Kenneth Svendsen | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kenneth Svendsen


Entertainment Cruises' first voyage took place in 1978 with the launch of the Spirit of Norfolk in Norfolk, Va. Today, the company (owned by Chicago's  Pritzker Group Private Capital) operates cruises and water taxis in New York, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., among other cities. Its brands include Odyssey Cruises, Spirit Cruises, Mystic Blue Cruises, Bateaux New York, Seadog Cruises, Elite Private Yachts and Windridge Yacht Charters.

The Mistake: 

I was part of a team with a very senior executive who came in to an internal steering committee to ask for capital. The second part of the pitch was going to be mine, but we didn’t even get to that.

Before I got to my part of the pitch, he looked around the room and he also looked at me, and after a couple of minutes he paused and said, “Why am I asking all of you for capital when you all look like me? There’s no diversity and none of you, absolutely none of you, are connected closely enough to the guest or the customer experience.” 

He got up, walked out of the room and said, “I’m going to go do my own guest and consumer research. And I’m going to come back and tell you all about that. That way, we can make a faster and more relevant and more informed decision.” 

It was probably one of the most defining moments in my almost three decades in the business. 

Always ensure that you’re able to walk in the footsteps of the guest.

The Lesson: 

The reason why that has resonated with me for almost 25 years is because it spoke to the importance of being connected to the guest or the customer, no matter what you sell or what you deliver. It spoke a lot to the importance of relevance. And it spoke a lot to the importance of recognizing that speed of change is massive.  

The moment after we walked out I said to myself “I will make sure that we never put things in front of anyone, asking for their permission or their money, without having done this type of homework.” 

It was a fast and cheap lesson to say we never will again go internally and not have this ready. It certainly has prepared me significantly for all the external pitches that I have done. 

It brought me so close to the need of the guest experience. It brought me so close to the importance of respecting the speed of change. That has driven me in how I’ve run divisions, departments and now company structures to ensure that the culture is a culture that is anchored in speed as a currency, innovation and the opportunity to fail fast and course correct.  

Overarchingly, it is to ensure that everyone is close to the guest experience, whichever company you represent. 

You should be sure everyone in your organization fully understands and values what it is that you offer or sell to the consuming public. Always ensure that you’re able to walk in the footsteps of the guest. 

Having worked all over the world, I have found that this one has never failed me. 

Follow Entertainment Cruises on Twitter at @EntertainCruise.

Pictured: Kenneth Svendsen. Photo by Neshan H. Naltchayan​.

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