Richard Fain: building a cruise legacy to exceed expectations

Richard Fain tells Rebecca Gibson how Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s relentless quest for innovation has led to 50 years of success

Richard Fain: building a cruise legacy to exceed expectations

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

For the past 50 years, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) has gone above and beyond to ensure that every ship in its six-brand fleet – Azamara, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur, Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises and TUI Cruises – delivers the wow factor. Whether it’s the first at-sea virtual reality bungee trampoline experience on Royal Caribbean International’s Spectrum of the Seas, the Magic Carpet platform that moves up and down the side of Celebrity Cruises’ new Celebrity Edge, or the world’s first humanoid DJ on TUI Cruises’ new Mein Schiff 1, there’s a magical experience awaiting every guest, young or old. While these ships are undoubtedly special, chairman and CEO Richard Fain says that they are not the key to RCL’s success – instead, it’s the people that make the difference.

“It takes a very talented team of architects, engineers and interior designers to make our visions a reality, but without our onboard crew to bring these innovations to life for our guests, our ships would just be striking structures of steel,” he explains. “When it comes to delivering that perfect cruise experience, the ships are important, but it’s the small human touches that make a big difference. These come from the bartender who knows a guest’s “usual” drink from the extensive list of craft cocktails, or the FlowRider operator who goes beyond simply pressing the on/off button to provide helpful personalised tips on how to best grip the boogie board.”

That’s why, qualifications aside, Fain and the executives managing the corporation’s six brands look for specific skills and attributes when hiring employees.

“We want to see people who are bursting at the seams with passion for delivering great guest experiences and making RCL’s brands the best they can be,” says Fain. “Passion stands out every time, particularly because it’s a quality that feeds many of the other attributes we value, such as innovative thinking, a predisposition for collaboration and the tenacity to turn what may initially seem impossible into reality.”

All employees must also be motivated to achieve the corporation’s goals and continuously strive to deliver the best possible cruise product that exceeds all expectations. “Our mantra of ‘continuous improvement’ is what inspires our industry firsts, such as the ice-skating rinks, sky-diving, surfing simulators and robot bartenders,” says Fain. “It’s also what drives our commitment to protecting the environment and communities in which we operate, so it’s essential that everyone working for our six brands remains dedicated to this goal.”

Fortunately for Fain, all his onshore and shipboard employees are passionate, dedicated and constantly striving for excellence. “Our people are at the very core of who we are at RCL – we’ve built RCL’s foundation and goals on the values of our employees, which has enabled us to create a company that everyone is invested in,” he explains. “Although we’re not saving lives, we’re certainly enriching them by helping families and friends make lifetime memories onboard our ships and that is a beautiful thing.”

In fact, Fain’s respect and admiration for the hard work and dedication of all his employees is so deep-rooted that he credits all 80,000 of them for him being named one of the 30 best chief executives in the world by major American newspaper Barron’s in both 2018 and 2019.

“I was very honoured to receive the award and I believe that it’s a recognition of the great work RCL’s shoreside and shipboard employees are doing all over the world to ensure we deliver unforgettable cruise vacations for our guests,” he says. “I’m incredibly proud of our people – it’s easy for me to look good with them supporting me.”

While RCL’s crew members are a vital component of every guest’s cruise experience, Fain notes that the only way they are able to deliver the type of customised and innovative experiences guests are looking for is via digital technology.

“It’s in our DNA to always break boundaries and push the industry forward, and clever use of technology is one of our greatest tools for doing this,” explains Fain. “It’s what powers many of the unique onboard experiences across the six brands – such as the dancing roboscreens on Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum-class ships and the three-dimensional table projection mapping at the core of Celebrity Cruises’ Le Petit Chef dining experience. As we construct newbuilds and continue to modernise our existing ships, I’m eager to see the increasing number of new ways we’ll be able to use technology to enhance our guests’ vacations.”

One technology-led initiative that RCL is working on is to deliver a frictionless and enhanced onboard experience across its brands. Already being trialled on several of Royal Caribbean International’s ships is an app that enables guests to book cruises, sign up for shore excursions, make dinner reservations, order drinks, explore the ship using x-ray vision and interactive maps, and unlock their staterooms. Other concept ideas include virtual and augmented reality experiences that would enable guests to transform onboard spaces into interactive gaming areas, replace their stateroom ceiling with a starry sky or wear a headset to virtually travel to new landscapes when tasting different foods in the restaurants.

Meanwhile, crew use a mobile app to check guests in, track the delivery of bags to staterooms, locate passengers during emergencies and anticipate their personal needs throughout the cruise. Plus, they have better tools to manage their own schedules and stay connected to friends and family onshore.

“These digital enhancements transform every aspect of the cruise experience for both guests and crew and we’ve already made great progress in eliminating friction for guests – think being able to get from their car, through check-in and onto the ship in 10 minutes,” says Fain.

However, RCL uses technology for much more than just guest-facing applications. Today, says Fain, technology is omnipresent in every facet of its business, starting at the initial ship conception and design stages. In 2017, the corporation opened a 20,000-square-foot Innovation Lab & Collaboration Center at its headquarters in Miami, Florida. The innovation lab, which is the first of its kind in the cruise industry, has collaborative work areas that are large enough to house full size mock-ups of shipboard spaces and a three-storey virtual reality cave. Here, designers wear virtual reality headsets to immerse themselves in a full-size representation of the spaces they are designing. Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge, which debuted in December 2018, was the first of RCL’s ships to be fully planned and designed this way.

“Thanks to technology, we’re now able to actually walk through three-dimensional renderings of ships’ venues and features in the virtual reality cave,” says Fain. “This means we can easily test ideas and make tweaks until we create the perfect onboard space for our guests.”

Behind the scenes, RCL is harnessing the power of digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to improve operational efficiency, reduce energy use and boost the safety of its guests and crew.

“We generate data across our entire business, including our ships and the systems that support them, and AI and analytics technologies are now helping us to make sense of all this data,” says Fain. “Now that we can extract actionable insights from our raw data, we can predict what may happen in the future and better prepare our crew with the resources they need to deal with these situations. We can also recommend and introduce new initiatives that will enhance our guests’ vacations. For example, our crew can use data to predict what our guests might want to do while they’re onboard our ships and then adjust onboard operations to ensure everything flows smoothly.”

AI software is also being used to identify the optimal routes for RCL’s ships depending on weather and sea conditions. On newer vessels, the technology can also track how much energy onboard items, such as ovens in the galley, are using so the company can capitalise on opportunities for boosting operational efficiency.

“Having global weather and ocean dynamics data, as well as digital twins (virtual replicas) of all our ships, enables us to identify the best routes so we can avoid adverse weather and the optimal speeds so we can decrease fuel consumption,” explains Fain. “This makes operations safer and ensures guests and crew sail in comfort. AI systems are self-learning, so they will become more intuitive and effective as we continue to use them.”

The ability to minimise fuel and energy consumption across its entire global fleet is valuable for a company that prides itself on its environmental credentials. RCL was among the first in the cruise industry to introduce smokeless gas turbines, advanced wastewater purification systems, emission purification systems and a ground-breaking air lubrication solution that coats the hulls of ships with millions of microscopic air bubbles to minimise drag and resistance in the water.

Two of RCL’s brands have also gone a step further in their pursuit of safer, cleaner and more energy-efficient ways to power their cruise ships. Royal Caribbean International has ordered three LNG-fuelled vessels, which will be delivered in 2022, 2024 and 2025. TUI Cruises has ordered two LNG-fuelled ships, which will be completed in 2024 and 2026. Royal Caribbean International is also exploring the use of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell technology on cruise ships. Royal Caribbean International will trial the system, which relies on an electrochemical reaction to convert LNG fuel directly into electricity and heat, onboard selected existing ships to determine where it can deliver sufficient energy for powering hotel services while the ship is in port. If successful, Royal Caribbean International aims to use the fuel cell system for propulsion on its three 5,000-guest Icon-class vessels when they debut in 2022, 2024 and 2025.

Another item at the top of RCL’s environmental agenda is plastic waste. Single-use plastic straws and coffee stirrers have been banned on all ships across the six brands since January 2019 (and replaced by paper and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood alternatives). Plus, RCL has embarked on a cross-brand audit to find ways to reduce or eliminate other disposable plastics – such as condiment packets, cups and bags – by 2020.

“RCL has a decades-long track record of taking environmental responsibilities seriously, and the exciting projects we have underway not only affirm that, but also indicate our persistence to continuously innovate,” remarks Fain. “And there’s always more where that came from. From ship design to the ambitious sustainability goals being pursued across our operations, we’re committed to doing the right thing.”

According to Fain, eco-conscious travellers have already taken notice of – and been impressed by – the success of the corporation’s ongoing efforts to decrease its environmental impact.

“Although we have six distinct cruise brands in different sectors of the market, they operate together under one roof and perfectly complement each other when it comes to important common goals and efforts, such as environmental stewardship,” he says. “Driven by our company-wide ‘continuous improvement’ philosophy, they all have ambitious targets in the areas of emissions reduction, sustainable destinations and sustainable food sourcing. Specifically, we’ve set goals to reduce our emissions by 35% from a 2005 baseline and responsibly source 90% of wild-caught seafood globally and 75% of farmed seafood in North America and Europe by 2020. I’m proud to say that we’ve already achieved our emissions reduction goals and we’re on schedule to hit the other targets by the end of 2020.”

RCL’s sustainability efforts aren’t just restricted to its ships. The corporation also takes measures to ensure it has a positive impact on the environment of the destinations it visits, as well as the culture and economic prosperity of the local communities who live there.

“We have 1,000 shore excursions certified according to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s sustainability standards and our Save the Waves environmental stewardship programme has been in place for more than 25 years,” notes Fain. “We took our efforts to a new level when we embarked on a five-year partnership with World Wildlife Fund in 2016. Together we set measurable sustainability targets for reducing our environmental footprint at sea and onshore, as well as for raising awareness about ocean conservation among our guests and crew.”

RCL also spreads the environmental stewardship message in the communities it visits. One such community is on the Caribbean island of Haiti. “RCL has a strong connection to Haiti – we’ve been fortunate to visit for decades and to have a permanent home on the north part of the island for more than 30 years,” says Fain. “Since 2010, we’ve been operating the L’Ecole Nouvelle school in Labadee to ensure that underserved Haitian village children between pre-kindergarten and ninth grade (ages 14-15) receive a good education. They’re taught the national Haitian curriculum and they participate in English and environmental stewardship classes. The work that takes place at L’Ecole Nouvelle is truly lifechanging and the place is near and dear to my heart.”

Drawing on five decades of learning what does and does not work well when it comes to meeting the needs of local communities at its ports of call, RCL is expanding its role in the destination development business. In June 2019, the corporation formed a 50/50 partnership with Mexico-based tourism infrastructure developer ITM Group to create Holistica, which will take a holistic approach to building coastal destinations for cruise (and other) travellers. The aim is to create compelling onshore experiences for travellers that also deliver economic growth opportunities for local communities, but only in a way that preserves and sustains the area’s natural resources.

Holistica’s first project will be a US$275 million redevelopment and regeneration of the Grand Lucayan resort in Freeport, The Bahamas. However, Holistica will do more than simply reopen the resort; it will overhaul everything from transportation links and utilities, to cultural and entertainment facilities. It also has ambitious plans to create opportunities for community investment and training and employing locals. Other projects will be carried out in Costa Maya, Mexico; Roatan, Honduras; and Kumamoto, Japan.

“As I’ve always said, the industry has to talk the talk and walk the walk,” says Fain. “The sustainable development of new destinations and the evolution of those we have today is in everyone’s best interest, and projects and collaborations like Holistica affirm our commitment to achieving this.”

Environmental sustainability is also a priority at RCL’s new US$250 million ‘Perfect Day at CocoCay’ – the first in a series of private island destinations for Royal Caribbean International’s guests.

Built as part of a transformation of the brand’s existing private island of CocoCay in The Bahamas, the new Perfect Day destination opened in May 2019 and offers various first-of-their-kind attractions for cruise guests. Highlights include dining venues, a water park and water slides, the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool with a swim-up bar, a beach for relaxation and a beach for sports. There is also 1,600-foot zip line that crosses the island and a tethered helium balloon that takes guests up to 450 feet above the ground to give them the highest vantage point in The Bahamas. Eleven of Royal Caribbean International’s ships will visit Perfect Day at CocoCay during their itineraries, bringing a total of over two million guests to the island in 2020 (the first full year of operation).

“When our guests are planning for their next well-deserved vacation, the destination is always a key factor in their decision,” says Fain. “We have the advantage of delivering a variety of itineraries around the world with our moving ships, but now more than ever, it’s more than just about where you go but also how you respect and enrich the places you’re visiting. And in the case of Perfect Day at CocoCay in The Bahamas, it’s how to completely transform an experience while still preserving the authenticity of the destination itself.”

Bringing its 50-year legacy of innovation to shore for the first time with Perfect Day at CocoCay is just one of many successes the brand has celebrated in 2019.

“It’s been a terrific year, particularly because we’re achieving our financial targets and actually doing much better than we predicted we would,” says Fain. “We’ve also debuted Royal Caribbean International’s new Spectrum of the Seas in China, launched Celebrity Cruises’ first purpose-built Galapagos ship Celebrity Flora and completed our acquisition of Silversea, and much more.”

Despite noting that RCL has faced the odd curve ball this year, Fain remains resolutely positive about the resiliency of both his corporation and the cruise sector as a whole.

“There are a lot of things that we’re doing right, and there are some things that can always get better, but the cruise industry is in a sweet spot and we’re appealing to more consumers than ever before,” he remarks. “I’ve been in this role 31 years and it’s afforded me about ten times as many lessons as years. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned – and one that I hold myself and our teams accountable to every day – is that what gets measured gets better. Hence, we will continue to take pride in meeting and exceeding our self-imposed and industry goals, and most importantly, the positive impact those achievements have on the guest experience, our people and the returns for our shareholders.

“One of the reasons why I love this job is that there are always new ideas, challenges and talented people to work with. With that in mind, as we have done for the past 50 years, we will continue to think up exciting new ways for our guests to make unforgettable memories in a responsible and sustainable way.”

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
23 September 2019

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