What Is `Signature of Excellence'?

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Holland America has been in the passenger ship business for 130 years -- more than Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess combined. Thus the company has more than a nodding acquaintance with the "grand era of ocean liners."

During the heyday of ocean transportation -- before jet travel – lines competed for passenger business by offering speed or style. Only one ship could be the world's fastest and win the famed Blue Riband for the record Atlantic crossing. But there was no shortage of opulent design and grand tradition among ocean liners. During a stylish era, many of those vessels were pinnacles of good taste.

Holland America Line was born to a tradition of high tea, string quartets, and gentlemen's smoking rooms. The company still pays homage to its ocean liner heritage, and now is embarking upon a new initiative called "Signature of Excellence," setting new standards for good taste and service for its modern cruise vessels. On the inaugural voyage of the MS Westerdam from Venice, Italy, last month, we spoke to David Giersdorf, a senior vice president at Holland America Line, about the "Signature of Excellence" program.

CM: Hello David. CruiseMates has a lot of Holland America fans, and fans of other cruise lines as well, who want to hear about this program. What is Signature of Excellence, and why are you bringing it on now?

David Giersdorf: Thank you for the opportunity to tell you what we are doing. Signature of Excellence is a concept that we hope will raise the bar for quality in every aspect of cruising. There isn't any single idea that defines it, but there are countless details that when put together create the finest cruise experience Holland America can muster. The idea is to make the Holland America name synonymous with quality cruising.

CM: Can you give me some examples of how you do that?

DG: Sure. On the Westerdam, every cabin has extra-plush mattresses, 250-thread-count bed linens, extra-large and fluffy Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes, magnifying make-up mirrors, high-power hair dryers, stainless steel fruit baskets, ice buckets and serving trays. That is for just for regular staterooms; the suites will be getting that and a lot more. Once Signature of Excellence has been implemented fleet-wide, every Holland America stateroom will be outfitted this way.

CM: I have to say, those are really nice towels.

DG: Thank you, but Signature of Excellence isn't just about towels, or just about staterooms. It is a five-point plan that touches every aspect of cruising. Our goal is to take the entire Holland America experience to a whole new level.

CM: And these five points are…?

DG: The five areas where we are undertaking major improvements are accommodations, destinations, dining, service, and onboard enrichment.

CM: How did you arrive at this formula, and why is now the right time for Signature of Excellence.

DG: Let's be honest: The industry has just undergone an unprecedented growth spurt. We had so many new ships coming out that we had our hands full just getting them ready to sail. It is a huge undertaking to build, staff and provision one new ship, and we brought out 11 of them in the last 11 years, six of them in the last four years. Like most cruise lines, while we were managing this growth some details of what happens on board fell through the cracks. Some passengers started to give us negative comments that we rarely heard before.

Holland America has a lot of loyal customers, and they have pretty high expectations for us. They let us know when they are unhappy, and we listen to our customers carefully. Like I said, we were in a growth phase so I think there was some legitimacy to their comments.

CM: And hence Signature of Excellence? Do you think it will make your loyal customers happy?

DG: Yes, because it is really a refinement of the things Holland America has always stood for -- first class quality and tradition. But I want to make this clear: Signature of Excellence is not really targeted to our loyal base of cruisers. We are actually doing it for the new cruisers who may not know who we are. It is aimed at all people with good taste, including younger people, looking for top quality travel and vacation experiences. These people may or may not know anything about cruising, but they do know what they like. We want to differentiate ourselves as the more refined cruise line, with good taste, quality service, cuisine, special enrichment programs and unusual destinations.

CM: Differentiation from the Carnival or Royal Caribbean experience -- for the Martha Stuart crowd?

DG: That may be one example, but they may be younger and have a family, too. We want to appeal to adult sensibilities and provide a good family vacation as well. For example, we have plans to add a Kids Aqua Park, horseback riding and a stingray snorkel experience to our private island, Half Moon Cay. We want our kids to have a great time, but we aren't trying to compete in the "cruise line for kids" market. We can only accommodate around 200 (children) on any ship. Our ships are for adults, but if they have kids there will be plenty of supervised fun activities.

CM: That brings up another point. Holland America is moving more into the Caribbean market. How do you differentiate a Caribbean cruise?

DG: Well, longer cruises are one example. We do more 10, 12 and 14-day Caribbean cruises. A 10-day Caribbean cruise is a true escape, a chance to relax. Combine that with Signature of Excellence and you have a truly relaxing vacation – not a wild Caribbean cruise.

CM: The Zuiderdam is a year-round seven-day Caribbean ship.

DG: Yes, and it is our only Caribbean-dedicated ship. It is admittedly a different ship for us, with a more upbeat décor and schedule. Any cruise line of size must be in the Caribbean. We used to send our ships back to the Caribbean only during the winter months, but we found it is better to keep one there so we don't have to keep reminding people every year that Holland America cruises the Caribbean.

CM: Take note, travel agents. Tell me more about Signature of Excellence.

DG: The new Westerdam, just christened, is the first ship to be fully provisioned for it. The plan was begun in January, and it will take through early 2006 to reach our full fleet. These new Vista-class ships offer more, so our goal is to bring the entire fleet up to Vista-class standards. As our ships go into dry dock, they will be enhanced one by one until all are finished. Some things need to be added to all ships. We will have a Sidewalk Café with all kinds of interactive features. We will begin our Flagship Forum lecture series on all ships. A Culinary Arts Theater where cruisers can learn the secrets of great chefs will be added – it is a classroom connected to a kitchen for live cooking demonstrations.

Speaking of cuisine, we will be updating our kitchens with state of the art devices for freshness, and better temperature and presentation. We are offering four dining times in the dining room for more convenience, and also the option of ordering from the dining room menu in your cabin if you feel like staying in (only during the dinner hour). In the Lido, we will be offering nighttime service including tableside preparation. The Pinnacle Grill offers alternative dining ($20 surcharge).

Our spa on the Westerdam is modeled on the Greenhouse Spa in Texas. This will be extended to all ships soon. In addition to all the great massage treatments, hair and pedicure, it features a hydrotherapy pool and a thermal suite, either of which you can use all day for just $15.

We plan to go to more destinations worldwide than ever before, and offer more comprehensive tours than ever. We are also doing the additions to Half Moon Cay, which I think will be a big hit. More options for kids include new, dedicated youth centers and more counselors.

We have more suites than any other cruise line, and we now offer a private lounge with concierge services, sweet treats and coffee and tea just for our suite passengers. All suites will have DVD players with an extensive library of movies in the concierge suite, duvets, mini-bars and personalized stationary.

CM: The list just goes on and on.

DG: Yes, like I said, Signature of Excellence is meant to touch practically every aspect of the Holland America cruise experience. It isn't just one thing, but put it all together and it adds up to one great cruise.

Another Interview: Holland America Mixologist

As a part of Signature of Excellence, Holland America decided to start from scratch with a new menu of cocktails to be served aboard its ships. In charge of the project is Seattle's Ryan Magarian, a well-known mixologist who prefers the title "Bar Chef" because it describes his process more accurately.

CM: What exactly is a "Bar Chef?"

RM: It is a title that top quality restaurants are using commonly these days. It is similar to a sommelier in that our job is to match the libations to the cuisine. The difference of course, is that we expand our options to include all kinds of alcohol and cocktail ingredients rather then limiting them to wine.

CM: And what is your role with Holland America?

RM: First of all, Holland America wanted to evaluate the ingredients of all the cocktails they serve on ships. There are many standard cocktails, we looked into all of them to see how we could improve them, and then we standardized the recipes on all the ships. But the fun part was when they asked me to invent new cocktails that only Holland America serves. In all, we created 60 recipes and of those, 20 are all original cocktails I created.

CM: Well, it does sound like fun. Tell me, how does a new cocktail become popular?

RM: Well, a bar might invent something new like a Pina Colada. As people get to know it they start to ask for it everywhere they go. Often they have to describe it to the bartender and as a result there might be a dozen different recipes for a new drink until at some point it gets written down and become more standardized. For Holland America, we have invented some completely new cocktails that we believe no one has ever tried before.

CM: Can you give me an example? How does one invent a new cocktail?

RM: We started out by thinking about new, fresh ingredients and what kind of liquor they might naturally blend with. We came up with some very unusual combinations.

CM: For example?

RM: I started out with herbs, something a little unusual for cocktails now. There are already drinks that use mint, I explored basil, sage, and cilantro.

CM: What did you come up with?

RM: I am very excited about something I call the "Cucumber Lime Smash." It begins with either vodka or gin, you add lime, pureed English cucumber and sugar. For the hot Caribbean cruises it is one of the most refreshing drinks I have tried yet. Another Caribbean drink we will offer is the "Mojito" which is actually the unofficial national cocktail of Cuba. It has white rum, fresh mint, hand-squeezed limes, sugar and soda water. It is very refreshing, too.

CM: Interesting, I guess cocktails are regional by nature.

RM: Naturally. In Alaska we are going to be offering a recipes that I am very excited about – "Spanish Coffee". We begin by coating the rim of a glass with sugar, which we then caramelize with a flame, similar to crème brulee. We pour in coffee and add cinnamon, nutmeg, Kahlua and Cointreux. And we top it off with whipped cream, of course.

CM: My gosh, that sounds delicious.

RM: Thank you. It is.

CM: So, what makes a cocktail great?

RM: I think it needs to be memorable. If you recall having the drink and tell your friends about it, then it is a great drink.

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