Steering Holland America Group’s brands to greater success

Sam Ballard asks Stein Kruse what he is doing to keep the firm’s business growing from strength to strength

Steering Holland America Group’s brands to greater success
Stein Kruse celebrates Nieuw Statendam's christening with a whole host of celebrities and executives

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Spring/Summer 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

From launching ships with global superstars to announcing plans to take the company in bold new directions, Stein Kruse is, by any definition, a pioneer of the cruise industry. The CEO of Holland America Group – which is part of Carnival Corporation and incorporates Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn and P&O Cruises Australia – has one of the biggest remits in the industry, with an overall team that incorporates about 64,000 people and dozens of vessels. 

With great power comes great responsibility. Kruse, the consummate professional, wears the office of Holland America Group well – he is a steady hand to take the company forward at an especially exciting time for the company and industry at large.

“We are launching ships across the board,” he says. “Last February, Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam was christened, creating a huge amount of noise around the brand. Princess has announced numerous new ships, including Sky Princess and Enchanted Princess; Seabourn has reinvented the luxury segment again with Seabourn Ovation; and P&O Australia has had a whole host of changes to its fleet, with new ships due to join it from Princess starting in 2020.”

Each of those events are enough to keep the average CEO busy. However, there is more than that on Kruse’s plate – one example being plans for Seabourn, Carnival Corporation’s ultra-luxury line, to launch two expedition vessels in 2021 and 2022. The two 264-passenger icebreakers are unchartered territory for Carnival and proof of the company’s ambitious spirit.

“Guest satisfaction ratings are at an all-time high, so we know we’re doing something right,” says Kruse, who also cites the company’s CSMART training centre in Almere, Netherlands, and its investment in emerging technologies such as LNG and the Ocean Medallion platform as indicators of the its direction.

While hardware is important to Kruse – as evidenced by both the much-publicised new arrivals and also the older stock, such as Holland America’s Prisendam leaving the fleet – it’s what is happening off the ship that gets passengers excited. It’s a well-known fact, after all, that destination is the number one reason why passengers book a cruise.  

One destination that has been defining for Kruse and Holland America Group – arguably more than any other – is Alaska. Holland America Line will have been sailing to Alaska for 72 years in 2019, an incredible achievement. But, how has the company maintained the appeal of Alaska over that time?

“Our presence in Alaska has never been higher but the demand has never been higher, either,” Kruse says. “Guests want to see the wilderness and beauty of Alaska. That hasn’t changed. It’s still a bucket-list destination and we are committed to preserving that.”

This isn’t just rhetoric. Carnival made headlines last year when it bought the White Pass & Yukon Route railroads. Proof, if any were needed, that Kruse’s job is as much about running a cruise company as it is destination management. As the industry looks to control its land offering as much as possible it is unsurprising to see Carnival Corporation – the world’s biggest cruise company – is at the forefront of this with investment in everything from upgrades at its McKinley Chalet Resorts in Alaska to two private islands the company owns in the Bahamas: Half Moon Cay and Princess Cay. 

“Guests want more active and personalised experiences on shore in addition to the traditional sightseeing,” Kruse says. “In Alaska they want to hike on the glacier, kayak in glacial waters and interact with local communities and experience their culture. We want to bring 200,000 more guests to Alaska for 2019-2020. We aren’t going to change the landscape, so how we attract new guests to come and personalise how they experience the destination is important.”

One of the most interesting things about Kruse is just how big his remit is. His portfolio incorporates a cruise business that spans the globe and a workforce that numbers in the tens of thousands. The sheer scale of that operation poses numerous leadership challenges – whether it’s his cruise lines staying within their clearly defined “swim lanes” or making sure the company continues to attract top talent. 

When asked to name the biggest challenges faced with leading Holland America Group, Kruse cites leading a geographically diverse organisation; balancing top-line growth with cost and investment opportunity; and looking at cultural differences of shoreside and shipboard employees and guests. Perhaps more critical, however, is how he ensures that the brands under his watch collaborate, rather than compete, with each other and maintain their identity. 

“Each brand does have its own identity,” argues Kruse. “Research has proven that each line is operating in its own space when it comes to guests. While there is a certain amount of overlap when it comes to demographics, the mind-set and psychographics is pretty clear by brand. However, that’s not to say that we can’t foster some healthy competition.”

“Really what our size enables us to do is leverage our scale. I can give you an example: across the 10 brands of Carnival Corporation, we once had 38 different specifications for salmon from more than 30 suppliers and 15 shipping distributors. Our cross-brand team collaborated and came up with 14 specifications that still managed to meet individual brand requirements. Crucially, that’s from four suppliers and four shipping distributors.”

Leveraging the might of the Corporation is a massive asset to Kruse. However, it’s not the most important thing that his business has in its arsenal. Instead he cites the thousands of staff he has working alongside him. “When it comes to management philosophies, I take a lot of inspiration from [British polar explorer] Ernest Shackleton,” he says. “I’m not comparing myself to him but the way he saved the doomed crew of the Endurance is a masterclass in leadership. The most valuable lesson I have learned is that our people are the most important part of our organisation. Without them there simply wouldn’t be a company.”

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Friday, May 10, 2019