As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Karst, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of AmaWaterways.
A native of Dresden, Germany, Kristin Karst has become one of the leading executives in the river cruise industry. After obtaining her degrees in the Economics of Tourism & Business Management and an MBA from the University of Dresden, Karst worked for American Express for eight years. Karst relocated to the United States and, in 1999, entered the river cruise segment. Three years later, she co-founded AmaWaterways with Rudi Schreiner and Jimmy Murphy. Karst’s extensive knowledge of Europe’s rivers, culture and traditions, as well as commitment to providing top-notch customer service, enable her to effectively shape the products and services of the company and communicate the benefits of river cruising to travel agents, group leaders and diverse educational and business organizations.
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Dresden, Germany on the banks of the Elbe River. At 16, I started working at a travel agency on school holidays and learned about the business from the ground up. My work experience there helped me land a very prized spot at the University of Dresden, the only university in the entire German Democratic Republic that offered a degree in the Economics of Tourism. After earning my degree as well as an MBA from the University of Dresden, I worked for American Express for eight years. In 1999, I moved from Europe to the U.S. and shortly thereafter began working for a river cruise line. Three years later, I leapt at an opportunity to team up with river cruise pioneer Rudi Schreiner and travel industry legend Jimmy Murphy and establish AmaWaterways.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the early mistakes I think I made when we first started AmaWaterways was not making time in my busy schedule to do daily exercise nor taking any personal time off to recharge my batteries and travel for the pure joy of experiencing new cultures and people. I now know that my physical and mental wellbeing needs to be prioritized if I am to be the strong and positive leader that our teams need particularly through periods of change.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Looking back over my career, the person that provided the most guidance and motivation to me was my mother. Her positive attitude and persistence in the face of major challenges really shaped my problem-solving approach in my personal and professional life. Her love of travel and curiosity about the world were my motivation to get into the travel industry from the beginning. Through her example, I developed what I call my 4P’s- Passion, Partnership, Positive Thinking and Personal Interaction which have supported and guided me throughout my entrepreneurial journey.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
AmaWaterways was founded by three families in 2002, and from the very beginning our families’ vision was to create a river cruise experience that we ourselves would love. To us, that meant elegantly appointed ships, high-quality locally sourced food and wine, a variety of immersive tours and above all, crew who made everyone feel like part of the Ama family. Now, 18 years later, I am so proud of how far we’ve come and grown with 25 custom-designed ships sailing the world’s most iconic rivers. AmaWaterways has earned a reputation for innovation within the river cruise industry by creating authentic and inspiring cruises for every kind of traveler.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Communication is key during uncertain and difficult times, not only with our guests and valued travel advisors, but especially between our crew and team members. Over the years, we have navigated low water situations, volcanic ash, terrorist attacks and more. Through this, we often find that our willingness to collaborate and work together as a unified team — a family– and make decisions quickly and with the best interest of our guests at heart have been the keys to our continued success.
We train and empower our team to come up with creative contingency plans to work around whatever gets thrown our way. For example, in 2018 while navigating a low water situation, we encountered a a point on the river that was impassable, our operations team were ready on the spot with an alternative schedule. Instead of visiting Nuremberg, Germany, we arranged a stop at the cozy Danube town of Grein, Austria, where passengers were treated to a tour and champagne reception at the town’s perfectly preserved 15th-century castle. It was an excursion that they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, and it actually ended up being some of our guests’ favorite stop of the entire trip and has been made a part of our regular sailings as a result. We are extremely customer-service driven and are proud to have built a culture where our employees are inspired to come up with creative solutions, learn from each other and challenge the way we conduct business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
We have been through our fair share of challenges, but I can honestly say that I am just as passionate about river cruising today as I was the very first time I set foot on a river ship. My love for travel, curiosity about the world and deep commitment to customer service fuels my passion on a daily basis. Also, seeing how river cruising has steadily gained popularity in recent years, making it the fastest growing segment not just in the cruise industry, but in the travel industry altogether, is a constant motivation for myself and our entire team. I know that the future is bright with incredible opportunities to create new experiences to surprise and delight our guests and that we have many beautiful things ahead of us.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I have always tried to lead by example. I believe that a big part of our responsibility as leaders, especially during challenging times, is to showcase steadfast optimism and positivity. By proving my unwavering commitment to our crew, team members, guests and valued travel advisors, I only hope that I provide a source of inspiration that we can overcome anything together. Together, we are stronger!
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I place a great deal of importance on personal interactions. Whether that be having a video or phone call with our team or sending handwritten thank you notes to all of our crew, nothing can replace the genuine comradeship and trust that builds from personal touch. Sometimes it’s the small things in life that warm your heart and add to your sense of wellbeing. “Ama” or “Amor” means love, and I always want to ensure the spirit of love and compassion stays at the heart of everything we do at AmaWaterways.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe the best way to communicate difficult news is in a calm, respectful and compassionate manner.. I always try to come into a difficult situation with a positive perspective and language to maintain confidence amongst our team and guests. I also try to deliver the news in a personal manner, preferably during a live meeting either in person or virtually under the current circumstances. Lastly, I think in most cases, it’s important to try to communicate difficult news as soon as possible. It may be tempting to wait until you have all of the details or final pieces in place, but sometimes, it’s critical not to wait as you don’t want your team to hear the news first from someone else.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
During unpredictable times, flexibility is key. Since no one truly knows what the future holds for COVID-19, leaders should plan through a range of future possibilities — best case, worst case and likely case — and keep an open mind to adapting these plans as the situation continues to evolve. Having trusted suppliers and a circle of experienced industry contacts is also important in keeping on top of the changing rules and regulations. It’s tough to know how things will play out, but we’ve had to prepare ourselves for a worst-case scenario, which for us would be not having a 2020 sailing season for our U.S. guests. However, out of challenges come opportunities! While we wait to welcome U.S. travelers to an AmaWaterways river cruise, the rivers continue to flow and we will continue to pursue creative opportunities like our new series of charter sailings for German guests, in order to provide employment for our crews and to put into practice our newly enhanced health and safety protocols.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
We must treat each other with respect. One of our company mottos is: “Be extraordinary — together.” Personal interaction and human connection are at the core of our company, and I believe this is the reason why we’ve become so successful and grown. People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. With that, no matter how bad the situation is, it’s all about how we treat each other and how we respect each other.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Turning a Blind Eye to New Ideas — Businesses must remain agile and open to change when times get tough. I strongly believe that out of challenges, comes opportunities. Leaders should keep an open mind to tweaking their service or product in order to remain viable in today’s new landscape.
- Not Being Transparent — With COVID-19 rapidly changing the way we all operate, businesses should maintain thoughtful, frequent communication with their customers and team members. This helps reassure your key stakeholders on what you’re doing and what special steps you’re taking to address any issues.
- Missing the Opportunity to Remain Personally Connected — During difficult times, companies should never disappear from their customers’ lives. It’s important to adapt the tone of communication and you might even have to find completely new ways to remain personally connected with customers and team members but this is when your true voice will shine. While many people are isolated at home, it has never been more important to continue to engage with them to provide a sense of comfort despite the unknowns and inspiration for the future.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Given that we started the business so soon after 9/11, we built the company on the foundation of a conservative growth plan which would ensure our strength in the face of any future challenges that came our way. Next year we will launch our 25th ship and we have achieved this while remaining financially strong, debt-free, and family-owned and operated. While we never predicted something like COVID-19, we did anticipate and fully prepare for an extended period of time when our ships couldn’t sail. Our preparedness has been a source of encouragement for our valued team members, guests and travel partners.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be “Hands-on” With Your Team — My management style includes spending a great deal of time interacting with our employees and crew onboard our ships as well as being present whenever new employees join the company. The benefits of being hands on means that decision making can be quick as we are continually testing innovative ideas to wow our guests and stay ahead of the competition. A good example is our complimentary Sip & Sail cocktail hour — it was first introduced in 2018 with great success on board our ships and then we took the concept to a new level as a virtual event to remain personally connected with our guests amid COVID-19. I was a strong supporter of this idea and as a co-owner, I was able to work closely with the team to move it forward quickly.
- Treat Your Team Like Family — When we started AmaWaterways 18 years ago, we wanted to build a genuine sense of being part of an AmaFamily, which now reverberates throughout the company. It’s very important during uncertain and turbulent times that we keep that family feeling and the smile on our face because if we, as leaders, lose that, then everyone else will lose it also. It can be as simple as a quick company-wide email saying hello to let your team know that you’re thinking of them. As we continue to grow into a much larger business, my most important roles in the company are prioritizing my time spent with our teams, ensuring that a culture of innovation, quality, respect and exemplary service is passed on.
- Encourage Innovation — AmaWaterways team members are empowered to come up with their own initiatives and find ways of turning “I don’t think we can do that” into “I think that just might work.” We constantly strive to innovate and enhance the guest experience at every touchpoint. We are always discussing how we could do things better or differently and even when the guest feedback is excellent, we still push our teams to look for new experiences that our guests just might like to try. Our Wine Cruises and dedicated Wellness Hosts are two examples of very successful programs that we pioneered. Most recently, that has involved AmaWaterways becoming the first U.S.-based river cruise operator to resume operations in Europe with a series of charter sailings for European guests as they are able to travel in Europe without restrictions. With these sailings, our crew has been able to put into practice and perfect our enhanced health and safety protocols while demonstrating proof that travelers can enjoy our unforgettable river cruise vacations with peace of mind.
- Set the Tone with Actions as well as Words — I believe that with positive thinking, it is possible to find creative solutions to all obstacles that may appear in your path. As a leader, I strive to inspire that same ‘can-do’ attitude amongst our team. The tone and actions set at the top of a company create and perpetuate a company’s culture. With that, I’m always guided by our core traits of passion, sparkle, love, enthusiasm and family in my daily actions and conversations with our team.
- Give Positive Feedback — A little feedback and positive words of appreciation go a long way. This has always been true, but during these uncertain times when everyone is experiencing new levels of stress and anxiety due to a totally new work at home environment, it’s so important that team members continue to feel motivated and recognized for their hard work. Every Monday, I like to share a “Monday Message,” which is a company-wide email that goes out to all of our employees and shines light on some of the wonderful accomplishments of each department. My hope is that everyone can be proud and look forward to the positive news each week.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote right now is actually our Mission Statement. We didn’t have one until recently and we spent a lot of time discussing it with our teams to ensure it really incorporated all that is important to us now and in the future: To personally connect with our guests and make a positive impact on the world so that every mile of their river cruise experience becomes one of their most cherished memory.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Each month, I love to share my thoughts, personal stories, travel tips and latest news on the people and places that make up our magical river cruise experiences on my personal blog page within our company website at www.AmaWaterways.com/explore/kristins-blog. Readers can also follow me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/kristin-karst/. I look forward to connecting with some new faces!