Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

Holland America: We Are Not the Geezer Line

At 142, Carnival’s mass-market premium brand tinkers to lure a younger cruiser.

For decades, the Holland America Line has battled the perception that its ships carry an old demographic—plenty of its cruisers are north of 70. Travel agents often steer younger people to other cruise brands, while the line’s rivals lob wisecracks about the geriatric set at sea.

Now Holland America is tinkering with the brand to get some of the gray out. With its largest ship ever, the MS Koningsdam, arriving in February and a second in late 2018, the 142-year-old line is trying to expand its audience. That means complementing its older, affluent repeat customers with more active baby boomers and Gen Xers who are now into their 40s.

“Today’s guests are active, sophisticated, and curious,” HAL President Orlando Ashford said Thursday at a press conference in New York. There the brand announced new partnerships with the travel publication Afar, BBC Earth, and Utrip, a Seattle software company that helps align travelers’ personal preferences with the options available in a destination. Holland America is spending $300 million to upgrade its fleet in coming years, with $40 million specifically to update suites with better amenities, including USB ports on each bed. 

The brand, owned by Carnival Corp., also wants more attention than it has had. “I think we’ve been very quiet … we want to be a little louder,” Ashford said.

Holland America is trying to expand its business beyond its traditional customer, an upper-middle-class or wealthy American or European with the time and funds to cruise for two-week stints and longer. (Some itineraries are 115 days and more.) The 15-ship line is Carnival’s mass-market premium brand, positioned above Carnival and Princess but not as luxurious as a Seabourn or Cunard voyage. Holland America says its average cruiser is 57 to 58, but that is skewed younger by seven-day winter Caribbean cruises, which are less expensive than most of the line’s inventory and attract some younger people. 

The cruise line spent much of this year conducting market research, with 30 focus groups nationwide, to understand better the perception of its brand and how to attract new customers. The big finding? Serving too many seniors can turn away younger cruisers. The company also found that travelers want to be “immersed” in the destinations they visit, said Ashford, a veteran human resource executive who joined Holland America last November.

“They like to touch, feel, and taste the destinations,” he said. Such “experiential travel” is also the raison d'être of Carnival’s newest brand, Fathom, which plans voyages to Cuba in 2016 if it receives government permission.

In January, Holland America will adopt a new logo and a new tagline, Savor the Journey. That replaces A Signature of Excellence, which the line adopted about a decade ago. The new tag emphasizes travel as an experience, while the old spoke to the company’s premium service.

If it doesn't sound like a big change, it isn't. Holland America has to be careful not to dent its upscale reputation and risk a backlash from longtime customers, one reason Ashford twice called the branding tweaks “an evolution, not a revolution.”

Among the new amenities, BBC Earth will create a live quiz show as a new entertainment across the fleet and live music performances coordinated with nature video. The Washington winery Chateau Ste. Michelle is heading a new wine-blending course for cruisers, much like the one MSC Cruises has on its newest ships with a California-based vintner. For live music, the line is teaming up with Lincoln Center Stage, a new venue overseen by New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

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