I had just got to my stateroom on embarking on Holland America LIne’s Nieuw Amsterdam when there was a confident knock on the door. A cheerful and smartly dressed man beamed at me. “Mr Bembridge, welcome to Holland America. I am Mono and I am your cabin steward. My colleague Otto and I will be looking after you this week.” His chirpy and smiling disposition stayed with him all week that I was in the ship. It amazes me how cheerful the crew on most cruise ships are. They are often working contracts lasting ten months at a time, are away from their family and their schedule requires working seven days a week. All through this time they are facing a constant and changing flow of passengers. Yet the crew usually manage to stay up-beat and treat you as if you are the first person they have seen for months and are grateful of having something to do.
Mono told me he was from Indonesia. As I had not come across crew from that part of the world on other ships I have travelled on, I was intrigued. My interest grew as I explored the ship and realised that most of the crew were from Indonesia and a large amount were from the Philippines too. It was something my fellow travelling companions also noticed and remarked on over dinner. I was sure there was a story, and so I made sure I found out more when I got the chance to meet the Captain, Hotel Director and Culinary Operations Director over the course of my cruise.
Formed over 140 years ago, Holland America largely sailed out of Rotterdam to serve the travel needs of the Dutch. In the heydays of transatlantic crossings, before the birth of jetliner travel, they became famous for beautiful decor and lavish service on ships like the SS Rotterdam. This ship is now permanently moored as a floating hotel in that city. Today they are owned by the massive Carnival Corporation that also owns Cunard, a British line that also has a long and glamourous maritime history and heritage.
Despite being part of an America-owned conglomerate, Holland America Line has tried to retain as much of its Dutch heritage as it can in a modern corporate and global world. For example, many of the senior crew on my cruise were from Holland including the Master (Captain Bas van Dreumel), Marco Van Belleghem (Hotel Director), Staff Captain (Frank van der Hoeven) and Chief Engineer (Bart Rodenrijs). The Dutch Royal Family have named or are the Godmother of some ships. Dutch artworks, antiques and maritime artifacts are dotted around the ships.
However, the vast majority of the passenger facing crew that you come across in dining and hotel services are no longer Dutch but are from Indonesia and the Philippines. I discovered that came about by design and is a key feature of the new “united nations” of Holland America.
The changed nature of the service industry, and the economics of the cruise industry, have meant that Holland America had to turn to other nations to enable it to retain its traditional level of service at a cost that would be acceptable to passengers. Indonesia was a natural choice. Holland has a long history of partnerships and trading with the country dating back to the 17th Century when the Dutch East India company established trading bases in the country. Holland is still one of Indonesia’s largest trading partners and both governments work to retain and build their relationship. The United States has a long history with the Philippines and as that country has a reputation for a high service ethic, it became the other natural partner with Holland America’s Carnival links.
Holland America has established an extensive program on building these relationships. Darren David Lewis, who was the Culinary Operations Director on the cruise I was on, told me that Holland America have invested in building recruitment and training centres in both countries focused on finding and preparing crew to deliver the Holland America vision.
There is a waiting and cabin attendant staff recruitment and training centre in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and in Manilla in the Philippines is where the front of house training facility is. While undergoing a three-month training the potential crew not only learn the Holland America processes and skills but actually live in the training centre which is designed to create the on board living and working conditions to help prepare and see if they like the environment. As they are making a long commitment for contracts of many months this seems like a good idea as it will be the first time many venture to sea.
I found the story behind how Holland America recruits and builds its family of crew fascinating. They have built a small “United Nations of Holland America” that is focused on ensuring a distinctive feel and shared values. It seems to work as the crew seemed positive, focused and made the experience remarkable. They smiled, they laughed and joked with me. They remembered what I liked and kept checking I was having a good time. Pity the real United Nations is not quite as harmonious..
Declaration: I travelled as a guest of Holland America Cruises on their MS Nieuw Amsterdam ship on a 7 Night Mediterranean Cruise from Barcelona visiting Naples, Palermo, Civitavecchia (Rome), Livorno (Florence/ Pisa), and Toulon. Holland America are a Premium Cruise line with Dutch origins dating back to 1873.