Cruise director Michael Headla is in charge of the entertainment and activities offered aboard the Westerdam. He began his entertainment career as a dancer, subsequently performing with Dolly Parton and with Louise Mandrell. At the same time, he became involved in entertainment sales and marketing including serving as Sales and Marketing Supervisor for Dollywood theme park.
“I decided that I wanted to combine the two into a single career and cruise director seemed a good fit - - I'm still involved in the management and sales aspect of it, creating a guest experience, and a little bit in the onstage entertainment - - I still get to host a lot of shows.”
During the last six years, Mr. Headla has worked on Oosterdam, Zandam, Veendam and Ryndam as well as on the Westerdam. His approach to organizing and presenting the entertainment has remained much the same regardless of the ship.
“That's part of our goal - - if you sail on any of our ships you will kind of know what to expect. [But] quite simply because of space, there are some things on the larger ships that you can't do on the smaller ships.”
While the approach to entertainment and activities may be the same fleet-wide, that does not mean that the entertainment on the Holland America ships today is the same as in the past. As discussed below, HAL has enhanced its entertainment offerings so as to have strong arrays of both nighttime entertainment and daytime activities that are true to the line's tradition of offering a sophisticated cruise experience.
The centerpiece of the nighttime entertainment on most cruise ships is the production shows in the ship's main theater. On Westerdam, the production shows in the Vista Lounge have a new energy, utilizing not just singers and dancers but also aerialists and acrobats.
“We have our newest production company that handles the entertainment, which is RWUS and Associates out of New York City. They have brought on a new round of shows. It has really changed the way we look at entertainment and our production shows aboard.”
At the same time, Westerdam has added new technology to enhance the shows. “We have the installed some fantastic new technology in the way of LED panels. It enables us to provide completely different scenery at the touch of a button. They are gigantic LED panels. Basically, the full back wall is covered with one. Then, we have some other sliders that come in from the side and one full header panel that actually drops in from the ceiling that is also part of that technology.”
This new technology also facilitates the behind-the scenes operations. “Storage space for sets is obviously at a premium on ships as is anything real estate-wise that takes up space. So it enables us to do some great new shows without bringing on the bulk of sets . We can add some smaller pieces [of traditional scenery] and complement it with these LED panels.“
While the Vista Lounge is Westerdam's largest entertainment venue, it is not the ship's only entertainment venue. In the evenings, the Queens Lounge becomes B.B. King's Blues Club. “We are very pleased to have it on all of our Vista class ships as well as on the Signature ships. It will also be introduced on the Konningsdam, our newest ship coming out next year.”
“It offers great blues music - - the music that made Memphis famous, we like to say. It features an all-star band – several musicians - - as well as two vocalists to complement that music. The great thing is that it is not just one night a cruise. It is at least five evenings. We incorporate it into evening music and dancing. Guests if they realize that this is a place they like to go, can go back every night.”
The name of the club is not just a tribute to the late blues guitarist. Rather, it reflects a genuine tie to Mr. King. “BB King is a partnership that Holland America has. Its the company that he founded or started, so it is his musicians. They select and hire them. We bring them onboard as a group to represent BB King as part of our BB King Blues Club Live.”
In addition to the above-mentioned highlights, the nighttime entertainment on Westerdam includes shows by visiting performers (comedians, magicians, jugglers etc). As well as various musical performances ranging from classical recitals to themed-disco parties.
“Anytime you are providing entertainment or activities for a vast array of people, you want to try and broaden your appeal. We have a widely spread demographic onboard. We have some first time cruisers, we have some long time cruisers as well as we span the gamut of ages. So [we are ] really trying to offer a wide appeal.”
“[We understand] that everybody is not going to like everything. You may see a show that maybe that is just not your genre. That is why we try and offer all the other live music throughout the ship. So for instance if we do have a comedian on one night and comedy is not your thing, you can visit the BB King Blues Club or listen to our classical group or you can enjoy the band in the Ocean Bar. You have other options always there for you.”
“They are also offered in addition. So you catch the early show and you can also enjoy those [other entertainment] outlets in the later evening. I think the goal with the evening entertainment and what is planned is to offer an array.”
Westerdam also has a strong line-up of daytime activities. One of the stars is the Culinary Arts Center. “The Culinary Arts Center aboard is presented by Food and Wine Magazine, another partnership that we are very proud of. . We offer basically cooking shows.”
“We have a Culinary Arts Center host and then we have a show chef. The two of them work together. The Culinary Arts Center host hosts it and provides the guest interaction, handling the questions. Then we have the show chef who is a trained chef onboard who does a little bit more of the actual cooking aspect.”
“The great thing I like about our shows is that not only do they come along with the tips to teach you how but you also get recipe cards to take home. We also serve samples of the dishes being prepared at those cooking shows.”
In addition, the Culinary Arts Center host is also also involved in wine tasting and mixologies. “Sometimes we do regional beer tastings if we are sailing in a specific area.. For instance, in Alaska, we do Alaska beer tastings using the Alaska Brewing Company. So [the Culinary Arts Center covers] pretty much everything based around home entertaining.”
“All of the general cooking shows that we do are complimentary. We do as part of that program also offer hands-on cooking classes. There is a registration fee for that but it includes some extra goodies. They are limited to a very small number of people who participate in the class and then afterward they dine on the menu that was prepared.”
Another highlight of Westerdam's daytime activities program is the Microsoft Digital Workshop, which not only has a dedicated teacher but also has its own dedicated classroom equipped with computers.
“That is a partnership with Microsoft. It is technology classes. They are completely free and complimentary.. We also give the links to go on and download any of the handouts that were distributed in the workshops as well as any of the software that is needed.”
“Some of the classes do photo editing or e-mailing storage, [computer] safety and maintenance - - a variety of different topics. Then once a day [the teacher] also hosts what we call 'Techspert Time.' If people have been to one of the other classes and still haven't quite got the hang of it, this is a little more one-on-one lab setting where they can just ask questions throughout the hour.”
Westerdam also offers staple cruise ship activities such as bingo and trivia contests. “Trivia has perennially remained popular. I think it will withstand the test of time. We offer several trivias a day. We normally do a mid-afternoon one and usually an evening one for some of our late diners who are still looking for something to do before dinner. Sometimes we do musical trivias and on longer voyages, we also add in some more themed ones around a variety of different topics.”
Holland America also recognizes that sometimes guests would rather pursue their interests by themselves rather than in organized activities. “We have lots of books, lots of best sellers and some of the old classics. They are utilized heavily. We have lots of traffic flow on the first days as everybody is checking their books out to read throughout the week.”
However, 'our library isn't really a library anymore, it is the Explorations Cafe. We offer not only books there but it is games, trivias, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, all that sort of stuff. Puzzle tables where you can sit and enjoy. We have a coffee bar in there as well so you can get coffee, treats and desserts. It is also our Internet cafe. We have desk top computers that guests can access.”
Cruise ship interview - Holland America Line - Westerdam - Cruise Director