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New or old, cruise entertainment becoming more curated

PHOTO: RICHARD TRIBOU CRUISE_STCGlobal_entertainment.jpg
It was a tale of two cruise lines as the entertainment heads from Virgin Voyages and Holland America Line came together to discuss the differences, but also some similarities, during a Seatrade Cruise Global panel Wednesday.

Drag shows, for instance, are on only one of the lineups, and it's not the cruise line that's been around 150 years.

"Virgin Voyages has only been around for three years, so there's a major contrast in operations, what they've learned, how they do things, how they execute things," said moderator Ryan Stana, CEO of RWS Entertainment Group during the panel titled "Waves of Excitement: Reimagining Entertainment Through Staffing and Guest Experiences."

For Virgin, Director of Entertainment Operations James Shea said that being a newcomer let them break down the traditional apporoach and rebuild what a cruise can be.

Removing the cruise director

The biggest shake-up was removing the cruise director. "Instead, we broke up that position into multiple different specialties," Shea said.

Collectively known as "The Happenings," events include a foodie, an artist, a gamer, a balancer for fitness, singers, dancers.

"They all kind of work together to lead our passengers — our sailors as we call them — throughout the ship and to each of the experiences that speak to them, and finding those niche markets and so it really allows our sailors to be part of something with someone they already connect with and relate to ... We help people really find their tribe."

While the approach may seem radical, the idea of personalization isn't lost on Holland America, said Joe Chantry, director of entertainment operations.

For a company that's been around for a long time, "We have a really core audience/guest demographic that is very loyal to the brand,' so HAL has to be careful about making revolutionary changes. Instead, Chantry said they think about "How do we modernize? How do we stay relevant without going too far from what the guests actually want?"

Different audiences for different cruises

An example is HAL's shift to longer cruises in different parts of the world including several 15-night, 25- to 59-night trips and world cruises.

"It's no longer a one-size-fits-all approach," he said, and the audience for an Alaska voyage is extremely different than a 50-night South America voyage.

HAL is starting to build "agile and more mobile" performance groups, venues and subject matter experts on different itineraries, he said.

The aim is to leave an impression.

"We're really focusing on impact no matter what we do, whether it's a daytime activity, whether it's part of a cultural enrichment program, whether it's evening shows," he said. "Instead of having a lot of everything, it's a little bit more curated and making sure what we've decided to do is actually good, it's actually impactful and actually changes the guest perspective."

Mixing F&B experts with entertainers

With its revamped approach, Virgin Voyages has been combined typically siloed operations, such as mixing food and beverage experts or the hotel staff with entertainment personnel.

"There still is a give and take, and I think every day there's still a negotiation," Shea said. "There's always blue sky ideas of what new programs we can introduce that are entertainment mixed with 'XYZ.' It's certainly a tradeoff."

He touched on some of the smaller programs that can give a little extra as well.

"We've explored the world of 'paint and sip,' as they call it, using our artists on board to lead that class, but also it's giving you that tangible takeaway of having that art piece that you take home, but also curating some cocktails to match that painting experience," he said.

Mixology and photography

Another is called "Shot for Shot" where participants learn how to make cocktails and then photograph that cocktail that they helped design with a mixologist.

Shea said that makes sense for Virgin, which despite being a young line has its own heritage with the Virgin brand. While the audience may be different, Holland America wants to remember and please their customer base.

"It's about service. It's about the classic cruise experience. It's about authenticity, good value. So it's finding a way as entertainment to get into more of that cross-departmental collaboration," Chantry said.

Keeping the brand and core values in mind such as timelessness, Chantry has the opportunity to redefine entertainment.

"Entertainment doesn't necessarily have to be a show on a proscenium stage where we all sit and watch," Chantry said. "Entertainment can be about the experience. It's getting our food and beverage partners, our hotel partners, our marketing, revenue, that this is about a cohesive experience and everything we do and create has to make sure we're hitting those same fundamental values, that same vision that we're all trying to create."