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Holland America Line on Embracing Emerging Tech While Delivering a Human Touch

As the cruise industry goes digital, travel still needs to deliver on intangible experiences

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Kindra Cooper

Holland America Line

Anyone living in a major metropolis knows space is coveted – even more so on a cruise ship.

Cruise lines are locked in a digital arms race to introduce ever-elongating water slides, roving customer support robots and AR headsets to make fine dining “taste better,” but Holland America Line still prides itself on providing “refreshingly uncrowded” small-medium ships and time-honored traditions like a daily high tea, extensive art collections and ballroom dancing.

Holland America Line“When passengers are onboard, we don’t want them to feel crowded, we want them to feel like they’ve got space,” Michael McKinney, manager of workforce planning at Holland America Line, told CCW Digital at Verint Engage 2019 in Orlando, Florida. “There are a lot of things to do onboard, but not as much as on one of the giant ships.”

You won't find a skating rink or climbing wall on a Holland America ship; but you'll meet celebrity chefs from the TV show America's Test Kitchen, take part in meditation classes provided by The Oprah Magazine and see some of the world's most breathtaking destinations. 

Like its industry peers, the holding company, Carnival Corporation, has introduced now-standard features like a mobile app for online check-in and on-demand meal and activity reservations, as well as the Ocean Medallion wearable device with geolocating RFID tags that doubles as a room key and mobile payment enabler.

Using technology enhancements to focus on what matters most

The cruise industry is fast adopting emerging technologies, but travel has always been about delivering memorable intangible experiences. Holland America’s chief focus remains designing a rich cultural experience to honor the over 500 destinations where the ships dock.

For those in the experience business, sometimes it’s best to simplify accoutrements; overburden guests with choices or nonessentials and it detracts from key moments of truth.  

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“At Holland America Lines it has been our deepest faith that when people travel to new worlds and experience the truths of other cultures, the change they experience can make a meaningful impact on the society to which they return,” Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Lines, said at the dedication ceremony for the Nieuw Statendam in December 2018, a 2,666-guest “pinnacle-class” ship god-mothered by the queen of talk show TV herself, Oprah Winfrey, who joined Holland America for its three-day maiden voyage across the Caribbean.  

Oprah Holland America Line

Image credit: Holland America Line

Needless to say, spots for that trip filled in a flash, and a long waitlist materialized.

“We had a few spots open up and one of our agents called this lady and informed her she’d cleared the waitlist and as the call was closing the agent heard her call to her husband, ‘I’m cruising with Oprah!’ It was so cool,” McKinney recalls fondly.

Encouraging people to explore the world 

Nearly every time the ship docks, a “native cultural expert” comes onboard to school the guests in the local wonders – photographers, naturalists, historians and entertainers. Docking in Japan, you’ll catch Geishas, Japanese drummers and optical illusionists performing in the ship’s onboard theater.

“We’re looking to maximize the experience of the location and the culture,” said McKinney. Holland America Lines’ emphasis on worldwide, lengthy itineraries tends to draw an older crowd with the time and money.

Read more: Today's Generation is Living Longer - How Does it Affect the Customer Journey?

To enrich its onshore experience, the company partnered with Afar destination guides to provide exclusive digital content for up to 400 ports as well as “authentic recommendations” for top attractions and shore excursions.

Meanwhile, a partnership with BBC Earth offers experiences like “Planet Earth II in Concert,” combining a live orchestra with breathtaking footage of the world’s most spectacular landscapes and wildlife from BBC Earth’s award-winning Planet Earth II.

Why your agents need to experience your product 

Once a call center agent completes an entire year of service, they’re eligible for one free cruise per year for training purposes, and heavily discounted cruises throughout their tenure, which is nearly free save for taxes.

“We’ll have one or two supervisors take a group of agents onto the ship and they’ll get special tours of behind-the-scenes stuff so they can learn how things work on the ship,” explained McKinney, who has been with the company since 1997.

Holland America Line

Image credit: Holland America Line 

For those in the vacation industry, marketing the product consists of selling a dream. The blogs feature travel diaries written by Jane and John Does, Holland America Lines employees as well as travel writers from well-known travel and lifestyle publications such as the award-winning Ordinary Traveler and Finding the Universe.

Being in the travel business, the company benefits from troves of user-generated content from the vacation photos passengers post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, hence its reliance on word-of-mouth and repeat customers. An onboard digital workshop teaches passengers how to professionally edit and share their photos on social media, providing a mutual benefit to the guests and the business.  

Once you’ve traveled with Holland America Lines, you’re guaranteed to periodically receive a glossy, coffee table-worthy catalog from the company brimming with high-definition photographs of exotic lands to tempt you to take your next vacation.