be on hand for the event. More importantly, the venue is set up for it all to work long after DeGroff has left and Holland America Line bar staff has taken over.

It was there at the Gallery Bar that highly visible Ashford addressed exactly what it was we were seeing, noting  “Gallery Bar is a completely new venue for us, and several other enhancements are just starting to make their way onto the fleet, so it’s exciting that our guests are finally able to experience them all together for the first time on Eurodam.” And indeed it was.

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Just steps from the new Gallery Bar were short performances of two unique new included entertainment options that work with, rather than possibly against, a variable in the cruise experience equation that is often hard to define: the exact mix of passengers on any given sailing.

Billboard Onboard is Holland America’s answer to dueling piano bars, cover bands and trendy if not howling music venues which have experienced extraordinary success with other cruise lines. Able to turn on a dime, engaging entertainers can read the room and tap the considerable resources of Billboard Magazine to source popular tunes from the last half century for a crowd-pleasing entertainment experience on every sailing.

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In a nod to Holland America’s perhaps a bit more cultured base clientele, Lincoln Center Stage takes a rarely used part of the ship and transforms it into a mini version of a first class concert hall.  Serious about doing it right, evidence can be found in this audition call, looking for the appropriate musicians for the new venue.  The ad seeks “classically trained musicians who are passionate about chamber music to perform on board Holland America Line’s fleet of luxury ships as part of an exciting new onboard live music venue, Lincoln Center Stage.”  In other words, the attention to detail here is impressive.  This is not the cruise line handing the staff musicians new sheet music and ordering them to play it.

But we’re seeing that attention to detail run through this program every step of the way.

Interestingly, this rollout of new programming comes on the eve of Holland America Line about to launch new ms Koningsdam, a feat that normally demands a great amount of resources on any cruise line.  The impressive rollout of this forward-thinking upgrade program while simultaneously launching a new ship speaks to the effectiveness of Ashford’s Collective Intelligence and its considerable effect on the entire Holland America organization.  That’s significant information for those planning a cruise vacation for a number of reasons.  Let’s start with dining.

Lincoln Center Stage - 0008Culinary efforts have historically been a solid highlight of any Holland America sailing. Those efforts too have also evolved in ways that make sense. More importantly: they can be sustained.  That’s a more tricky proposition than one might imagine when you’re doing thousands of meals a day.  Simply “feeding” is one thing, while “engaging culinary creations to knock your socks off”, quite another.

Served during our visit, three courses that highlight the culinary prowess of Holland America’s Culinary Council members, led by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin that will be featured on new ms Koningsdam.


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Sprouting Salad of Golden Beets with apples, tarragon, hazelnut oil, cider vinaigrette, farmhouse goat cheese will be featured in Dinner At The Culinary Arts Center venue, a dramatic show kitchen by day and an immersive farm-to-table dining experience by night.


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Bouillabaisse Marseillaise with red mullet, lobster claw, sole, scampi, snapper, clams, mussels, tomatoes, saffron, potato, fennel, orange zest, baguette and rouille will be enjoyed in Sel De Meran intimate new seafood brasserie offering a contemporary twist on timeless French classics


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Wasabi and Soy Crusted Beef Tenderloin served on an oak plank with onion rings, tempura vegetables and bok choy with oyster sauce will grace the tabletops of Tamarind at lunch and dinner featuring dishes honoring the elements of water, wood, fire and earth.

As if all of the above were not impressive enough, this story gets better.  What we discussed here is merely a description of what is happening on Holland America Line right now.  Impressive to be sure and a good base from which to launch the rest of what I believe is right now an industry defining effort that will propel Holland America Line as well as two other, sister lines well into the future.  To make that segue we turn to internationally acclaimed hospitality designer Adam D. Tihany, the creative energy behind what passengers will see aboard new ms Koningsdam.

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“If you want to be successful, you have to make people happy and inspire a sense of discovery,” said Tihany in a recent press release, words that jumped off the page signaling that someone had chosen the right person for the job.  Verifying a similar sense of detail to what we have described thus far, Tihany adds “I don’t have a favorite space on Koningsdam. My hope is that every space on the ship will become somebody’s favorite.”

Indeed, a dedicated website and video series documents the rollout of new ms Koningsdam and gives us a peek of what goes into such an effort.  But this is not the first time we have heard from Tihany, also tapped for the design of ultra luxury Seabourn Cruises new Seabourn Encore.  It’s also not the first time we have highlighted culinary efforts on a world class level, for that we have turned to the Seabourn Food And Wine Cruise series, covered here like a blanket.  Driving what adds up to a quality travel experience for each and every guest, Holland America Line and Seabourn share a similar passion for excellence with another sister; Cunard Line who recently took a bit of a course change, one that would take care of their traditional fans better than ever before, while positioning the line for smooth sailing into the future.

That’s a bit of a peek into the next installment of this series which builds on the strong points of each line while simultaneously and perhaps more clearly than ever defines each in their own unique way.

On A Similarly Different Path To Excellence continues next taking a close look at Cunard Line and some fresh new ideas coming soon in Part 2 then ends with a rousing finish with Part 3 that brings news of the single most appropriate and exciting case of Celebrity Chef Comes To Sea ever at Seabourn.  It’s a story you only think you know if you follow such matters.  We lived it.

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