“We Keep Good Company:” Another Brand Partnership For Holland America

with Bruce Parkinson

Orlando Ashford, President Holland America Line

After nearly 2 years at the helm as President of the 143 yr. old Holland America Line, Orlando Ashford has a much clearer idea of who his customers are and what they want. Through a series of high-profile brand partnerships and onboard innovations, he and his team are delivering.

HAL’s latest initiative was unveiled at NYC’s Institute for Culinary Education on Monday. It’s a partnership with America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), the most popular educational cooking program on North American television. Now in its 17th season, ATK runs on PBS and Netflix. It takes a serious approach, unlike many food programs that aim more to entertain than educate.

Launching on ms Westerdam October 13th and ms Nieuw Amsterdam in November, HAL guests will find the Culinary Arts Center transformed to replicate the set where America’s Test Kitchen TV shows are recorded.

Cooking demonstrations 45 min. in length will be held for audiences of up to 200, who will then get to taste the results. For those seeking a larger portion, 90 min. hands-on workshops will be offered for groups of about 12, focusing on specific skills, like baking a perfect pie or making pasta by hand. America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country television programs will also be available on stateroom televisions.

Ashford says surveys show that HAL guests “love cooking, entertaining and learning about food.” They also love to “touch, feel and taste the destinations” they visit. “Food and drink are inseparable from a destination’s history and culture. We’re going to offer our guests the most complete and immersive culinary experience at sea.” Ashford said.

From this writer’s perspective, they’ve picked the right partner. Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the television shows that sprang from it have earned a loyal following among home cooks and food lovers for their near-obsessive approach to perfecting recipes and techniques, and evaluating kitchen tools and common supermarket products.

America’s Test Kitchen joins an impressive list of HAL brand partners, including Lincoln Center, B.B. King Blues Clubs, Billboard, BBC Earth and Rijksmuseum. It also has an existing culinary partnership with Food & Wine magazine. “We keep very good company,” Ashford said.

He says HAL clients are looking for “enriching journeys” and “classic style.” The line is trying to give them that, walking a fine line between the company’s storied history and traditions, while also looking to attract a modern and more diverse audience. “We want to offer things that pass the test of time. But we also want to remain relevant through adaptation,” Ashford told the press conference.

A dinner the night before the event was a good time to get to know Ashford a little better. A long-time senior human resources executive with Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola and Motorola, he had never been on a cruise before taking the top job at Holland America.

He quickly found his sea legs, and his fresh perspective has brought progressive change to a well-respected brand that was ready for it.

The location of the dinner, held while NYC was on high alert after weekend bomb blasts, was a poignant one for Ashford. The World Terrace restaurant on the 20th floor of the Club Quarters Hotel, World Trade Centre, overlooks the memorial to the September 11, 2001 attacks. At that time, Ashford worked for Marsh & McLennan, which had its HQ in one of the twin towers.

He was at a train station en route to a meeting there when he witnessed the 2nd aircraft hit. Marsh & McLennan lost nearly 300 employees that day. Ashford lost close friends.

One of the first African-American executives in the travel industry, the charismatic CEO also talked about what he politely called “racial dynamics” in America. He shared stories of his own experience, beginning with a childhood in Bangor, Maine, where few of the citizens looked like him.

But Ashford is too smart and determined to let much stand in his way. He simply described his view of humanity as consisting of “good people, people with bad intent and ignorant people.”

At the press conference he displayed his sense of humour in relating a story about meeting well-known chocolatier Jacques Torres, now a member of the Holland America Culinary Council. Jacques, known as ‘Mr. Chocolate, introduced himself and his spouse and fellow chocolatier Hasty as “the chocolate couple.”

Ashford looked at his wife, who he says has a similar skin tone to his, and replied: “No, we are the chocolate couple.”

As we say up here in Canada, he’s “good people.”

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