Cruise Line Itinerary Planning

| March 14, 2008

How does a cruise line select a ship's route? Holland America's Director of Deployment and Itinerary Planning explains it to us.

Most cruisers go to a limited selection of destinations, since the majority of sailings are seven-day trips to the Caribbean or Alaska. Once they have more time on their hands, maybe after they retire, those who can afford it might try a longer, more exotic voyage to faraway places with strange names -- a cruise to the South Pacific, Asia, Africa, or even the multiple destinations of a World Cruise.

I've always wondered what goes into planning these longer voyages, so I spoke with Simon Douwes, Holland America's Director of Deployment and Itinerary Planning.

Simon Douwes of Holland America

Simon has been with Holland America Line (known affectionately as HAL) since 1980. For 22 years he sailed just about every ship Holland America had, first as a navigation officer, then as a captain from 1993 to 2001. After that, he assumed his current land-based post in Seattle.

Passenger Input is the Key Holland America sails to almost every region, from the Arctic Circle to near the South Pole and everywhere in between. Some destinations are tried and true, while others have only limited information available to help Simon decide whether the line should send a ship there.

What resources does a cruise line use to plan a new itinerary? Simon draws from the line's previous experience in the region, as well as future passenger expectations. The previous experience record includes past passenger evaluations -- those surveys we all fill out at the end of our cruise, and specifically the section where we rate the ports of call.

Additional input comes from detailed surveys the line sends out to a sampling of past passengers whenever a new or exotic itinerary is on the drawing board, especially world cruises. The survey results help him determine what passengers are looking for in such a voyage, the kinds of places they've enjoyed in the past, and where they would like to go in the future.

When a new world cruise is being formulated, Simon and his team put together several hypothetical itineraries and ask survey participants to rank them. This gives the cruise line an idea of the regions it needs to develop in future itineraries, and it gives prospective passengers a say in the itinerary planning process. In other words, passengers have an ownership stake in the world cruise port selections, which Simon says often leads a passenger to book that cruise.

Longer Itineraries Need Fresh Ports Another important responsibility for Simon and his team is the constant development of new ports. This is a complicated and lengthy process.

Many remote ports require a site visit from someone on Simon's team, usually Simon himself. If the port is in an underdeveloped part of the world, Simon and his team need to ensure that it is safe for passengers, and that the port facility can berth the ship.

The physical entrance to the port is the first thing evaluated. Where will the ship dock or anchor, and are those facilities adequate? The next requirement is passenger access: How will passengers get from the ship to the port area, and is that means safe and accessible?

Port security is a big consideration. Is the port certified according to International Port Security Standards, meaning is it a safe place to bring Holland America's ships and passengers?

Finally, the area surrounding the port is examined for sites of interest. Is there enough infrastructure support to set up local tours and carry hundreds of passengers? Are the sites close enough to the port to make a visit reasonable?

Lack of a decent tourism infrastructure is important, but isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, since about half of Holland America's passengers historically do not purchase organized tours from the ship (especially on longer, exotic itineraries). However, there still must be some points of interest, or an area of natural beauty nearby that appeals to visitors. A tourism infrastructure is just the icing on the cake.

An example of a marginally supported yet feasible port of call is Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. Cruise ships only make infrequent stops at this rustic, isolated island settlement, so the area cannot develop any sort of tourism industry. But the island is beautiful and passengers love to view the fertile valleys and cascading waterfalls. In such ports the cruise lines encourage and sometimes hire locals to meet the ship and offer tours in private vehicles. Some locals in Nuku Hiva offer horseback riding or diving excursions not formally coordinated by the cruise line, but attractive to passengers.

Holland America ships will call at more than 300 ports on their various itineraries in 2008. To develop new ports involves painstaking research and development. Simon's group must do quite a bit of traveling, since many new ports -- especially in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific -- are always visited for first-hand evaluation. But these efforts are essential for keeping the line's itineraries fresh and its sailings interesting.

Simon's goal is to offer a variety of voyages offering unique ports of call -- ones that Holland America's competitors can't match -- such as those available on longer Caribbean itineraries. "The longer sailings -- where we can get creative with really unique destinations -- is where our research efforts pay off the most," he said. "In fact, many of our World Voyages have multiple maiden ports of call, and the passengers truly enjoy them. That's probably because we draw a lot of seasoned travelers who like to add new destinations to their memory books."

Itineraries on Shorter Sailings Even on shorter itineraries, Holland America distinguishes itself with unique port stops. "We are one of the few cruise lines that sail longer Caribbean voyages," Simon explained. "We offer several 14-day sailings in the Caribbean, round-trip Florida, which let us visit some of the more interesting islands, such as Roseau, in Dominica; Bonaire, Barbados and Curacao. Many of the other cruise lines only offer itineraries of seven days or less, so they can't possibly visit many of these places. With that short period of time, they can only offer the standard St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau-type ports. Our passengers demand more."

Holland America also has a strong presence in Europe, with several ships based there this summer. "Europe is bigger than ever right now, especially in this time of the dollar's weakness against the Euro. There is no more economical way to see Europe right now than to take a cruise, since all shipboard costs are based on U.S. dollars," Simon said.

In Alaska, Holland America is a long-established leader. While many cruise lines base ships there during the summer months, Holland America takes its involvement a step further. The line will have eight ships there this season -- three sailing roundtrip from Seattle, and five more doing one-way sailings between Vancouver and Seward (Anchorage, Alaska). I asked Simon if back-to-back sailings from Vancouver would have two unique itineraries, and he admitted the routes would be basically the same on both legs. "The whole purpose of the one-way sailings is to combine your sea voyage with a multi-day land excursion," he said. "There is no way to fully appreciate all that Alaska has to offer without spending some portion of your trip on a land tour. There are simply too many areas that are inaccessible by sea. So passengers opting for these particular voyages will usually add a land tour either pre or post-cruise to get a more well-rounded appreciation of the Alaskan wilderness."

To provide unique cruise and shore excursion experiences, Holland America is offering a record number of tours in Alaska this year. Considering the diversity of the ships it has in the region, and the fact that those ships leave on different days of the week, HAL has arguably the most extensive cruise operation in Alaska.

Focusing on the Basics While Holland America's claim to fame is its longer, more exotic itineraries, Simon concedes that many passengers are drawn to shorter, more standard cruising options. So it is important to pay attention to those sailings as well, and try to keep them fresh. "Unfortunately, there are only so many new ports one can find when doing short sailings from North America, but that doesn't mean we don't look for them," he said. "For example, we are the only major cruise line sailing the Sea of Cortez. The others are all small ship operators, like Cruise West. We've also been tweaking our Mexican Riviera sailings, and we will soon be doing some longer ones, sailing all the way to Hualtulco in the near future."

Holland America has one of the industry's largest bases of past passengers, and even on shorter cruises it is not unusual for over half the passengers onboard to be members of the Mariner Society, Holland America's repeat passenger club. Some may have sailed hundreds or even thousands of days with the line. That's why Simon's job is so important: It takes a lot to keep these seasoned travelers coming back, and at the top of their wish list is exotic itineraries with new and intrigiung ports.

"Many of our highest-ranking Mariners started out doing only shorter cruises, perhaps because they were not sure they would enjoy cruising. Only after finding that they liked these shorter cruises would they start booking longer itineraries, sometimes even working up to a World Cruise," Simon said. "Well, today's short itinerary passengers are Holland America's future World and Grand Voyage cruisers, so we have to keep those shorter itineraries interesting too, to keep them coming back to sail with us again and again."

Future Plans Simon told me Holland America will probably offer four Grand Voyages, in addition to the World Cruise, in 2010; up from three grand voyages in 2009. Some of these voyages will be available for booking either by segments or in their entirety. Itineraries are still being developed, but Simon promises that they will be exciting.

Plans are also underway for the 2010 World Cruise, and surveys have already been distributed to select past passengers seeking their input on proposed itineraries. Whichever one is selected, Simon assures me it will be unique, since many world cruisers are veterans of previous global voyages, and they rarely like to repeat an itinerary.

"Especially with our World Cruises, we always have to offer something new, such as an exploration of a different part of the world, with maiden ports of call. This is what keeps our world cruisers coming back year after year," Simon said.

Summing Up For the serious cruiser, the shorter seven to 14-day sailings no longer prove fulfilling. This type of individual demands something more, and it takes longer sailings to faraway places to satisfy their need for adventure.

Holland America is unique in the industry for having so many "seasoned" cruisers on its passenger rolls, and that's why it is one of the few cruise lines to offer these types of voyages. It's also why the line has been so successful in selling it's grand voyages, despite their steep price.

I asked Simon if he ever samples the fruits of his labors as a passenger. "Well, I do get to take about one cruise a year," he said, "but my work here in Seattle keeps me pretty busy otherwise."

That's a far cry from being at the helm of a ship for months at a time, and I asked if he misses his years at sea. "Sometimes I long for the old days," he admitted, "but then again, I really enjoy the work I do now and am quite satisfied with it."

"If the boss walked into your office tomorrow and offered to send you on the Holland America cruise of your choice," I asked, "what would that be?"

"The 2009 World Cruise," Simon responded without hesitation. I could almost see him chuckling and wondering why I would ask such an obvious question. After all, he designed that itinerary from the ground up, so he knows it will be one of Holland America's best.

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