While many cruise lines are yet to resume sailing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Royal Caribbean International has successfully operated cruises on Quantum of the Seas out of Singapore since December 2020, with the season now extended through June 2021. Deploying Healthy Sail Panel protocols, developed by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, alongside the Ministry of Health of the Singapore government’s own procedures, the cruise brand has carried 45,000 Singapore residents to date and received high guest satisfaction rates.
Those very same fundamental protocols are part of the recommendations to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vis a vis its Conditional Sail Order announced at the end of October. “We are talking on a weekly basis with the CDC,” says Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International. “Soon, we are expecting the release of the next phase of technical specifications for an open pathway for trial sailings.”
Royal Caribbean already has 250,000 volunteers poised and ready to step aboard for trial cruises when the time comes. “We are headed into a better environment and I think we are all optimistic about the future,” says Bayley. “There are two big variables: the prevalence of Covid-19 in the community/source market and the availability of the vaccine.”
With more than one million US citizens now receiving vaccines per day and the US administration committed to increasing this number, it is expected that by spring and into summer, anyone in the USA who wants a vaccination will be able to get one. The hope is that this will bring the number of fatalities down significantly, explains Bayley.
“When we ask the CDC about vaccines, they completely agree that these will be transformational, but we don’t know when,” he says, adding that whenever that time comes, Royal Caribbean International will be poised to resume services. “We have protocols worked through with the Healthy Sail Panel. We believe they will be very much part of trial sailings. We have operated with them in Singapore with great success.”
Once the industry does get the go-ahead in the USA and beyond, Bayley expects that guests having extra finances will help to drive uptake of cruises. With respect to the USA, Bayley says: “The credit card debt of consumers has dropped by a bucket load of cash in the past year and the savings rate has increased dramatically. There are billions of dollars in the consumer pocket. That is really impressive. Once we move through this Covid-19 period, we are of the mind that customers will have more disposable income, particularly in our target market range.”
With vaccinations on the rise (both amongst travellers and the communities in ports of call), a reduction in the rate of Covid-19, and money in the pocket, people will be looking for top-quality vacations and that, Bayley says, is exactly what Royal Caribbean International provides. Noting that he is not alone in wanting to “go big” when it is possible, he says: “We believe that when they feel comfortable and safe, consumers will go a little crazy on travel.”
Bayley believes that many positive lessons and developments have come from the pandemic. “Any difficult journey, any traumatic experience, anything so massive as this, creates a huge desire to analyse, understand and learn from it. All of us, both personally and from a Royal Caribbean Group perspective, where we obsessively develop our business, have learnt from it.”
Like his colleague Martha Poulter, Royal Caribbean Group’s chief information officer (read her interview on page 128), Bayley says the number one area that the company has taken the opportunity to look at in different and helpful ways is technology. “Almost from any angle or dimension there has been a shift and a change. I would say that the culture of our company has always been fairly quick to adapt and it continues to require a great deal of flexibility.
“The one thing that comes through this is really where we are with technology and where we are going, which has made this a survivable event. Technology has really facilitated and helped us manage an incredibly complex environment.”
One example of this is contact tracing, which has been implemented on Quantum of the Seas. “We can now trace, for an active family of four halfway through a four-day voyage, every single point of contact within 60 minutes,” says Bayley, explaining that Royal Caribbean International does this with a number of technologies, including the Tracelet (a mandatory wearable bracelet) that can identify if another Tracelet has been within six feet for 15 minutes or longer. “That is quite a remarkable step forward. I would say that our contact tracing technology has really developed quite rapidly. It is very sophisticated.”
Technology has also been crucial in helping Royal Caribbean Group to break new ground with its Muster 2.0 system. Following embarkation, passengers can now log on to the app and take themselves through the mustering process. This involves reviewing information and watching videos, such as how to put on a life vest. Once those steps are complete, the guest must locate their muster station with the help of the app, and check in with a crew member, who will then confirm they have completed each step.
First deployed by sister brand TUI Cruises, Muster 2.0 will be rolled out across Royal Caribbean International’s vessels and the entire Royal Caribbean Group fleet. The open-source technology is also available to other cruise lines and other industries today.
“Ironically, we were developing this [prior to the pandemic] to make it easier and more convenient for the guests but it turns out it is a massive game changer for Covid-19,” says Bayley. “Guests no longer have to gather in large groups to go through the muster process, which minimises physical interactions. The retention from the guests on Muster 2.0 versus the old approach is also significantly higher because they pay more attention.”
Developing technology has also added benefits in terms of communication. “Given the global nature of the business, these underlying technology developments have really helped.”
For example, the company’s ability to support its crew members through the RCL Cares programme has opened up funding for crew who need help with medical and/or housing bills and issues. “All of that became globally available through technology,” says Bayley. “It allowed crew to apply for funding and enabled us to send the money flawlessly without any hindrance or issue.”
Bayley also highlights the importance of the relationships and the trust the company has developed over the years with communities and governments worldwide, as well as with its guests and employees. “This has really helped and proven to be very valuable during this time. When you suddenly have to pause projects worldwide, the fact that we have a good reputation, a history of doing the right thing and keeping to our word has really helped us through this.”
Although he acknowledges the devastation caused to the cruise industry and so many others by the pandemic, Bayley is now optimistic about the future. “The end of 2020 was the end of a dark period and in 2021 we are now going into what we hope will be the dawn of recovery,” he explains. “I think it will happen really quickly and it will take a lot of us by surprise. By the time we get to the spring, which is symbolically a period of renewal, there will be more vaccines and less fatalities. I think there will be a push to get back to normal.”
For now, Quantum of the Seas continues to operate safely out of Singapore and Royal Caribbean International awaits the green light for Spectrum of the Seas to being sailing out of China: “We are optimistic it could be operating in the spring.”
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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