Keynote: leading the momentous return to service

Richard Fain tells Rebecca Gibson about the factors behind the success of Royal Caribbean Group’s resumption of operations in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

Keynote: leading the momentous return to service

Royal Caribbean Group

Richard Fain (centre) celebrates Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge sailing the first cruise from a US port in 15 months in June 2021 with executives from the port, South Florida Government and the ship’s captain, Kate McCue

At the end of March 2020 as people worldwide were plunged into strict lockdowns to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus, Celebrity Cruises made history by becoming the first-ever cruise operator to take virtual delivery of a new ship. During the ceremony, executives from the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard officially handed command of Celebrity Apex to Celebrity Cruises and parent company Royal Caribbean Group via video conference. For many, the ceremony was memorable because it showcased another example of Royal Caribbean Group’s renowned innovative and pioneering spirit. For chairman and CEO Richard Fain, however, the ceremony is memorable for very different reasons.

“As I do for every ship naming ceremony, I made sure that I was properly attired with a smart shirt, tie and jacket but because it was a Zoom call, I hadn’t considered what I was wearing from the waist down,” he says. “Consequently, when I stood up as they played the national anthem during the ceremony, attendees from all over the world got a good look at my shorts! It was very embarrassing and slightly took away the dignity of the occasion but that’s the reality of the world we live in now. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had such an incident on Zoom now!”

Fain may have fallen foul of a virtual faux pas, but his leadership skills have been exemplary when it comes to successfully steering Royal Caribbean Group through the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of publication, more than half of the 60 ships sailing for its three proprietary brands – Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Silversea Cruises – and those it owns as part of a joint venture – TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises – had successfully returned to service in various regions of the world.

“We waited so long to resume our operations that it still feels surreal to finally see our ships back in service after so many months,” says Fain. “The joy and elation we felt when our first vessel resumed service was indescribable. We’ve now successfully resumed sailing on more than half of the fleet in an amazingly short period of time and we’ve safely carried more than 500,000 guests. By the end of the year, we expect to have sailed with over one million guests and we hope that 80 per cent of our ships will be operating seamlessly in all our core markets. We aim to have the whole fleet back in service by the end of the first quarter of 2022.”

Feedback from guests has been resoundingly positive. In fact, all the brands are receiving the best guest satisfaction ratings in Royal Caribbean Group’s history.

“Ratings have been off the charts ever since we resumed operations because people are so thrilled to be back at sea and finally getting the chance to enjoy their long-awaited cruise holidays,” says Fain. “Cruise after cruise, we’re receiving amazing feedback on everything from the onboard experiences to the shore excursions and crew engagement levels. Not only do we see guests’ happiness reflected in the high survey scores, but also in their tears of joy as they step back onboard for the first time. Returning to sea has been a very emotionally rewarding experience for everyone.”

Royal Caribbean Group’s more than 45,000 crew members have also returned reinvigorated and eager to deliver the innovative cruise experiences that delight guests. Ever appreciative of the fundamental role shipboard crew members play in driving the company’s success, Fain says: “Our crew members have struggled throughout the pandemic, and it’s been an emotional experience to see how happy they are to be back onboard and hear the stories they have to share. Their motivation and excitement are contagious. They are phenomenal and it’s thanks to their tireless efforts that our cruises have been so innovative and special for more than 50 years.”

Fain attributes much of Royal Caribbean Group’s restart success to its rigorous new health and safety protocols, which were developed with the help of a panel of globally recognised public health, infectious diseases, biosecurity, hospitality and maritime operations experts. The Healthy Sail Panel, which was established in conjunction with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., collaborated with both cruise corporations to review all aspects of their operations and identify how best to improve health and safety for guests, crew and the communities in the destinations their ships visit.

Based on the panel’s recommendations, Royal Caribbean Group has taken a multilayered approach to Covid-19 prevention, implementing measures such as sailing at reduced capacity, social distancing, mandatory mask wearing in certain areas, staggered embarkation and check-in, and enhanced medical-grade sanitisation and disinfection protocols. In addition, it has expanded onboard medical teams and facilities, and introduced mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations and regular tests for all eligible crew members. Testing and vaccinations requirements for guests depend on their age and port of departure.

If a suspected case of Covid-19 arises, Royal Caribbean Group activates a robust, tiered response plan to rapidly isolate and test the patient, before working with local authorities to safely remove them from the ship for treatment onshore if necessary.

To date, guests and crew members have happily complied with the requirements. “Our extensive requirements are designed to minimise the risk of the virus coming onboard in the first place, but the vaccines have been a game changer too,” says Fain. “Our surveys showed that guests want to be vaccinated and they don’t feel comfortable travelling with unvaccinated people. When they’re sailing on our ships, they are reassured that all eligible people have been vaccinated and those that are ineligible have undergone rigorous tests and are following additional health and safety precautions.

“Of course, it’s currently impossible for anyone to completely eliminate the risk of Covid-19 but our ships have now carried hundreds of thousands of guests, and thanks to our strict protocols, we’ve only had a few isolated cases that have been quickly and effectively managed. There haven’t been any big outbreaks like there have been elsewhere.”

Although he acknowledges that the industry must work harder to educate the public about the safety of post-pandemic cruises, Fain predicts that the success of Royal Caribbean Group’s first voyages will encourage anxious travellers to return to the seas.

“The best way to help people overcome any wariness about sailing on our ships is to prove just how safe and enjoyable our cruises are in reality,” says Fain. “In the initial stages of the pandemic, the media portrayed cruises as one of the riskiest holiday options but we’re in a unique position because we can control the environment onboard our ships to protect everyone in a way that few companies on land could ever dream of. Where else on Earth can you be sure that you’re primarily surrounded by vaccinated people? We set a goal to become the world’s safest travel operator and our brands are certainly achieving that.”

While many of Royal Caribbean Group’s ships have successfully returned to service, none are operating at full capacity and they have not yet returned to every core market. Consequently, there are still several hurdles for the company to overcome.

“The main challenge is that some countries and cruise markets are still shut and it’s difficult for people to travel internationally,” says Fain. “Air travel restrictions, health and safety guidance and vaccination rules are changing frequently, which is making it difficult for customers to understand what the rules are today or predict what they might be in a few weeks’ time when they want to take their cruise holiday. This confusion is probably the biggest deterrent for people considering a cruise.”

To ensure it is well-positioned to overcome these lingering challenges, Royal Caribbean Group has been rethinking various elements of its business to improve operational efficiency. In addition, it has been strengthening partnerships with multiple key industry stakeholders.

“Our mantra is continuous improvement and we’ve been working hard to achieve this despite the pandemic,” says Fain. “For example, we are still committed to our aggressive fleet revitalisation programme, which we started pre-pandemic to add new ships to various brands and renovate several of our existing vessels.

“Although shipyard closures and global supply chain issues forced us to slow down the newbuild projects by a few months, work has continued apace where possible and we’ve taken delivery of four newbuilds – Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Apex, Royal Caribbean International’s Odyssey of the Seas, and Silversea Cruises’ Silver Moon and Silver Origin – in 2021."

Like many others in the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean Group has also continued to work on minimising the environmental impact of its operations throughout the pandemic. Published in September 2021, the company’s 13th annual Seastainability report indicated that it had met or exceeded all but one of the 2020 sustainability goals it established in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2016. Some of these objectives included supporting the WWF’s global ocean conservation work and introducing more than 2,000 Global Sustainable Tourism-certified tours (surpassing its initial aim of 1,000 by 2020).

Now, the company has developed a new set of targets focused on decreasing carbon emissions, driving the sustainable growth and development of its business, sustainable commodity sourcing and tourism, the elimination of single-use plastics, and waste management. And it’s already making good progress towards achieving these objectives. For example, it has removed 60 per cent of single-use plastics from its supply chain and now only sends 0.22 kilograms of waste per passenger to landfill each day – 80 per cent less than the average person onshore in the USA. All vessels have been equipped with systems to ensure they become landfill-free in future.

Similarly, every ship has been equipped with an advanced wastewater purification system and produces 90 per cent of its own fresh water onboard, only using an average of 66 gallons of water per person per day – 34 gallons less than the average person in the USA.

“Sustainability is a core area of Royal Caribbean Group’s business,” says Fain. “While I’m proud of the progress we have achieved, the importance of this area has grown exponentially. Consistent with our mantra of continuous improvement, we have significantly expanded our aspirations in this critical area and are setting even more aggressive goals for the coming years.”

One of Royal Caribbean Group’s most ambitious aims is to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants by 25 per cent by 2025 after achieving its initial 35 per cent emissions reduction target ahead of schedule in 2018. To attain this goal, it opened a wind farm in partnership with Southern Power in Kansas, USA, in May 2020, which is expected to offset up to 12 per cent of its global emissions annually.

The company is also investing in cleaner and more energy-efficient ways to power its cruise ships. To date, 70 per cent of the fleet is fitted with advanced emissions purification systems to remove 98 per cent of sulphur dioxide emissions and ensure compliance with the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 sulphur limits. Since 2000, Royal Caribbean Group has also equipped eight vessels with gas-turbine engines, which burn cleaner fuels and emit less air pollution. The fleet’s newest vessels – Royal Caribbean International’s Odyssey of the Seas and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex – were all built with selective catalytic reduction systems to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 90 per cent. All future newbuilds will feature these too.

Two of the group’s brands have gone a step further by ordering LNG-fuelled vessels. In June 2021, Meyer Turku began constructing Icon of the Seas, the first of Royal Caribbean International’s three LNG-powered, Icon-class vessels, which will be able to connect to shore power in port when she debuts in autumn 2023. Royal Caribbean International is also trialling a new zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell system that uses an electrochemical reaction to convert LNG fuel directly into electricity and heat. If trials show the solution delivers sufficient energy for powering hotel services while vessels are berthed in port, it will be installed onboard the 5,000-guest Icon-class vessels.

Meanwhile, TUI Cruises’ two LNG-fuelled ships are scheduled for completion in 2024 and 2026.

“LNG is a very important transitional fuel because it significantly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and completely eliminates emissions of sulphur oxide and fine particulates,” says Fain. “However, while LNG is environmentally advantageous, it’s only an interim step on our path towards our long-term goal of a zero-carbon future. We’re actively researching and assessing the effectiveness and viability of various technologies, as well as new non-carbon-based fuels such as biofuels, to help us achieve this aim.”

In addition, Royal Caribbean Group has invested in shore power to eliminate emissions while its ships are in port. “We’ve retrofitted four vessels with shore power connectivity and Celebrity Apex was the first newbuild in our fleet to debut with the technology built in,” says Fain. “We’re keen to plug in wherever we can, and we could equip our remaining ships for shore power in a heartbeat but there aren’t many ports with the necessary shoreside capabilities because it’s a technologically complex process to update their infrastructures. We’re working with various partners, such as PortMiami in Florida, USA, to install the systems and the new terminal we’ve just agreed to build at Porto Corsini in Ravenna, Italy, will offer shore power too.”

Collaborating with partners and key industry stakeholders on issues such as boosting sustainability will remain critical as Royal Caribbean Group’s brands continue to navigate their way to a full restart in 2022.

“Although the pandemic has caused a lot of pain and suffering, it has also brought out the best in many people and shown us the power of pulling together to find solutions and help one another,” says Fain. “This compassion and willingness to collaborate for the greater good has certainly enabled our industry to survive and we’re incredibly grateful for that.”

Fain has played a vital role in driving both company- and industry-wide communication by regularly publishing inspirational videos on Royal Caribbean Group’s corporate social media channels. The primary purpose of the videos is to provide essential updates to customers, travel agents and other industry stakeholders. However, they have been cathartic for Fain too.

“Videos are the best way for me to continue speaking directly to the people who are important to me and our business in the current situation,” he says. “Lots of people say they’d found my videos helpful, and they’ve been beneficial for me too. Preparing the videos gives me a valuable opportunity to pause, take a moment for self-appraisal and really think about my perspective on all the challenges we’re facing and how best to overcome them.”

Another valuable lesson the pandemic has taught the cruise industry is the importance of planning ahead.

“You need to plan several years in advance if you want to successfully build new ships, develop innovative customer experiences or create exciting itineraries,” explains Fain. “This requires you to anticipate changing consumer demand and market trends, as well as any potential obstacles so you can plan how to overcome them. It can be difficult to imagine what lies ahead and challenges can often appear insurmountable but planning for the long term will ensure you are able to build agility and resilience, in order to react quickly and continue to thrive.”

Looking ahead, Fain remains resolutely positive about the future, noting that both Royal Caribbean Group and the global cruise industry are moving inexorably towards the total return of safe cruising.

“The pandemic is not over and people are still cautious but after so long at home, they’re more eager than ever to safely regain their quality of life by socialising, travelling and trying new things,” he explains. “Now people can see our health and safety protocols are working and the cruise experience is very much like it was pre-pandemic, they’re excited to book.”

Predicting that the cruise industry will continue evolving as it has always done, rather than entering a ‘new normal’, Fain adds: “The past 18 months have been tough but it’s clear that the fundamental aspects of cruising are still there and very much loved by our loyal guests. If anything, the pandemic has demonstrated the value of holidaying on a ship in a safe and controlled environment. We assumed the rebound would be fuelled by experienced cruisers, but we’re attracting a lot of first-timers too. The industry is incredibly lucky to have survived and it’s quickly getting back on track and our growth trajectory will undoubtedly continue long into the future.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
28 October 2021

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