Cruise360: Karl Holz, Disney Cruise Line's President, Tells Agents to Dream

Karl Holz, president of Disney Cruise Line and New Vacation Operations, The Walt Disney Company, gave a keynote address on Friday afternoon at Cruise360 at Port Everglades, FL. (Photo by Susan J Young)

For the cruise industry and the trade to become more efficient, more creative and more innovative, “that sort of sounds like a piece out of Disney playbook,” quipped Karl Holz, the president of Disney Cruise Line and new vacation operations. 

He was giving a keynote address to 1,000 agents attending Cruise360’s second General Session Friday afternoon. 

“Today is especially fun, themed to ‘how can we inspire each other to higher levels of excellence, higher levels of performance and ultimately, stronger business results,’” Holz told the trade audience.  

To become truly inspired, Holz said it takes an open mind, and “as we like to say at Disney, a willingness to dream big. If we do these things successfully we can almost assume super human powers.” 

Guest Service Super Heroes

He told those attending that while they don’t wear capes, carry shields or battle the world’s most evil super villains, “let’s just think of ourselves as guest service super heroes.” 

So, Holz asked how agents can develop powers that “allow us to eradicate uninspired thinking, poor service and a stuck-in-a-rut company culture.”

On one level, delivering a great client or customer experience is straightforward. “You give them everything they expect and then you give them some more,” says Holz. 

But countless factors must be in place to make that happen seamlessly and naturally. During the course of his career Holz has seen or heard a few things that show how Disney is unique when it comes to the guest experience.

He cited one personal memory that happened to him on the Disney Dream a few years ago. “I noticed a woman holding up her camera...and I struck up a conversation with her and she turned out to be a repeat guest from South Carolina.”

She had recognized him, and told Holz her family sails with Disney three or four times a year. He asked her if there was anything that could be done onboard to make her Disney cruise experience even better.

The guest replied emphatically: “Don’t change a thing. The reason we sail with Disney is because we trust you. We feel safe, and we know you’ll always deliver a fantastic experience.”

Trust Is Key 

Holz told the agents that “trust” is an incredibly important word. How do you get to a point where families trust you? "Trust is key," he said.

From Disney's perspective, its priority is to deliver experiences that are completely unexpected. "It’s a combination of consistently great service and surprise and delight," noted Holz.

He suggested that agents incorporate that same philosophy into their own businesses to elevate their game.

Disney operates four ships sailing the world’s oceans and a private island experience. But creating the product started with dialogue, brainstorming and ideas, he said, and “lots and lots of ideas.”

So he told the agents to look for great concepts in their businesses that have new potential: “We believe great ideas come from everyone and everywhere. That means truly listening to those around you and opening our ears to all input – whether it’s good, whether it’s bad..."

Challenge the Status Quo

Agents should nurture those ideas and empower their teams to challenge the status quo. Push for the impossible and think in completely new ways.

"Just because something was done a certain way for 10 years, doesn’t make it okay to continue doing it that way," Holz emphasized. In fact, he said, that’s probably a sign that means things need to change.

“Bottom line is this… challenging the way you do things often leads to surprisingly better results," he said.

Holz acknowledged that accepting the status quo is simply not a part of Disney’s DNA: “Once we have an idea, we combine it with thorough research, strategic planning and testing,” which is then moved forward with discipline, perseverance, great leadership, teamwork and commitment.

One of the most successful ways to look at this is to examine how Disney has injected the popular Star Wars saga into Disney Cruise Line's onboard experience through special sailings to take guests “to a galaxy far, far away.” 

In similar way, he said Disney will have Marvel Day at Sea this year and next on Disney Magic with such exclusive character interactions and experiences as a Marvel deck party and movie screenings at sea.

Stressing to the agent audience that “this kind of innovative thinking just can’t happen only in the operation or in the marketing department,” Holz said: “You need to cultivate it across all areas of your organization – human resources, finance, technology, sales” and so on.

Accepting the Risk

Risk taking? Big ideas carry big risks, he said, citing Walt Disney's decision to create "Snow White," the first full-length animated motion picture. Everyone said no one would come to watch. They were wrong.

It was a big risk and yet was one of the biggest, most successful films of 1937. Another successful risk to reward moment was the launch of Disney Cruise Line.

It was a venture unlike anything the company had done in the past and the company had little experience in the maritime world. But Holz said they knew three things. 

First, “we knew the cruise industry [at the time] was focused on adults rather than children and families.”

Second, “we knew that cruising would be a great complement to the theme park experience.”

And third, “we knew a thing or two about the family travel market.”

So the line began building its own cruise business in 1994, and in 1998, it introduced Disney Cruise Line to guests. “We designed a bow-to-stern experience that brings everyone together," he said.

Learn From Mistakes 

"We took a calculated risk and it’s worked out pretty well,” Holz noted. “But that’s not to say we didn’t have issues. But as we know from any good story, what’s important is how we learn from our mistakes. Even super heroes must overcome failure from time to time.”

The early days of Disney Cruise Line were a challenge as the company sought to integrate the maritime culture with its own theme park culture.

“We planned to completely reinvent the way cruise ship interiors were designed,” he said. That presented difficulties for the line and the shipyard

Imagineering (the creative Disney team) and the shipyard ultimately did learn to work together, “but we also learned that in many cases, we needed to stick to the model established by the maritime industry."

For example, Disney didn’t have a hotel director or a cruise director onboard its first ship at the very beginning. “Looking at it, we were nuts,” Holz said. “We thought we could run our ships like resorts. Again, we were nuts.” 

Thankfully, he said, reality set in and common sense prevailed. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to acknowledge your mistakes -- to be willing to change things and move on. It's something we are deeply committed to.

"You are only doing yourself and your organization a disservice if you can’t be flexible and move on in a different direction when the situation calls for it," he emphasized. "So in the early days of Disney Cruise Line, we learned quickly and made adjustments and the rest is history."

He also said that on a smaller scale, Disney recently dipped its toes into European river cruising through its partnership with AmaWaterways. That too was a risk but has proven successful, he said, noting that “AmaWaterways has been the perfect partnership for us. So far the results have been very positive."