A Conversation with Rick Meadows of Holland America Line

rick meadows
All photos by Holland America Line

Founded in The Netherlands in 1873, Holland America Line (www.hollandamerica.com) is a storied premium brand with a fascinating history. It operated steamship service to the Americas from Europe in its early years and brought immigrants to New York City at the turn of the 20th century.

It survived two World Wars. And the line successfully mastered the transition from an era when ships were oceangoing transport to a time when they're considered pampering floating resorts that offer a value-added vacation.

 “We are a brand that certainly has a beautiful history,” acknowledges Rick Meadows, the line’s executive vice president for marketing, sales and guest programs. “Next year we’ll be celebrating 140 years. We’re certainly proud of that history. There’s no question that it’s something we value and know our guests value.”

Excellence and Experiences

History aside, though, Meadows, a 20-year-plus cruise industry veteran who’s responsible for Holland America's global revenue and also oversees product pricing, yield management, marketing, sales, reservations, public relations and guest relations, says that the premium line's success is all about the mission.

“Our prime goal as a company is to deliver on a mission that we set forth several years ago,” he stresses. “We endeavor to do everything possible to deliver and exceed that mission, which is pretty straightforward:   ‘Through excellence we create once-in-a-lifetime experiences every time.’”

Meadows cites two important words in that mission statement – “excellence” and “experiences.”  He says guests in Holland America’s market and cruise category increasingly desire unique experiences. “They want to enrich their lives,” Meadows notes.

Today's consumers increasingly wish to add experiences to their vacation, versus simply getting away. Holland America’s approach, says Meadows covers the bases in that regard for everything from culinary programs to service, from entertainment to destinations.  

“All those are core pillars of our company and of our brand and they fulfill our mission and deliver those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Meadows says.

Moving forward,  Meadows acknowledges that it’s important for his line to keep the product “current, exciting and more than simply relevant," something the line is committed to doing.

Follow the Fleet

Fleet-wise, Holland America a fleet of 15 mid-sized cruise ships that operate more than 500 sailings a year to all seven continents.  The line has no more ships on order; its newest vessel is Nieuw Amsterdam, which launched in 2010. 

Nieuw Amsterdam is also the largest ship in the fleet; it carries 2,100 guests. Holland America's smallest ship is Prinsendam which carries 835 guests.

For 2013, Holland America’s fleet will sail the Caribbean, Bermuda, Alaska, Europe, Mexico, South America, the Panama Canal, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. The line also operates exotic voyages up the Amazon, to remote Antarctica and globally on extended Grand Voyages.

One of the line’s big operating areas is Alaska. It’s a tried-and-true market for Holland America, but there are many competitors in that market as well.

Although the number of Holland America ships deployed in Alaska in 2013 will remain at seven — the same as this year, Amsterdam will double its departures next year on new seven-day roundtrip sailings from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

As a result, Meadows says 2013 Alaska-season departures will increase 8.5 percent and guest capacity will increase 6 percent over 2012.

What new ports will Holland America sail to next year?  The line has a slew of new options for destination collectors, according to Meadows.

Among them are Majuro, Marshall Islands;  Pohnpei  in Micronesia; Killybegs and Galway in Ireland; Sassnitz, Germany; Alcudia, Spain; Igoumenitsa and Hydra, Greece; and Alanya, Turkey.   

rick meadowsChanging a Demographic Perspective

When asked about Holland America’s average customer age, Meadows says, “the age has stayed very constant over quite a few years now.  The average age is mid-50s.”  

Boomers are now traveling more frequently than in the past and they’re increasingly bringing along friends and family members. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth and interest in family travel experiences,” says Meadows.

So the previous marketplace perception of Holland America as a line that caters only to seniors is no longer correct, according to Meadows.

The experiential facets of the line’s product have definitely changed consumer perception. As a result, “you’ll find seniors, you’ll find boomers, you’ll find kids and teens too,” he says, “and all with the same opportunity to enjoy the experience [but in different and new ways]."

But Meadows also notes that itinerary plays a role in the age demographic:  “If you’re on the Amsterdam on the World Cruise, the audience will be a little different, because they have more discretionary time to do a cruise of over a 100 days in duration.”

And if travelers sail the Caribbean during the holidays, the ages of guests will be skewed younger, due to so many families with young children and teens onboard.

Trolling for Prospects

What do cruise lines and agents need to do to increase cruise sales? Meadows says it’s often simply about being visible where the prospects are - so consumers can learn more about potential vacation options.

“In our case, we made significant investments in our Web site, made sure our site is broadly accessible,” Meadows says.

He cites the clout of visual tools in swaying the public. People love video and Holland America now has a tremendous number of videos online. Those allow prospects to learn not just about ships and hardware but about the destinations to which Holland America sails. 

“We have a large number of destination videos on the Holland America Web site and it’s remarkable that not only consumers are viewing them, but travel agents are also leveraging those videos [in sales presentations],” he says. Agents can use the videos as a visual enticement to help clients see what's available on a cruise and find out what appeals to specific clients.

Holland America Line says agents and consumers may now access 211 separate Alaska shore excursion videos online. These aren’t general port overviews, but instead they showcase a specific shore excursion in each port. Again, the focus is on the specific experience that helps sell the overall cruise.

In addition, Holland America has 53 so-called “tour overview” videos; these talk about a specific port and include mentions of shore trips. Europe is strongly represented in the videos.

Meadows says Holland America assists agents with e-mails and helps assure that relevant information reaches the right customers. 

What about Social Media?

Social media is just for younger folks, right? That's definitely not so, says Meadows. “If you go to our Facebook page, we have 600,000 likes, and Facebook is used by our prospects and our guests of all ages. “

He says it's important for agents to spend time and money on social media. He urges agents to interact with Holland America on its Facebook page. While agents aren't permitted to blatantly sell, the goal for many agents who post is to create a presence, a social personality and marketplace buzz. 

Potential clients who see an agency's comments and regular posts may opt to talk to that agent when they're ready to book a vacation or look at options.

Twitter and blogs are other good tools for agents, Meadows says, but he also is very high on a marketing tool that’s continually proven its value to the trade – direct mail.

“Direct mail is one of the best ways to drive clients right into an agency,” he said, and the line constantly monitors direct mail to assure the messages are targeted properly and customized.

Increasingly Educated Consumers

Agents know that most consumers are far more educated than they were years ago about travel, Meadows says. He emphasizes that "travel in its own right is a passion," and that people gather an unbelievable quantity of information online.

But that presents an opportunity for agents. Meadows cites the sheer quantity of information that clients must sift through. More and more, consumers are becoming aware of the intrinsic value of travel advisors.

Because people see their vacations as a right rather than a privilege, they want to invest time in making sure that the vacation is invested correctly – and that it will do exactly what they want it to fulfill., according to Meadows:  “So it’s a different kind of qualifying, but a very effective agent can go in and do a tremendous job.”