Pictured: Natural Born Sailor Hans Birkholz is right at home on Windstar’s yacht-style ships. His passion for sailing has energized him to reinvent the cruise line.
As an avid sailor, Hans Birkholz knows from personal experience that when you’re in the lower Caribbean, the best itinerary focuses on the Tobago Keys and fans out from there. “If you’ve never been there, you’ve got to go,” the CEO of Windstar Cruises tells Luxury Travel Advisor. As a result, he repositioned the Windstar Spirit, a sailing yacht capable of carrying just 148 passengers, from up north and put it on an itinerary for a voyage entitled “The Jewels of the Windward Islands,” which sails from Barbados to little-known isles that are off the tourist radar, such as Bequia and Mayreau in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and to the open-air markets of St. George’s. “It visits small, hidden harbors where no other cruise ships go. They can’t, they’re too big,” says Birkholz. The trip replaces a previously traditional schedule that started in Barbados, went to Martinique and St. Lucia, then down to Grenada.
Birkholz’s sailing eye makes him equally passionate about sailing around Europe. “There’s no better way to see Sicily than by yacht, because all of the great things are on the coast,” he says. Born of that passion is a voyage called “Sicilian Splendors,” a Rome-to-Rome itinerary whose highlights include a stop near Stromboli in the evening to see if the volcano is going to erupt that night. Other ports include Catania, Valletta, Gozo, Porto Empedocle, Trapani, Lipari, Sorrento and Capri.
Added to the benefit of sailing to such small places is the fact that Windstar’s ships have their own sailing platforms from which passengers can dive and go snorkeling in private settings.
It’s that awe-inspiring, close-up experience yachting with intimate-sized vessels that Birkholz wants to deliver to his guests. He’s made significant inroads since joining the company in May 2010, using the company’s existing fleet—the 148-passenger Wind Spirit, the 148-passenger Wind Star and the 310-passenger Wind Surf, all beautiful vessels that have been completely refurbished, iconic sails and masts included. He’ll soon have three additional vessels to play with when Windstar takes possession of Seabourn Cruises’ three smallest all-suite ships, the 208-passenger Seabourn Pride and sister ships Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend, which it purchased earlier this year. The Pride will join Windstar in April 2014; the Legend and Spirit join in 2015.
That move enables Windstar to dramatically increase its itinerary offerings; in fact, when the Pride is refurbished and relaunched as the Star Pride, it will sail the Black Sea, a region Windstar guests had been requesting. “We couldn’t go because there are bridges and our ships have masts. It wasn’t going to happen,” says Birkholz of his fleet prior to the Seabourn vessel purchase. The addition of the Star Pride also lets Windstar go to Southeast Asia for the first time beginning in October 30, 2014, with five itineraries hitting small ports in Asia, Arabia and India. Birkholz is most excited about the Vietnam itineraries. “Ho Chi Minh City will be our turnaround port, so people can fly in, experience Ho Chi Minh City for a few days, hop onboard and then we’ll sail up the coast of Vietnam and transition over to Hong Kong. It gets people closer to what is really going to be special,” he says.
Windstar will rely on the travel advisor to build its customer base as its fleet expands. “Part of our strategy is to educate them, keep them informed and compensate them well for their efforts. We will provide them with the marketing tools that they need,” says Birkholz. (See sidebar.) The cruise line has also launched a loyalty program, which rewards repeat guests for bringing new friends onboard.
Windstar clients can look forward to an expanding world. “The great thing about going from three to six yachts is we’ll have a more global footprint in our voyages,” says Birkholz. “We’re going places we’ve never gone before, giving people who’ve never sailed with us more choices. Those who have sailed will say, ‘Wow, here are some new places I can go.’ It’s going to be a great adventure over the next few years.”
Birkholz’s passion for new places that only small ships can go to, fueled by the additional capacity from the new sailing vessels, will help Windstar achieve its goal of marrying a private yacht experience with the amenities cruise ships can deliver. “You take the freedom to go where you want, to explore areas that others can’t go to, and you’re in an intimate setting with your friends. Those are powerful benefits of yachting. We meld them with the powerful benefits of cruise ships, such as convenience and value. You marry those two things together and you get this great product. That’s what Windstar Cruises is all about,” says Birkholz.
Birkholz is comfortable with exploring new settings. He was born overseas and spent his childhood and adolescence in places like India, Sweden, Germany and throughout the U.S. Because his father was in the military, living in new places was a natural for him. When he came back to America he wanted to get into business and so he became a banker and learned about finance and cash flow and how businesses work. But then he came to a realization. “I didn’t really want to be a banker, I wanted to be a marketer,” he says. So he went to The Wharton School and earned an MBA. The move enabled him to work at big packaged-good firms such as General Mills and Nabisco, then at the restaurant company, the Olive Garden, as director of brand marketing.
Windstar’s Wind Surf in St. Lucia gets up close and personal with the Grand Tetons.
All the while, he kept up with his favorite sport, competitive sailing, which made him the ideal candidate for a position at a yacht charter company called The Moorings. “They needed a sales and marketing person to help rebuild that company and to grow it,” says Birkholz. “What really excited me about The Moorings was the international aspect of it. The company had bases throughout the world, and that appealed to me. I love to travel,” he says. He applied what he had learned at other companies and grew the business, which was sold to another larger travel company, Grand Expeditions. Birkholz subsequently became president of Grand Expeditions, the luxury travel company that owned brands such as Country Walkers and TCS Expeditions. When Grand Expeditions was sold to a larger travel company, he transitioned out of the business; a few years later, he got the opportunity to head Windstar Cruises, which was owned by Ambassadors International at the time.
The year was 2010 and people were asking Birkholz why he had taken the job. “To be frank, the company was losing money. It had a lot of debt,” says Birkholz. “But what I saw in my research were a couple of things that were true then and are even truer today. That is, Windstar is a wonderful brand, a brand that is larger than the business really is. It’s well known and it’s been around forever.” Consumers and travel advisors also found Windstar to be a great product, he said.
A strong brand and product are the two vital ingredients for a company turnaround, says Birkholz. “It’s very difficult to rebuild a business that has a bad product. It is much easier if you know you’ve got a product that people like and value, has a loyal repeater base, and has a brand that people respect.”
Sailing to a Turnaround
Since 2010, Birkholz has infused his corporate experience, his love for innovation and his passion for sailing into Windstar, building a team that has enabled it to enjoy solid growth over the past four years. Along the way, its balance sheet was restructured and the company was sold to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which committed to a significant investment in all three existing ships. Staterooms and public areas were refurbished and the iconic sails on the vessels were replaced.
The feeling on board now is immediately one of comfort. “You feel like you want to be there. You feel good. It looks good. It’s warm. It’s inviting, yet elegant. We wanted something that was timeless and fit in with part of an upscale yacht vibe.”
The CEO says he is very involved in itinerary planning but that Windstar’s product developers are actually executing the task of building the programs and synchronizing the stops. “I believe that great itineraries tell a story. They have a certain cadence to them. They’re like a good song, they have a crescendo and they finish well," he says.
Shore excursions are designed in a similar manner; in fact, at Windstar, an acronym called A-I-P-S-S defines its shore excursions. “‘A’ is for authentic. ‘I’ is for intimate. All of our groups are small group sizes. We don’t have any group, any shore excursions larger than 25. ‘P’ is participatory. ‘S’ is for sexy. Shore excursions need to have a little pizzazz to them. Truffle hunting in Croatia, that’s kind of sexy. ‘S’ is also for social; with shore excursions people need to get to know one another. You’re spending three hours with each other. People love to hang out with people who are like them. Our job is to help orchestrate some of that.”
A self-proclaimed foodie, Birkholz is involved with the menus on the ships. “I’m not a chef, I do not write recipes, but a great culinary experience is important to our guests.” He’s also a believer in always having on hand the staple menu items people want. “When I want steak, I want steak, and it had better be a good steak,” he says. But he’s also a big believer in offering local fare. “If we’re sailing in Spain, we might have tapas, jamon, and Manchego cheese as an appetizer with a traditional Spanish dish. Fish we typically buy local as much as we can. We’ll also restock fresh fruits and vegetables locally." The cruise line also brings on local wines when practical, such as when it’s in Spain, Italy, France or Croatia. The list is complemented by great stand-ins, such as California, Washington State and French vintages.
Who is the Windstar customer? They are between ages 40 and 70, are well educated, possibly skewing a bit younger than other cruise line clientele, though “not by much,” he says. “They are very self-assured. The casual elegance or relaxed luxury of Windstar cruises appeals to them; they are very unpretentious and comfortable in jeans,” he says, noting that there are no formal nights on a Windstar cruise. “They’ve been successful in life. They have a sense of adventure. They want to be treated very well.”
The crew on Windstar is key to its luxury appeal; many have worked there for 20 to 25 years and have been promoted to management positions. They know repeat guests by name, by their favorite drinks, what they like to do and when they want to do it. Fueling that is the Windstar credo that a crew member never says no to a guest. “If somebody wants to do something, you figure out how to make it happen,” says Birkholz, who cites the example of a room steward who came upon a dejected guest aboard the Wind Surf one afternoon. The steward asked the guest why he looked so unhappy; the response was he had missed lunch and was hungry but knew that the restaurant was closed. The steward went to the restaurant’s galley and asked team members to make burger and fries; he personally brought the meal to the guest whom he had seated in the closed restaurant.
“I don’t know how you train that,” says Birkholz. “We hire for attitude and we’ll train the skills. If they have the right attitude and we reinforce and reward that attitude, we’re going to be successful.”
Birkholz is on Windstar ships four or five times a year; he also takes one annual vacation on one of the ships. When Luxury Travel Advisor asks him if he ever has a typical day when he’s in the Seattle office, he quickly responds, “God, I hope not.”
“The energy around here is very hot,” explains the CEO. “We’ve revamped all of our itineraries. We’ve introduced a lot of new voyages. That’s energized our customer base. Our marketing is more focused on yacht-style cruising. We’ve renovated the three sailing yachts and when we get the Star Pride we’ll make it an absolutely spectacular 212 all-suite cruising yacht.”
Windstar will add to its themed cruises; a wine cruise in partnership with Saveur for 2014 is already selling out (as is its Grand Prix of Monaco cruise).“We’re going to do more food and wine cruises. We’ll also do another golf cruise; that was a wild success. We’ve got some other themed cruises up our sleeve. There’s going to be some great news in that area,” says Birkholz.
As Windstar enters this new era, the buzz that pervades its corporate office in Seattle is palpable. The line is run in a lean manner, and on a recent visit, the vibe was all but entrepreneurial, with Birkholz and team sharing ideas freely in an open, informal setting.
“We work very hard but we sell a luxury product and the job should be fun. You should be excited about it. If you’re not excited, you need to talk to somebody about that,” says Birkholz. “If you are having fun, you need to spread it around. That’s our philosophy.” g
Headquarters: Seattle, WA
President & CEO: Hans Birkholz
Vice President of Sales: Dan Chappelle
Vice President of Marketing: Joe Duckett
Fleet: Wind Star (1986), 148 guests; Wind Spirit (1988), 148 guests; Wind Surf (built in 1990 as Club Med I; acquired in 1998), 310 guests. Each has the iconic sails Windstar’s fleet has always been known for. In February 2013, Windstar entered into an agreement to purchase three motorized ships from Seabourn Cruises (the 208-passenger Seabourn Pride and sister ships Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend). The expansion will double the size of Windstar’s fleet.
Online: www.windstarcruises.com; www.windstarcruises.com/blog/; Facebook.com/WindstarCruises; Twitter.com/windstarcruises; YouTube.com/windstarcruises
Meet Dan Chappelle, Vice President of Sales
Pictured: Travel Advisors’ Advocate: Dan Chappelle has strong experience in the cruise industry, and owned his own travel agency as well.
When Windstar Cruises re-emerged as a wholly owned subsidiary of Xanterra Holding Corp. in May 2011, one of the first new hires was Dan Chappelle as vice president of sales. A full-fledged travel advisor advocate, Chappelle was previously vice president of U.S. operations for Expedia CruiseShipCenters; director of sales & vendor strategy for Cruise Holidays/Carlson Travel Franchise Group; and, early on, the president and owner of his own agency, Cruise Shoppe of Austin.
“We’ve just been going full speed ever since,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor of his two-year tenure at Windstar. “There’s always something new going on.”
Improving relationships with travel advisors was one of Chappelle’s first major initiatives to show agents that Windstar—under its new ownership—was firmly committed to them.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of mending and growing. We have definitely become easier to do business with,” says Chappelle. For example, a new tiered commission structure became more realistically attainable and a number of agency-friendly processes were put in place. “We also did not have a field-based sales team in the past, so we did the logical thing and put some people out in the field so they can go knocking on doors, so we can all spread the gospel of Windstar,” says Chappelle.
For his part, Chappelle in his first year at the cruise line visited as many front-line agents as possible. “I know that it’s the front-line travel agent who’s going to actually make the difference as to whether we’re sold or not or even whether we’re even offered,” he says.
An eye-opening experience was learning that many advisors didn’t even know who the Windstar guest was. “If somebody came in and asked for Windstar, or wanted a small luxury ship- or yacht-type of experience, [advisors] would always suggest some of the other brands, because we have sails. They couldn’t get their head around how to sell that. When you can’t get your head around how to sell a product, you don’t know who the audience is.” Chappelle says he helped advisors identify the mindset of the Windstar traveler, who is into the small-ship luxury yachting experience. It’s a psychographic rather than a demographic, he says. “When we talk about who we see on board Windstar, it’s me. I’m in my late 40s, early 50s. I haven’t worn a tie in the two years I’ve been here and I love it!”
The addition of the three new vessels from Seabourn will help solidify who the Windstar customer is, since advisors are familiar with the more traditional cruiser.
“This is going to be a huge boost to the brand, to get out there and bring in new blood, new cruisers. We’ll be able to graduate people from the larger ships and from some of the more premium and deluxe segments to the luxury segment,” says Chappelle of the Seabourn vessel additions.
Best part of obtaining the new ships? “Come March 1, we’re the largest small ship company in the world,” says Chappelle. “Granted, we don’t start taking possession until later that year and into the following year, but from a sales perspective, my inventory doubles on March 1.”