Holland America Line's Gus Antorcha on Covid lessons learned

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This year was supposed to be the great return to normalcy for cruising, but that was before the sucker punch from the highly contagious omicron variant. Voyages were canceled and the CDC discouraged travelers from cruising. Consumers appeared to be more hesitant to make plans. Gus Antorcha, who was named president of Holland America Line in July 2020, talked to cruise editor Andrea Zelinski about what it means to embrace uncertainty.

Gus Antorcha
Gus Antorcha

Q: Given the long-term uncertainty over Covid, are programs like your Worry Free Promise, where guests can cancel or change their plans with little to no penalty, here to stay?

A: I have no idea. I really don't. We are listening to our guests and we have figured out a way, between the Worry Free Promise and our protocols and our procedures onboard, to give our guests confidence that they should book a cruise and then they should sail with us. To the extent that all of those are relevant, despite whatever is happening, we'll keep them in place. At the point they no longer become relevant, then we'll take them out. 

I think it's about listening to guests and trying to understand what makes them feel safe and what makes them feel comfortable and what makes them excited about booking a Holland America cruise, and then our policies reflect that. 

Q: How has omicron affected Wave season?

A: Of course, there has been an effect due to omicron. I think we've seen with every wave of Covid, bookings slowed down, whether it's delta or omicron or whatever came before that. The more it gets talked about in the news, people are exposed to what the media's covering: hospitalizations and deaths and whatever it is. I just think it muddies the water for travel.

The good news with this one is that it appears as fast as it goes up, it will come back down. I live in Florida, and the data in Florida suggests it is following a curve similar to South Africa, and if you're following South Africa or the U.K., you're seeing that really sharp drop. So hopefully that will follow in the U.S., and the media will cover something else and folks will be excited about cruising or travel.

Q: Did you have to cancel any voyages due to omicron?

A: We did. We pulled Nieuw Amsterdam for a few weeks. We had long-term charter clients who were having trouble confirming their added entertainment and having disruptions. They didn't feel they could operate, so they asked us to move their charters. 

Q: What have you learned over the past two years?

A: I think we've all learned how to manage in uncertainty. We've all gotten really good at that. We're a great company, we're a great brand, a lot of really good people both shipboard and shoreside. And that means everyone's got to communicate really well, and we've got to be really flexible and make sure our priorities are really, really clear. If you're doing those things, stuff gets thrown at you, but you adapt. Another takeaway for me is what a great experience and value cruising is and just how much care we take with our passengers and crew versus other travel options.

Q:Do you feel that interest in domestic cruises has increased with Covid?

A: I think that will be an interesting thing for us to watch. We're uniquely positioned in the amount of long deployment we have in the U.S. We do a lot of 10-plus-day voyages out of the U.S., which I think for us will end up being an advantage because you don't have to take an international flight. I think it's in 2024, we'll have very long deployment out of San Diego that goes to Asia then comes back. I think for a group of customers, that might be more appealing than flying to Asia. We'll have to see, but that will be an area of strength for us and we're uniquely positioned in that regard. 

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