Meet Kristian Emanuel Yahya – Dining Room Manager Onboard Holland America’s Statendam
If you've ever believed that the job of "Maitre'D" onboard a Holland America ship is a "cushy" job, think again. I sure had to.
There has been much talk about As You Wish versus Fixed Seating Dining onboard the ships of Holland America. There has also been much controversy as to the design of the program (as YOU wish versus as HOLLAND AMERICA wishes). Because of the almost constant flood of message board discussion on this topic, I decided to go right to the source and get some first-hand information regarding how the As You Wish Dining program is playing out across the fleet. To do this, I sat down with Kristian, the dining room manager onboard the Statendam (formerly known by the title of Maitre’D) to get his thoughts on the program.
Kristian started off our conversation by telling me that every new concept has to go through certain challenges and requires time to make it work. As You Wish dining will also need time to meet the challenge of making passengers happy with the new format, especially on those longer cruises such as this 35-day sailing. “On a seven day sailing, such as those we did in Alaska for several months, As You Wish Dining often works quite well. You’ve got a lot of families on those sailings, and As You Wish Dining is much more favorably received there. Maybe there are some bumps that have to be smoothed out on the first night of the cruise, but generally after day one things settle down and pretty much everyone is happy with their dining assignments. But on a longer cruise such as this one, the challenges can continue longer than expected.”
I asked Kristian what makes a longer cruise different from a shorter one in terms of dining. “I knew as soon as I got the preliminary dining lists for this cruise that we were going to have some challenges. I had over 1000 repeat passengers, most of whom wanted traditional fixed seating dining. I also had over 800 people all wanting to be seated early for dinner. Since our dining rooms are not configured for this many passengers at one time, I knew I was going to have to scramble to keep as many people happy as possible. To do this, I had to be creative. We had to first of all designate some of the tables in the open seating dining room (lower level) as fixed seating tables. I can use only a certain section of the lower level of the dining room for this purpose, as per home office directive and then only if absolutely necessary. To further complicate matters, I had a lot of passengers requesting tables for two at that early seating time. I only have so many of these to go around, and I had about 41 couples requesting them. So I had to try to spread those tables around as far as they can go, even using some tables for four as tables for two when necessary.
“The way we’ve been working the As You Wish flexible dining is to allow people to call during the day time to reserve a table for that evening and the next one. Nothing beyond that. This allows me to spread these coveted tables for two around as much as possible among those passengers wanting them, especially for the first seating dining times.”
I asked Kristian what he personally thinks of Holland America’s new As You Wish Dining program.
“Personally I think that on cruises longer than 15 days we shouldn’t offer it. Many of our more traditional guests, especially the ones who have sailed our ships repeatedly over the years, don’t want it. They like the traditional four seating times in the two-tier dining room and those are specifically the passengers who sail on these 15+ day voyages. We don’t offer the flexible dining option on our Grand Voyages and World Cruise, and I think we should go one step further and not offer it on any cruises over 15 days in length. Having a policy such as this would go a long way in streamlining our dining operations and keeping more of our guests happy on these longer sailings.
“Holland America is offering a lot of shorter cruises designed to appeal to our younger guests. These guests are the ones who often appreciate flexible dining options, and they are the ones who have truly embraced the As You Wish Dining concept. They often travel in extended family groups where it is often difficult or inconvenient to have everyone ready to dine by a certain time. They also like the flexibility of dining at a different time each night, depending upon their activities of the day. So, the As You Wish Dining Program works particularly well for them, while our more traditional guests – the ones you see on the longer sailings – generally want no parts of flexible dining. They’d rather have a set dining time each night, with an assigned table, being served by a familiar wait staff that they see each and every evening.”
I asked Kristian if the particular ship determines how successful the As You Wish Dining program will be. “Definitely!” was his response. “On our new Eurodam, it goes over very well because we have more varied dining options available there for our guests. In fact, the Eurodam was specifically built to accommodate “As You Wish” dining, with a multitude of dining options on offer. We have a casual Italian venue offered as a part of the Lido, as well as offering traditional casual dining there as well. Of course, we have our award-winning Pinnacle Grill, as well as a second Pan-Asian alternative dining venue, Tamarind, that has received rave reviews with our guests. These options are all in addition to our elegant dining rooms, and they take the pressure off of the main dining room since our guests have a wide variety of choices onboard; choices we just can’t offer them throughout the rest of the fleet,” Kristian explained.
“Holland America is spending another $200 million to upgrade the fleet with extra amenities and facilities that will enhance guests’ onboard experiences, and in the end that will have a positive impact not only in regard to the “As You Wish” dining concept, but also on overall guest satisfaction. But for right now, we will let the course of time and process streamlining determine the success of the “As You Wish” dining format, as some guests embrace it and others don’t.”
Kristian’s sincerity was evident throughout our discussion. He truly wants to keep his guests happy, and he seems willing to do just about anything to accomplish that, including bending and stretching the rules as far as he can within corporate directives, if doing so will result in a satisfied guest. “Our guests depend upon us to give them the cruise of a lifetime, and that’s exactly what I personally want to do. I don’t like to see any guest go away unhappy, so I am willing to work with them to resolve any dining-related situations to their satisfaction. For example, in the flexible dining room we are supposed to turn over all tables twice each night – just as we do with a main and late seating in the traditional dining room. But if a guest wants a table for two at 6:15 p.m. instead of the normal 5:45, I will follow company policy by confirming that table for 5:45, but then will hold it for them up until 6:15 before giving it away to the next guest on the list. I think our guests appreciate this willingness to work along with them, especially since this is their vacation and we should try to accommodate their schedule as much as possible.”
Kristian is also a dining room manager who does not hide behind his office door (or curtain actually). Rather, he keeps himself out in the public eye as much as possible, especially during the dinner hours. He wants to be readily accessible to any guest that may wish to speak with him. “There’s no sense in hiding from problems hoping they will go away,” he told me. “That only makes a small problem much bigger, and creates for us an unhappy guest. I’d rather nip problems in the bud and have the guest leave the ship after his cruise feeling as though I met his needs. Only then do I know I’ve done the job I’m here to do.”
Another thing I’ve noticed on this cruise, and brought to Kristian’s attention, is the fact that the Lido now has far more extended hours for dinner than ever before – from 5:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. “That’s entirely by design,” Kristian replied. “By extending those hours, we take some of the pressure off of the dining room by offering another viable alternative for our guests who may be looking for something a bit more casual on any particular evening. Maybe they want to grab a quick bite because there is something else they want to do around the ship that night, or maybe they just don’t feel like getting dressed up. The extended hours in that casual dining venue are working out quite well.”
The dinner menu in the Lido is almost identical to what is being served in the dining room on any given evening. The ambience is also a step up from daytime service, with white tablecloths on all of the tables, complete with flickering candles, and a wait staff to carry your tray from the serving line to your table. Roving waiters offer beverage refills and tableside bar service is available as well.
“Our goal for dining in the Lido is to make the dinner experience there comparable to what one would enjoy in the dining room,” said Kristian. “We provide a lot of tableside service to accomplish this.”
Holland America is also keeping track of where passengers dine each night so that they can more accurately determine emerging trends. For example, it’s handy to gather data on where passengers are actually dining on formal nights so that staffing levels can be adjusted more evenly. “Clearly passenger preferences as they relate to dressing up for diner are changing, and we are tracking those changes quite closely,” Kristian told me.
And on the subject of formal dress “codes,” Kristian clearly expressed some discomfort in this area. “Holland America clearly wants to retain some of the traditions of cruising, and these include formal styles of dress on certain evenings. But enforcement can sometimes be difficult in that if you rigidly enforce a certain manner of dress in the dining room, you will upset some passengers. Yet if you decline to enforce the dress code for the evening, other passengers will become angry. It can be a no-win situation, that’s for sure. Personally, if it were my decision, I’d rather see dress codes as being suggested guidelines, not at all mandatory, especially on certain cruises where the majority of our passengers would clearly prefer a less formal style of dress.”
I asked Kristian whether he preferred shorter cruises, like his recent Alaska season, or longer sailings such as this 35-day itinerary and the 16-day Panama Canal one that will immediately follow. “No question, my job is a lot easier on the shorter cruises, and for that reason I naturally prefer them. But, then again, these longer itineraries do offer a challenge, and for that reason I like them too.” A really diplomatic answer, if you ask me.
I really enjoyed my talk with Kristian, as it gave me a great deal of insight into the challenges of managing a large and complex dining program onboard a luxury cruise ship. The challenges are unique in that you are dealing with passengers who have spent a considerable sum of money for what might be their dream vacation of a lifetime. In other cases, you are dealing with people of means who sail the ships of Holland America quite frequently, and are quite demanding in the standards of service they expect for their hard-earned dollar. Kristian has the unenviable job of trying to keep all of these people happy, while adhering to the policies and guidelines handed down to him by the home office in Seattle. But somehow it seems that he has hit on just the right combination of compromise and creativity to make this happen – and to make it look effortless in the process.
I will truly look upon the job of MaitreD’ in a whole new way from here on out, for it’s certainly not the “cushy” job I had always thought. Quite the contrary, it’s downright difficult, and one I certainly wouldn’t ever want to be called upon to tackle.