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In Giersdorf book, business advice springs from real cruise experiences

Across his rich and varied career, David Giersdorf has held senior leadership roles at a range of cruise lines and consulted for many others.

His new book, 'Hard Ships: Navigating Your Company, Career and Life Through the Fog of Disruption' (2021, Giersdorf Group LLC), channels his personal and professional experiences into a compelling and motivational read. And, considering the topic, the timing couldn't be better as cruising emerges from its global shutdown.  

Every disruption is a learning opportunity

Giersdorf's thesis: Every disruption is a learning opportunity.

The book opens with a poem he wrote in 2003 after a 'perfect storm' of events that tested him to the extreme. Eventually he stopped fighting the disruption, embraced his new situation, began working with it and new horizons opened. He discovered 'precious lessons,' and new 'north stars' to navigate by took him to 'horizons once beyond my imagining.'

'One of the key purposes in my life must be to not just learn but to add something that comes out of wisdom and experience and bridge that forward so the next person who's got to learn starts from a higher stage,' Giersdorf told Seatrade Cruise News.

'Hopefully [the book] resonates and helps someone else.'

Seasoned leader

Giersdorf is the founder of Global Voyages Group, a CEO-level advisory firm. He held senior executive roles at Holland America Line, Windstar Cruises, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Ambassadors Cruise Group and two family companies, American West Steamboat Co. and Exploration Cruise Lines. He is a former chairman of Cruise Lines International Association.

A project 20 years in the making, the book springs from journals he's kept for 38 years and business notes that provided a treasure-trove of content and examples. The pandemic gave clarity and focus for the theme, enabling Giersdorf to write it in eight months.

This makes 'Hard Ships' extremely current, and it includes examples of strategies lines are using right now to survive and thrive.

The book is arranged around six protocols Giersdorf identified as a playbook for survival, stability and success: Know your waypoint, stay afloat, find your first first, get flexible, become collision-proof and protect your value.

Know your waypoint

'This is about truth,' Giersdorf said, 'where you are right now, where you're headed, are you on course?' As EVP at Holland America Line, he was involved with a brand that had been around 125 years and needed to ensure its relevance and its ability to grow and meet the needs of future travelers.

A hard assessment led to changes in the ships — more balconies, adding the Greenhouse Spa and Pinnacle Grill and incorporating technology. And the 'Tradition of Excellence' tagline made way for a 'Signature of Excellence' touting five brand pillars: spacious, elegant ships; sophisticated dining; gracious, award-winning service; extensive enrichment and activities; and worldwide itineraries.

Stay afloat

Staying afloat during a disruption means doing whatever's necessary to find and generate the resources to survive. This means cutting costs, preserving cash and overestimating how much cash will be needed — just as the cruise giants have been doing so impressively during the pandemic, pulling in billions of dollars, sometimes at less attractive terms when necessary.

In bad times, it's also possible to leverage disruption to get ahead. Giersdorf explains how he helped a company to increase market share even in the midst of a turnaround effort. Other strategies to stay afloat include taking on additional revenue streams and shifting capacity to more affordable destinations and itineraries.

Find your first first

Whatever the challenge, failing to address the 'first first' will just make a bad situation worse. This means determining the one thing that's absolutely essential to recover, above all else. For the cruise industry's restart now, Giersdorf says the 'first first' is to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak on a ship. Maximizing revenue and everything else comes after.

Giersdorf credited his former boss, the late Holland America leader Kirk Lanterman, for helping him as the head of revenue management to focus on the biggest risk first. Becoming proficient dealing with that helped build muscle to anticipate other challenges and head them off sooner.

Get flexible

9/11 sparked the need for the travel industry to create a response plan for a sudden system-wide jolt, which required flexibility. In HAL's case, one ship in Alaska was used as a hotel to house passengers who couldn't get home for weeks. Cancellation penalties had to be adjusted, and incentives created that got people to rebook rather than cancel. New security procedures were implemented. Closer-to-home itineraries were created.

These things all sound very relevant to the COVID crisis.

Giersdorf writes that being flexible also calls for humility and the ability to accept that 'What I'm good at isn't working the same as before.'

Become collision-proof

Accepting that disruption is inevitable gives the opportunity to plan for it, Giersdorf explains in a chapter that shares shocks to his entrepreneurial family's businesses and lists incidents that have impacted cruising, from the Achille Lauro hijacking in in 1985 to 1987's Black Monday market crash, the 1990-91 recesssion and the Persian Gulf War and ... the list goes on with almost yearly incidents until the present.

This makes it clear disruptions are to be expected so businesses need to be prepared.

When his company's Empress of the North grounded in Alaska on May 4, 2007, Giersdorf got the 1 a.m. call and a lifetime of experience kicked in as he activated the incident response plan, the most important thing in an emergency.

'Our incident response plan allowed us to act fast and decisively. We knew exactly what to do to address the situation, contain and address the impact on our company and meet the needs and concerns of current and future customers as much as possible,' Giersdorf writes.

Analyzing how the incident response plan worked is key to learning and improvement. A risk assessment plan is vital, too.

Protect your value

In this chapter, Giersdorf explains how companies tend to make short-term decisions that have huge impact on their long-term business. He counsels: 'You have to keep your eyes on the prize to anchor you for the future. The decisions you make today absolutely determine the quality of tomorrow. You need to think how does the decision you make today align with where you want to be?'

For example, the book warns about overreacting to downturns with price discounts: '... When you overreact by over-discounting in an attempt to get rapid recovery of demand, you will pay a long-term price ... Undercutting yourself to get through one economic disruption or economic slowdown means you're still trying to recover when the next one hits.'

Building an endurance mindset

'Hard Ships' also has a chapter on building an endurance mindset that starts with a childhood near-death experience and continues with Giersdorf's Ironman training and competitions. The points are to remain calm and 'do the work' — the training and preparation to stay on course. Working on the six protocols before disruption occurs will provide momentum to get through, the author says.

'Some who experience disruption let it and its consequences define them forever while others leverage the disruption for their benefit,' Giersdorf writes. 'What you learn during disruption can propel you into a wonderful new future you otherwise would not have experienced had two things not occurred: the disruption and your response to it.'

'Hard Ships' is available on Amazon and from Barnes & Noble in hard or soft cover, Kindle version and as an audiobook