Holland America Line (HAL) is in the process of overhauling the way its guests experience destinations, through physical changes to ships, improved programming, interactive technology and more meaningful engagement with the crew. The idea is to take what HAL has done – and done well for many decades – and elevate it, attracting new customers while keeping things fresh and exciting for its loyal clientele.

Christened Explorations Central, or EXC, the new initiative is the definition of multifaceted, combining in-depth digital content on subjects ranging from travel and food to the arts with talks, tours and demonstrations, and even a virtual ship’s bridge. Some ships will also have their crow’s nest transformed into a comprehensive resource and engagement centre – a hub of information where guests can begin to immerse themselves in their next destination.

All of this will be overseen by a dedicated EXC team, which will bring local culture and history on board with customised guidance for each destination. EXC Talks will dig deep into destinations to teach guests about local customs while, through EXC Encounters, local cultural representatives will come on board before the ship docks to build anticipation for the next port of call.

Guests might learn how to play the steel drums from a Trinidadian, make a flower lei with a native Hawaiian or participate in an early-morning Tai Chi lesson. EXC Encounters also include informal small-group gatherings hosted by EXC guides, including language and cultural etiquette lessons, and storytelling sessions.

With the combined help of online EXC port guides – through which guests can create a personalised itinerary based on their interests – and printed EXC port maps – which highlight the key points in each destination that are easily reachable from the port – guests should be armed with more than enough information to make the most of every destination on their chosen route.

As HAL president Orlando Ashford summarises, “EXC is a programmatic wrapper around all that we do here at HAL as it relates to destinations. This is our way of taking what we’ve done for a long time, elevating the experience and excitement so we can encourage and attract more people to try HAL, and continuing to satisfy those who have been with us for an extended period of time.” It’s all part of the line’s wider strategy to enhance the entire cruise experience, he says, from the music on board to the culinary offerings.

“We’ve had music as a part of our offering for years but, by partnering with organisations like Lincoln Center Stage, BB King’s Blues Club and Billboard Onboard, we’ve taken our music experience and elevated it,” Ashford explains.

"It’s one thing for a corporation to say ‘this is a cool place to go’, but it’s another thing to get a recommendation from someone who’s been to this port 27 times and likes a particular little restaurant or shop."

Culinary demonstrations, cooking shows and top-quality cuisine have also been part and parcel of the HAL experience for many years, but the line has recently taken this to the next level by partnering with America’s Test Kitchen to create an exclusive programme for its guests.

Across these areas, Ashford finds it hard to pinpoint one single “aha moment” that led to the brand’s new programmes.

“I really believe in this concept called ‘collective intelligence’ – working in a collaborative group, taking a concept
and then stacking on top of it,” he says. “It’s a series of discussions, debates, conversations, ideas, brainstorms, good thoughts, bad thoughts and then, eventually, the whole discovery process leads to us coming up with innovations that we decide to execute. It’s not one ‘aha’ moment; it’s a series of mini moments.”

Fine-tuning the process

With EXC specifically, the company had been working on the concept for eight to nine months before teams were put in place and it was launched in December 2016. Programming will now be rolled out across the entire fleet over the course of 2017, with the EXC shipboard centre debuting aboard MS Westerdam in April following a scheduled dry dock.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however, as Ashford is happy to admit.

“Any time you’re doing something new, the whole process is a collection of ‘aha’ moments and challenges you have to overcome, but that’s part of the excitement – overcoming obstacles and figuring out how you’re going to get it done,” he says, adding that the tangible element of the EXC programme – the design and build of the engagement centres in the crow’s nest – has probably brought the biggest challenges.

“We had to design it and figure out how it would work, make plans for the look and feel of it, and see how it would fit, while maintaining the elements that people enjoy and expect in the crow’s nest. So, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different people involved, with personnel from the guest experience team, the marketing team, the fleet team and the finance team.

“The whole thing is a challenge we have to work through, but on the other side, once you get it managed, the outcome is a really cool experience that we will be able to deliver to our guests. That’s the fun part.”

Ultimately, the shipboard centres will allow guests to immerse themselves in their next destination before they arrive thanks to interactive screens featuring maps, excursion planning tools and in-depth information. “We want guests to get intel and insight into the destination in an experiential way,” Ashford notes. “They will be able to collaborate with other guests as well as getting insight from the crew, whether it’s people who are actually there or data we’ve collected from the captain and crew.

“Many of the crew members have been to these destinations multiple times, so one of the concepts we’re working through is how to bring that voice into the dialogue with guests. It’s one thing for a corporation to say ‘this is a cool place to go’, but it’s another thing to get a recommendation from someone who’s been to this port 27 times and likes a particular little restaurant or shop.”

The people make the place

Clearly, the EXC team will be absolutely crucial to the success of the initiative, which is why they have been handpicked from within the company and outside, and put through extensive training.

“Take lectures and talks,” Ashford offers as an example. “We’ve always done these, but we want to raise the bar in terms of quality and the consistency of how we execute them. So, there are people who deliver wonderful talks today who will remain part of the team; the format in which they deliver their talks may just be adapted. We will also introduce new people to the team.

“The whole idea is to elevate the content and the format, and the way we execute and deliver it, so training has to be administered in order to make sure that’s happening and that the experience is up to the standard we want.”

"We want guests to be better prepared and able to make decisions based on their personal interests."

Ashford is well known across the industry for his belief in the transformative power of travel, a process that he believes is an exchange between the traveller and the destination, each leaving a little bit of themselves behind with the other. His personal goal for EXC is to make that process even more enriching for customers of HAL.

“We want guests to have more insight in terms of what they want to do and see when they get to a destination. We want them to be better prepared and able to make decisions based on their personal interests, whether that be art, history or food. Whatever it is, once you get there, you’re ready to go, and you can enjoy and immerse yourself in a destination more efficiently,” he explains.

Looking ahead, the brand also reserves the right to improve the EXC programme as it goes along. Feedback from guests, staff crew and shoreside staff will be taken into account as roll-out gets under way.

“It’s something that will unfold,” Ashford concludes. “It will evolve and continue to get better as we go forward.”