Prior to joining Holland America Lines (HAL), Rick Meadows was VP of Sales & Marketing for Windstar Cruises, then Senior VP of Sales & Marketing for Seabourn Cruise Line. A frequent speaker at industry forums, he also serves on the CLIA Marketing Committee. Residing in the Seattle area, Rick serves on the board of directors of the Seattle Repertory Theater and has been appointed by the Governor to the Washington State Tourism Commission. Our discussion focused on the increasing popularity of on-board enrichment programs and how travel agents might leverage the trend to their advantage.
TRO: HAL has a reputation as a leader in the field of on-board enrichments programs, particularly in the field of culinary arts. Has this proven to be the most popular of passenger programs?
RM: Let me kind of set the background first. The Signature of Excellence program that was started about four years ago as an initiative has now become a way of life with us. We really believe that investing in enrichment and “edu-tainment” is something that is going to be really important to remain relevant to the Boomer and the generation behind them (Generation X). The whole ability to learn and be entertained at the same time is not a fad…but has become a trend that has really set in…and is now something that is expected.
TRO: What are the areas that HAL features in “edu-tainment”?
RM: We currently focus on core areas such as culinary programming, technology, destination lecturers, well being. There are a number of things that we have done with our programming and staffing to deliver all in all of those areas. We use a team approach called “Explorations“, which we have on each of our ships. The team itself is made up of core positions such as the Party Planner, the Life Stylist, the Travel Guide, the “Techspert” and – on cruises of 14 days or more – a Book Club Leader. The on-board Party Planner, for instance, hosts all the events in the Culinary Arts Center. This pairing has proven incredibly successful. Additionally, these culinary events are in partnership with Food & Wine Magazine. Not only do we host some 70 top ranked celebrity chefs in cooking demonstrations though out the year – these centers also host a number of related courses, such as actual cooking classes for adults and kids, how to plan a party, how to set the perfect table, etc.
TRO: So the Party Planner actually teaches party planning as well as planning and hosting on-board events?
RM: Exactly. And the theme can differ as well, depending on the particular itinerary. For example, if on a cruise to Mexico, it could include a course on how to plan and host the perfect Margarita Tasting & Salsa Making Party. Specific course content is crafted and tailored to reflect the culture of the part of the world to which you are sailing.
TRO: So partnerships like Food & Wine are important. What other partnerships have you leveraged?
RM: Something that HAL is doing that is an exclusive is the “techspert” – . who works in our digital workshops. These are powered by Microsoft Windows – another strategic partnership. The Windows people have worked with us to create a dedicated space on each ship that offers complimentary classes on such subjects as how to blog, how to manipulate photos on line, how to participate in social media, etc. All “techsperts” are trained by and have graduated from the Microsoft school here in Seattle. This course has proven to be hugely successful and is a core part of our enrichment programs.
TRO: I know that for cruise lines on-board real estate is precious. Given their proven success, how much additional space is being dedicated to these programs?
RM: The amount of additional space is significant, plus we have learned how to create multi-purpose venues, such as the Culinary Arts Center. On the S (smaller) & R (mid-range) class ships the center is in the ship’s theater. When the movie screen lifts you find behind it a million dollar demonstration kitchen.
Another example is the Explorations Cafe which is powered by the New York Times. Originally a space that was typically just the ship’s library, has been expanded to include Internet connectivity, becoming literally the ship’s living room.
TRO: What percentage of the passengers at large attend these “edu-tainment programs?
RM: It varies by sailing. An average would be in the 40% range, maybe a little bit more.
TRO: Ratio of men to women?
RM: It is about 50/50 – but what is interesting is seeing how the younger generations are reacting and participating. A good example is in the Culinary Arts Center. Because of the Food Network and the fact that food-as-a-hobby has become something that has been widely embraced globally over the last ten years, there are a lot of young kids that attend the cooking demonstrations and they absolutely love them. It is very normal to see five or six, or ten kids hanging on every word of the guest chef. So it is multiple generations that are enjoying the programs.
TRO: What is the repeat factor?
RM: It is pretty high. Most people will go to more than one of the complementary demonstrations and are very likely to sign up for a fee based course as well. Participants like to build on what they have learned by staying engaged.
TRO: Have you looked a how guest participation impacts overall customer satisfaction?
RM: Yes, we have and we believe it does. When we look at the specific guests who participate in some form of enrichment not only do their numerical ratings suggest that it has helped to improve their over all satisfaction of the cruise, but it is the written comments, the number of letters and comments that appear on our comment cards very clearly underscore that they are enjoying this whole focus on edu-tainment and enrichment. That’s something that is coming back loud and clear…which is why we are always refreshing our classes, looking at what is the next area that we want to invest in. It absolutely helps in building a loyal and repeat guest.
TRO: To what degree do on-board courses impact “reason to cruise”?
RM: Value is the major concern of today’s cruiser. We see edu-tainment as a way to provide the guest with much more allover value, to improve the cruise experience to insure that they are going to come back. Over 40% of our guests have sailed with HAL before and that is a very high percent. It is a key part of our formula to keep people returning.
TRO: Do you have sales and markets tools or resources to support agents in targeting affinity groups interested in these on board edu-tainment programs?
RM: We encourage agents to go out and find and promote real affinity groups. Groups can be a terrific way for agents to grow their business and to build a relationship with people that will come back to that agency over and over. In that regard one of our most popular enrichment categories for affinity groups is in the category of the culinary arts group. The Culinary Arts Center is a super popular place where agents have leveraged their relationships. They have found local chefs, local restaurateurs, local wine makers, local foodies and they bring them together to take advantage of our Culinary Arts Center and the dedicated space. We have a program in place where agents can find that chef, bring them on-board and we will give them a dedicated number of hours of time in the Culinary Arts Center for free. We will work with them through our Party Planner to make sure they can do some special events crafted for that particular group in the Culinary Arts Center. It’s been just a huge success…following the whole global trend in food and wine, something that is of great interest to many people. This is a great area for travel agents to make some money, build a loyal booking business. They can work with our sales team on how to do that and many do everyday.
Agents can use our existing materials for our Culinary Arts Center and we can work with them to craft any kind of dedicated materials that they might need for a direct mail piece…or that they may want to insert into an email. They can use our assets to that end to help them sell their group.
We also have our GAP points program which is a program to give agents a host of benefits for groups on specific ships and specific sailings and through that program – through our amenities program – they can book a group on a particular sailing date and have the added incentive of X number of points on a given sailing and then fulfill those points on things that might be relevant or of interest for the group.
TRO: What if agents don’t have the time to track down a local chef with a following?
RM: An easy thing that agents can do is just promote the sailings that feature our guest chefs. It’s another way to leverage the content that we have already created. That list of chefs and sailings is always maintained and current on the HAL website.
TRO: So you are suggesting that agents contact their local HAL business development managers to pursue any of the above?
RM: Yes, absolutely.
TRO: A there any plans in the works that would allow travel agents to earn commissions off the entrance fees associated with some of the courses?
RM: At this point there is not. But I think there are endless possibilities and ways that we can work with agents to build groups and leverage the spaces that we have to support them in finding groups and individuals that have these kind of passion points. It is about building the best possible programming we can on-board which ultimately attracts agents to the overall cruise experience as well as their guests.
TRO: What can cruise agents do to maximize possibilities for families traveling with children?
In the Culinary Arts Center we have classes for kids. That’s something that has been exciting for the younger set. The ‘tweens and teens are welcome to attend, they are complimentary, they are 45 minutes each, the program incorporates items for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they are hysterical to watch. The kids learn how to do things like make Bear Tracks (an Alaska themed cookie), fruit rollups, ice cream sandwiches, Salad People art…older kids make soft pretzels, pita chips, humus, saltwater taffy and other things that are part of Club HAL (the on-board kids program).
TRO: Do you have any videos of the above that agents could download and leverage as a selling point?
RM: Absolutely. We have video of the Culinary Arts program including video footage of the kids using the space, we do have imagery available.
TRO: How would agents access that?
RM: Agents can go to Travel Agent Headquarters. There we have an image library from which agents can download stills. For videos they can link to our Video Gallery on our website where we have some 80 or 90 videos that are great and easy to use.
TRO: Is HAL showcasing any edu-tainment endeavors via social media?
RM: We promote and showcase through social media, it is certainly growing, our Facebook page, our Twitter account, our blog, and the on-board Digital Workshop is very much tied into social media, teaching our guests how to do things like creating travel videos or to blog about their vacation experience. It plays a growing role in not only communicating about our edu-tainment programs but about our overall brand experience as well. One of our blog classes is called “Fifteen Minutes of Fame”. It covers blogging in depth and gives people their own skill set to create their own 15 minutes of fame via blogs. Another is titled “Your Away From Home Movie”.
TRO: Can you give us any hints or clues to what is next…to what you are doing to keep a leg up on the competition?
RM: Whatever we do we want to be as authentic to our brand as we can be. We spend a great deal of time and energy always thinking about what is next…researching the interests of our guests…to understand the kinds of things they are really interested in delving into deeper from an educational perspective. There are always two or three large ideas under development.
TRO: Can you give us a quick preview of what we might expect?
RM: At this point I can’t. But I can tell you that there is a lot going on and that it is an exciting time for us.