People all over the globe have a fabulous cruise experience on their bucket list. The young and old envision poolside cocktails, exotic excursions, unforgettable time spent with friends and family—the vacation of a lifetime. How do cruise operators ensure delivery on this promise? The answer for Asuka Cruises lay with a tech giant.
Though best known as a global leader in technology, IBM also provides talent operations and organizational architecture services through its Talent & Engagement team. GLOBIS faculty and IBM Talent & Engagement associate partner Cristian Vlad interviewed executive director Hiroshi Kawamura and PR team manager Yukie Toshimori of NYK Cruises Co., Ltd. to learn how they collaborated with IBM to establish an innovative crew culture.
CV: What is Asuka Pride and why is it necessary?
HK: Asuka Pride is a code of conduct we developed with IBM about two years back. It includes 3 main parts:
・ Don’t rock the ship, rock the heart
・ Heighten your standard, inspire yourself
・ Pursue and offer “made-in-Asuka” services
Our cruise ship, Asuka II, sets sail regularly from Yokohama. Roughly, 80% of our crew is made up of non-Japanese hospitality professionals who provide a unique type of hospitality service – a service which is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture. This takes more than just speaking the language. Our crew members have to understand Japanese manners, business etiquette, and the whole process of going beyond “business as usual.” We need to anticipate guest behavior and be ready to welcome and greet them with our customary courtesy and friendliness at every point of interaction on board.
Meanwhile, our land operators promote, distribute, and sell cruise packages to Japanese-speaking guests, setting certain standards and expectations. Therefore, it’s a top priority for us to have a common culture and mindset fully embraced by our cruise crew and land operators. This is what creates our competitive advantage.
CV: Could you tell us about the role IBM played?
HK: The IBM talent operators have been extremely helpful in sharing their design thinking practice and great insights in service management, strategy, and operations. We invited crew members and land operators to a series of facilitated sessions where we explored real situations that require hospitality orchestrated between guests, employees, and executives. We broke each case down to determine who can do what, when, and how with development journey maps, stakeholder engagement charts, and action plans. These tools were very helpful in visualizing transformation.
CV: So how is Asuka Pride working today?
YT: It’s one of the main engines which keep us sailing. Services are a highly volatile and perishable product. They are also intangible and inseparable—you cannot just lift one part of a service out of the rest. It’s the whole package that makes the magic work.
CV: Which techniques have proven most effective in communicating across cultures and aligning mindsets?
YT: Visualization, in all shapes and forms. Videos, photos, storyboards, and clearly visualized success stories have helped everyone align their behavior to the core elements of Asuka Pride. For example, we invited employees to share personal stories about how Asuka Pride worked for them on camera, and then we shared those stories internally and externally.
CV: Can you give us an example?
YT: Let’s see… There was one story about a 30-minute stargazing activity onboard. There were strong winds on deck that made it hard to hear, and it was winter, so the wind was quite cold. Before starting the activity, the Cruise Director explained all this to the Bridge, and the captain agreed to change direction and slow down for the duration of the activity.
I also recall a story about how, on one cruise during tendering, it was raining quite hard, making the deck very slippery. The crew came with umbrellas to escort the guests and even wiped down all the handrails, again and again, to keep them dry. This made it much safer for the guests to get to the boats.
Another crew member shared how the captain of his cruise had the idea to form a heart-shaped trail in the Bay of Sagami. Technically, this was quite a challenge, and of course they had to consider how to “rock the heart” while maintaining the safety of the ship and crew. But the guests loved it!
CV: It sounds like all levels of your crew are embracing Asuka Pride. Can you tell us how you are orchestrating this cultural change?
HK: Well, first we made a conscious decision to move from a traditional administrative HR to a strategic HR. We also revisited our leadership practices, looking for opportunities to provide support. We’re working hard on injecting as much emotion back into office operations on land as we have on board. Our land operators know that they are not just ticking boxes – they need to be constantly creating awe and sustainability.
CV: Looking at the horizon, there seem to be many non-Japanese cruises entering the market. How do you plan to stay ahead?
HK: By being who we really are, and by putting in a lot of hard work, passion and commitment, as well. We believe that our service is unique, as it comprises not just a journey at sea, but a whole lifestyle. Our restaurant provides an experience that’s talked about by world-famous chefs and written about in cookbooks in numerous languages. Our land tours are all organized so that our guests bring back memories which complement their cruise experience. Our shops on board carry a unique alignment of merchandise that can be found nowhere else. These may seem like separate elements, but as we said earlier, they all come together as one. Our Asuka Pride culture supports all this. It’s what brings guests to us today, and it’s what will bring them back tomorrow.