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James Rodriguez reflects on a year at the Atlas helm and what's ahead

James Rodriguez is pictured aboard his recent family cruise to Greece, an Atlas epicurean expedition
In the year since he took over Atlas Ocean Voyages as CEO, James Rodriguez has forged an entrepreneurial team, defined the brand ethos and built trade relations.

He's had some revelations, too.

Rodriguez, who brought vast cruise experience but had never been on an expedition, took his young family, twins aged 13 and a 7-year-old, to Antarctica.

'It was eye-opening. The expedition experience is something different than your average cruise. It's engaging and immersive. You walk away changed. Not just me but my kids. They still talk about it,' he said.

An epicurean expedition

Recently the family traveled to Greece as part of an Atlas epicurean expedition, one of the new brand concepts for non-polar areas.

This time Rodriguez also took along his brother who marveled over 'learning so much about the regions we go to via the shore excursions, like breakfast at a family home in Turkey. Many came back emotional from that.'

Aboard, there was a spirited Yachtsman's Cookoff, with teams emblazoned in T-shirts like Team Soy Boy and Team Tex-Mex. They were judged by the cruise's gastronomic guest, 'Top Chef Poland' Sylwia Stachyra.

There were olive tastings, wine tastings, cooking classes and visits to wineries. Even the kids got involved in the epicurean aspect with a pizza-making contest. One creation was a shrimp-Nutella combo.

Team building

Joining a start-up, Rodriguez knew he had to recruit a team with an entrepreneurial mindset.

He sought people who could work outside their own job function across different business units — like Jason O'Keefe, who brings familiarity with marketing, guest experience and sales to his job as director of corporate communications and development.

Rodriguez tapped multi-taskers who can pivot when necessary. 'Getting that right was my first accomplishment,' he said.

Mario Parodi latest hire

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings veteran Mario Parodi, his most recent hire, works in itinerary planning with Mark Rumbarger, who heads product development as senior director, brand operations.

Atlas adds a third ship, World Voyager, this year, and two newbuilds are to come, so Parodi is mapping out possibilities for 2024, '25 and '26.

Some other key team members include Mostafa Beshir, VP finance and administration; Colleen Rodriguez, VP marketing; Cathy Kusuma, VP sales operations; Tanya Springer, VP sales; Bob Prieto, VP guest operations; and Gair O'Neil, senior director, guest relations.

New sales and IT jobs

While Rodriguez considers the top roles set, he's looking to beef up areas like sales with another regional director or two for key markets like Texas and Florida — currently part of multi-state regions, and a person in Canada.

Another area needing support is information technology and systems, led by Fabio Iannelli. As Atlas builds a loyal consumer base, CRM is important, and the financial, reservations and onboard systems and website all have to speak to each other.

Shipboard team

Attention to crew has been a focus, too.

'The training materials have to match our marketing message,' Rodriguez said. He wants to instill a more casual, yacht-style approach and ensure crew engage with guests in ways that involve the destinations, not just the onboard offerings.

Brand ethos

A lot of effort has gone into the Atlas brand ethos: a yacht-style expedition experience, and how it's different from a typical cruise.

According to Rodriguez, 'We're still working on that and what it means to expedition outside the polar areas and making it year-round.'

The immersive aspect is vital, so — as he and his family themselves experienced — travelers learn and come back changed.

New cultural expeditions

It's how Atlas developed three types of expeditions: polar, epicurean and, just introduced, cultural.

Epicurean expeditions take place in warm-weather Mediterranean destinations like Spain, Italy, France and Greece that are noted for food and wines. The shipboard expedition team includes a well-known chef or vintner, with a guest winemaker or sommelier joining at ports.

The new cultural expeditions will highlight destinations like the Caribbean and South America, their history and traditions, with subject experts on the expedition team, while entertainers or story-tellers will come on in ports.

Trade relations

Trade relations have been Rodriguez's third key area of focus the past year.

'This is really important for me,' he said. Coming from the trade side of the business, 'I always look through the lens of our travel partners. As a start-up with a limited marketing budget, you really have to rely on partners.'

Atlas stepped up seminars at sea because 'the best way to sell the product is to be on and experience it.'

The brand has been building sales and marketing tools and collateral to support partners. And when Atlas makes changes, Rodriguez prioritizes communicating with them.

Current priorities

Reaching his first anniversary, Rodriguez reflected the biggest challenge coming in was filling the ships, 'which we did very succcesfully. We went from single digits in Antarctica the first season to 90% sold. This led to us getting a third ship.'

His current priorities? First: 'Selling, selling, selling.'

With World Voyager arriving for the upcoming Antarctica season, Atlas goes from two ships to three in its 'bread and butter' market where it has to do well.

Another priority is honing the now three expedition styles with the addition of cultural, 'making sure they're solid and we're delivering on those immersive and educational components, defining and executing those very well.'

Rodriguez is pleased with the epicurean program, and said chefs are keen to participate.

Crafting itineraries for the years to come is also top of mind.

Nurturing growth and innovation

And Rodriguez is nurturing 'this environment of growth and innovation ... Making sure our team is taken care of, ashore and on board — that we cultivate them and keep them.' This is a must for consistency and so guests are recognized when they return.

'Paying attention to the human resources nature of the business is extremely important,' the Atlas chief said. 'Inspiring and cultivating the team is how we'll always get better.'