On May 25, 1977, American audiences got their first look at a sci-fi movie called Star Wars. Forty years later, the original film is still relevant – in fact, it’s iconic.
It’s an apt comparison to the career of Gerald Bernhoft, who currently serves as director of Holland America Line’s Mariner Society. Gerald started his career with Princess Cruises and Tours May 24, 1977, a day before Star Wars premiered. Like the movie, Gerald’s career has encompassed a number of story lines and a universal cast of characters. And his presence at what has evolved to become Holland America Group is now so fixed that our company would seem like a different place without him – like Star Wars without Luke Skywalker or Han Solo.
Kirk Baruth, senior specialist, internal communications and Intranet for Holland America Group, asked Gerald to reflect on his career with the company … to go back “A long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away” and reveal where he’s been and what he’s learned. Here’s what Gerald said, in his own words:
What was your start date, and what was your first job with the company?
Gerald Bernhoft: I started with Princess Cruises and Tours on May 24, 1977. After graduating from Gonzaga University I went right on board the mv Island Princess as the company’s Onboard Representative. I handled embarkation, disembarkation, customs formalities and coordinated transfers for all guests on our Princess air charter flights to and from the ship. It was a dream job straight out of college! I boarded in Victoria, [British Columbia], and sailed to Alaska and Mexico for five months. The mv Island Princess carried 626 passengers and 350 crew, which I thought was massive at the time. I remember walking on board and standing in the main foyer of the ship next to the iconic Love Boat staircase and thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What drew you to the company or the industry?
Growing up in Ketchikan, Alaska, I watched cruise ships during the summer months steam up Tongass Narrows to their berth next to the Spruce Mill, which was right in front of downtown. The first ships to cruise up the channel were Canadian Pacific’s ss Prince George and ss Princess Patricia. Later Westours’ two ships – ss Yukon Star and ss Polar Star – along with P&O’s ss Arcadia and ss Oriana, arrived for summer visits. In those days there were only one or two ships a month that would call into Ketchikan during the summer.
When I knew a ship was due in port, I’d get on my bike and pedal down to the dock and sit on the creosote pilings to watch it arrive, tie up and watch the passengers walking down the gangway. When I was around 14 years old I’d beg my father to ask his friend Cliff Taro, founder of Southeast Stevedoring Co, for a visitor pass so I could go on board to see the ships. In those days, a visitor pass was a simple piece of paper with the ship’s name, its date of arrival and Cliff’s signature sprawled across the bottom. With that golden ticket in hand, I’d get dressed in my nicest cloths, pedal my bike down to the dock and wait anxiously for the passengers to disembark before it was my turn to walk up the gangway and enter the world of a floating palace. I’d walk around for hours, and if I was lucky enough I’d find a stray book of matches, or a postcard, or a sheet of stationery and an envelope with the ship’s picture or logo on it. I’d slip that treasure into my pocket and take it home. I actually still have many of those items to this day.
So when you see a young kid sitting on the dock or leaning against his bicycle as your ship is pulling into port, remember that was me growing up in Ketchikan, with stars in my eyes staring up at you.
Years later I went to Gonzaga University. I was studying for my B.A. in the School of Business, majoring in organizational and personnel management. Initially I was interested in the banking field, but all that changed my junior year. A friend of mine from Ketchikan, Barbara Galloway, also went to Gonzaga and was dating a gentleman by the name of David Kusler. David’s father, Ray Kusler, started Princess Tours with Stan McDonald, founder of Princess Cruises. That’s when the light bulb went off and I knew that the cruise industry I had been so passionate about as a child was where I had to be!
David was a few years older than me, so when he graduated he went directly to Princess Tours and Cruises. During my senior year at Gonzaga, I’d hound David for an interview after graduation. I sent in dozens of resumes, dropped by the office to see if I could secure an interview, did whatever I could to get my foot in the door. Finally, after graduation I landed an interview, and two months later I was hired as the Princess Representative aboard the mv Island Princess. I was in! After a few contracts as Ship Rep., I went to Juneau and served as Station Manager, followed by a contract as Whitehorse Station Manager in the Yukon Territory. From there I moved into the office in downtown Seattle as a Ship Inventory Agent (known as a Berthing Agent back then). In those days Princess Cruises only had three ships: mv Island Princess, mv Pacific Princess and mv Sun Princess. I was in charge of the stateroom inventory of the Island Princess. From there I became a Tour Counselor, known as a Reservations Agent at HAL. After a few years of making reservations on our three vessels I moved into Sales, and in 1985 I jumped ship and went over to Holland America Line/Westours.
What positions have you held at the company?
With Princess Cruises and Tours I held the following positions:
• Onboard Representative – mv Island Princess
• Juneau Station Manager
• Whitehorse Station Manager
• Ship Inventory Berthing Agent
• Tour Counselor – Reservations Agent
• Sales and Promotion Representative
• National Sales Manager
With Holland America Line I held the following positions:
• Started as the company’s first Onboard Cruise Consultant aboard the old ms Noordam
• District Sales Manager – Washington, Oregon and Alaska
• Director of Sales – Windstar Cruises
• Director, National Accounts Sales
• Director, Mariner Society
What have been the highlights of your career?
Where to begin? While Representative aboard Island Princess I once took Sid Caesar and Alan King out fishing in Ketchikan. Growing up there I knew all the great salmon fishing spots and they wanted to go fishing, so I arranged it and took them out for the day. I was also involved in some of the onboard coordination (behind the scenes) of two Love Boat filmings. Once we had Mark Harmon, Audra Lindley, Lorne Greene and of course the Love Boat cast for a story line to Alaska. Another filming was with Connie Stevens, Rue McClanahan and Dick Van Patten on a Mexico cruise along with the Love Boat cast.
I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu through mutual friends about 16 years ago. As Director of the Mariner Society I accompany our President and CEO on a portion of the Grand World Voyage. When I found out we were going to South Africa on the 2014 voyage, I had the idea of inviting Archbishop Tutu as our special guest for five days between Durban and Cape Town. I started the dialogue with him in 2013 but couldn’t get a definitive answer until about five months before the actual trip. Each time we’d have a meeting with Stein Kruse about the President’s Event for the voyage I’d have to say, “I’m still on it but I haven’t got his acceptance yet.” I was sweating bullets until I received an email from Arch that his wife Leah said, “Tell them yes before they take it away!” Having Archbishop Tutu as our special guest was truly magical! He brought to life for our guests and crew the struggles of Apartheid, the culture, the politics and his relationship with Nelson Mandela. He and Nelson were as close as two people could be without being blood relatives. Arch also conducted a mass for the ship that was incredibly moving, no matter what a person’s beliefs were.
How many new ships have launched during your time with the company?
I’ve been involved with each and every Holland America Line ship launch of every vessel in our current fleet, and also with three ships that have been retired from the HAL fleet: ms Westerdam (1988), ms Statendam (1993) and ms Ryndam (1994). I was also the Sales Department “Island Manager” for the dedication of Half Moon Cay in 1997.
If you’d never joined the company, what do you think you’d be doing today instead?
I was heading toward the banking industry before switching gears in my junior year at Gonzaga University to do everything possible to have a career in the cruise industry.
What’s been the secret to your long career here?
That is very simple … it’s one word: passion! I have a deep passion for our industry and this company! Each and every time I walk across the gangway of one of our magnificent ships my buttons still burst. When I’d drive my company car, a Taurus wagon, to a travel agency and get them turned onto HAL, it was the best feeling ever. When I’d take first-time potential cruisers on board for a ship tour and watch them light up and see the enthusiasm in their eyes, I too would beam from ear to ear. When I’d conduct a seminar for travel agents and consumers on our Grand Voyages or cruises to Alaska, Europe, or any other destination, I’d get excited too.
The vast history of our remarkable company for all these 144 years still fascinates and excites me! This company has survived massive global challenges over the years, from the Spanish-American War, to WWI and WWII, to the Great Depression and the introduction of the jet age – which decimated our trans-Atlantic crossings. During the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s, Holland America Line actually changed the color of our funnels from black, green and white to yellow, green and white so no one would mistake our Dutch ships for American ships (which also had black funnels). Our company has 144 years of these amazing stories that make up our DNA and our remarkable heritage. It’s who we are and how we got to where we are today.
From each and every one of these challenges we have grown and reinvented the company to remain current and relevant. Our future continues to be bright, and our commitment to our guests and our travel partners around the globe is as strong as ever. And most importantly, the remarkable crew members on each and every Holland America Line ship are without equal in our industry. I hear this time and (time) again from both guests and travel agents.
I joined our company in 1977 not as a job but as a career and profession. I am beyond proud to be an employee and an associate of this extraordinary company for the past 40 years! I count my blessings often, and at the top of the list is Holland America Line!
Here are some quotes from those who’ve worked with Gerald:
Stein Kruse, CEO, Holland America Group
I’ve known Gerald for 17 of the 40 years he’s been with Holland America Line, and it has truly been a pleasure. I know Gerald to be professional, committed, dedicated – he bleeds HAL blue – thoughtful, and always willing to step forward and assist. He also makes the world’s best puttanesca, his taste in wine is exquisite, he is a true gentleman and a he’s a very spiffy dresser! Congratulations on 40 years, Gerald. We and Holland America Line are so fortunate to have had you all these years.
Orlando Ashford, President, Holland America Line
Gerald is my Grand World Voyage travel partner. I’ve had the privilege to journey to Israel, Turkey, Greece, Australia, Korea and China with Gerald, and he is such a joy to experience the world with. In addition, the way he takes care of our Mariners is magical, with all of his thoughtful touches – he makes us look so good!
Sally Andrews, Vice President, Public Relations
When I think about the heart and soul of Holland America Line, I think about Gerald Bernhoft. His love of this brand and its history is so strong, so impassioned. He is one of our few company historians, but more than having the facts, his stories convey such pride and inspire all of us to be proud.
Gerald has such a way with our Mariners. He is the consummate host at events – he has an amazing eye for even the smallest detail, right down to place cards and table gifts. He is creative and takes great pride in all he does. Many times I’ve seen him expertly engage our Mariners and make them feel valuable and appreciated. As well, I’ve seen him handle difficult situations with perfect professionalism and a sense of humor that leaves everyone involved feeling better. And of course Gerald has a fabulous sense of humor and is so much fun to travel with. Happy anniversary, Gerald!
Pamela Baade, Manager, Corporate Giving
What I learned from Gerald:
• Make sure the smallest of details are buttoned up.
• When it comes to gifts or events, it’s all about the personal touch.
• Presentation is everything!
• Things always take longer than you think they will.
• Leave a lasting impression.
• If you need historical information about Holland America Line, ask Gerald!
Please feel free to wish Gerald congratulations in the comments below!