Theo H. M. Haanen is the Hotel Manager onboard the Statendam and he is probably one of the most seasoned of Holland America’s many employees of long-standing. Having served the line for some 42 years, he has seen many, many changes over that time – mainly good, but probably a few that have been not so good.
Theo worked his way up in the Holland American fleet to his current position as Hotel Manager. In that role, Theo is responsible for everything on the “hotel” side of the ship – basically everything not related to moving the ship through the waters. As Hotel Manager, Theo has all department heads on the hotel side of the operation reporting to him, and these include housekeeping, dining, beverage, guest relations, and a host of others.
“The secret to managing a large hotel operation is to place faith in the people who serve under you, and to support them. For example, in all my years as a hotel manager, I have only overruled a decision of the Guest Relations Manager twice – and those were special situations.”
Theo believes that a major part of resolving guest complaints involves being a good listener. “Most times, guests are very reasonable in their expectations, and when they have a complaint about something that is not meeting those expectations, half the road to resolving the issue is simply being a good listener and showing them that you honestly and genuinely care. Sadly, there are times you really can’t do a whole lot to resolve the problem. Maybe there is an issue with their accommodations and the ship is full with no place to move them, or perhaps they are experiencing discomfort from rough seas. But if you show the guest that you truly care and give them your personal attention, they will often feel much better just from knowing they are being taken seriously.”
Theo also talked about the importance of not hiding from problems. “When a guest has a problem, the worst thing you can do is try to avoid them. I tell all of my department heads to face problems head on, and deal with them. The result is always a much happier guest even if the problem is something we really can’t do a whole lot about.
“Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that when a guest has a problem, it is often a good idea to deal with them privately. Often when one person has a problem, other passengers will ‘egg them on’ to expect unreasonable resolutions – such as a 50% refund of their cruise fare because their cabin steward perhaps forgot to provide turndown service one evening. I find that when I get together with the guest privately, they will be much easier to deal with and we can often resolve the problem in a reasonable fashion, such as by sending a complimentary plate of truffles or offering a free dinner in the Pinnacle.”
I asked Theo about the various types of guests he’s dealt with over the years. “Our guests will often vary by the type of cruises the ship is doing at any given point in time. On an itinerary such as this 35-day sailing, guests are paying a lot more money for their accommodations, and that will certainly have some bearing upon their expectations. Passengers on this type of sailing are frequently repeat guests, some with many, many hundreds of days sailing the ships of Holland America. They know what they can expect on our ships, and they don’t hesitate to let us know if we are not living up to those expectations. And, actually, that’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.”
Theo said that sometimes he really enjoys the shorter sailings because of the diversity of passengers that can be found onboard. “Our Alaska season was kind of fun,” he told me. “Because of the time of year these Alaska sailings take place, we have a lot more families onboard – a younger passenger demographic. Often many are first-time cruisers and they tend to be positive and upbeat. They are totally taken with the whole shipboard experience and they can often be a lot of fun. I don’t think I would be happy with all 30+ day sailings. I do like a bit of variety.”
Theo generally works under four month contracts, with two months off. He was born and raised in the province of Limburg, in the southeastern portion of the Netherlands. He got his start in hotel management early, helping his parents to run a hotel restaurant from a very young age. Once the travel bug bit him, though, he enrolled in the Merchant Marine Hotel School in Rotterdam. Upon graduation, he signed on with Holland America Line and served in various capacities onboard their passenger ships. In 1980, he left HAL to run his family’s restaurant business, but the lure of the sea was just a bit too much for him, so he returned to the Line in 1986 -- this time in the capacity of Beverage Manager. Distinguishing himself as a hands-on manager with a strong belief in teamwork, he quickly rose up the ranks to his current position as Hotel Manager. “I’ve always enjoyed team building,” Theo explained. “I try to keep my people happy and always working as a team, and that’s always the winning combination to achieving peak guest satisfaction as far as I’m concerned.”
When not sailing on the ships of Holland America, Theo and his wife, Helen, make their home in Coconut Creek, Florida. Since they have no children, Helen is now able to travel with Theo full-time while he is onboard the Statendam, and she too keeps quite busy while onboard. “Helen teaches English and cultural etiquette to our crew members while she is onboard. She helps them not just with their language skills, but also introduces them to a lot of the slang and context of the language. This goes a long way in helping some of our non-English speaking crew members to enjoy their interactions with guests.”
Helen told me that oftentimes, especially when they are new, crew members will be terrified to speak with guests. True, they learn some of the basic language skills while in training or working in their home countries, but often they are still quite unsure of their English when they come onboard. They are afraid that they won’t understand what a guest is asking them, and because of that they will avert their eyes when encountering guests in the hallway. They are not being rude; they are just afraid – but this sort of thing could still be offensive to some guests. So I put together these fun little classes where I create scenarios that help them to think not just in terms of the words needed to answer the question, but the context of the words being used as well – since the same word can have various meanings depending upon how it is being used. I incorporate a lot of “slang” terms in these classes as well to make the classes extra fun for participants.”
Helen seems to be a natural-born teacher who enjoys the whole processing of helping people to learn. “If you are just patient with people and make the learning fun, you’d be surprised at how quickly they grasp even the most difficult language concepts.” Helen went on to tell me that English is actually one of the most difficult languages to learn, especially when it is a second or third language. “Even the slang,” she pointed out, “is not universal. It often varies by the region, such as east coast versus west coast terms.”
Theo is obviously very proud of his wife’s talent for helping crew members with their English. “Helen also helps them understand the cultural differences between our various passengers onboard. Something could be fine in their own culture, but highly offensive in another.” For example, Theo related an incident that took place one evening while he and Helen were having dinner. “My wife sometimes will eat a very small dinner, and one night when we were in the dining room she only ordered an appetizer – no entrée. The waiter said something to the effect of ‘I guess tonight you want to just drink your dinner.’ While we knew he did not mean to offend, a guest could easily take that sort of comment in the wrong way. That’s why what Helen does onboard is so important. She helps our primarily Indonesian and Filipino crew members – the very ones who interact with our guests the most – to avoid uncomfortable snafus like that by better understanding the language and cultural differences of our various guests onboard.”
Theo and his wife make quite a team. While Theo is busy running the hotel side of things, Helen is also working on a series of children’s books incorporating the environment of the ship, but also a cast of characters purely from an imaginary land. Some of them are small “Teddys” that she actually keeps in her cabin. They have a full set of home-made outfits, many of which were created by her mother back home. She paints a series of adventures in which these characters engage, which are not just cute, but will give her readers an idea of what life at sea is like. She plans to one day publish these stories, when the time is right.
Theo makes the job of Hotel Manager look easy. Any given evening onboard the ship, one can see both him and Helen making the rounds of the public areas, sharing a word with a bartender here, a laugh with a group of passengers there, and perhaps an intimate cocktail with another couple. But a careful observer will realize it looks so easy only because they both so much enjoy socializing with folks onboard. Theo’s job looks so easy only because he has carefully laid the ground work to ensure his people are happy. This in turn ensures they will keep guests happy as well. It all works like a well-oiled machine, which, in fact, it is.
So when you see a hotel manager making the rounds onboard your next Holland America sailing, maybe you’ll have a bit more of an understanding of his job and what it takes to have a smoothly running ship with a lot of happy passengers. And, if it looks easy, then you can rest assured you have one of the more experienced, better hotel managers onboard – maybe even someone who was once trained and mentored as a part of Theo’s team.