For more than five decades, Royal Caribbean Group’s innovative cruise ships have taken millions of guests to thousands of destinations around the world every year. However, for the majority of 2020, the 62 ships belonging to its four cruise brands – Azamara, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Silversea Cruises – and its joint venture TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have been forced to sit idle in ports, harbours and open waters due to travel restrictions and ‘No Sail’ orders triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the wake of the industry shutdown, Royal Caribbean Group had one key priority: to ensure that its more than 45,000 crew members were safely returned home. “We’ve worked with governments and other organisations to coordinate the monumental effort to repatriate our crew members,” says Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group. “There have been very complex ongoing conversations and incredibly difficult logistical challenges to navigate together, but we’ve all been driven by one common goal – ensuring everyone’s wellbeing. I’m pleased to say that more than 98 per cent of our crew members have now been safely reunited with their loved ones in more than 90 countries around the world.”
Royal Caribbean Group has also implemented several key measures to help protect both the physical and mental wellbeing of crew members and their families. Among the new services on offer is an employee edition of the RCL Cares programme.
“The programme has stepped up the support provided by several of our tried-and-true employee assistance services,” says Fain. “As part of this, we’ve been providing our crew members and their families with 24/7, confidential telephone or online counselling, as well as other resources that can be accessed from home or onboard our ships. We have also created an employee-dedicated fund to support those of our colleagues who have been severely impacted by hardships as a result of Covid-19.”
Ever appreciative of the fundamental role shipboard crew members play in helping to deliver unforgettable cruise experiences for guests and drive the company’s success, Fain adds: “Despite facing one difficult challenge after the next, our crew members have been incredibly understanding, passionate and motivated. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see, and we’re lucky to be side by side with them throughout all this.”
Now that all but essential crew members have been successfully repatriated and countries around the world are beginning to open up their borders and relax travel restrictions, Royal Caribbean Group is turning its attention to a new challenge: how to safely resume operations.
“While the situation remains complex as we continue to learn about the virus along with the rest of the world, we are seeing the main focus of our conversations with governments and industry organisations shift to our healthy return to sailing,” says Fain.
At the time of writing, Royal Caribbean Group had not set a date to resume operations. The company’s “one and only focus” is to develop a plan that will protect its guests, crew members and the destinations its ships visit to an “even higher standard” than in the past, says Fain.
“With an unprecedented disease like Covid-19, there are a lot of different factors to take into account,” he explains. “However, it ultimately boils down to the fact that our approach must apply the best available science, technology, engineering and public health principles; it must be applied globally, given the make-up of our dynamic business; and it must be comprehensive so that it covers the entire cruise experience from the moment the guest books to the moment they return home. It’s a tall order and rightfully so – we don’t compromise on safety. We want to get it right when we return, and we’re taking it one step at a time to get there.”
Renowned for its innovative and pioneering spirit, Royal Caribbean Group aims to lead the way when it comes to developing new and enhanced health and safety standards, protocols and best practices. Joining forces with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (NCLH), the company has established a Healthy Sail Panel, which comprises a group of globally recognised professionals who specialise in various disciplines, including public health, infectious diseases, biosecurity, hospitality and maritime operations. The panel is co-chaired by Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah who led the US Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration.
“This unprecedented disease requires us to develop unprecedented standards in health and safety,” says Fain. “Bringing aboard these respected experts to guide us forward demonstrates our commitment to protecting our guests, our crews and the communities we visit.”
The panel members worked through the summer with in-house teams at Royal Caribbean Group and NCLH to develop recommendations on advancing health and safety. “We want to be meticulous as we review every aspect of our operations to identify where we need to improve and how best to do that,” says Fain. “We’re evaluating all possibilities, so we’re encouraging everyone to bring their ideas to the table – we have time on our side, so we will make the most of that time to ensure we get it right.”
Fain expects that cruise lines will need to introduce multiple measures. “This could include everything from staggered embarkation and check-in to temperature checks, testing options for our guests and crew, reduced sailing capacity, social distancing, enhanced sanitisation and disinfection protocols, and adjustments to the dining, entertainment and other onboard experiences,” he says. “Most ships in our fleet are modern and advanced in design, so we don’t expect to have to make any significant structural adjustments to the onboard layouts at this time. However, we are certainly open to taking such measures should they be deemed appropriate.”
Once finalised, the Healthy Sail Panel will offer recommendations to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recommendations will also be shared with the entire global cruise industry and other regulatory bodies. As part of the open source approach, other travel sectors will also be able to leverage the findings and protocols.
“The global cruise industry has always had rigorous health standards, but we now have the opportunity to raise the bar even higher,” says Fain. “We hope our team of experts can develop best practices that can improve safety and provide everyone in the industry with a roadmap for reducing the risks of Covid-19.”
Employees from across the entire Royal Caribbean Group are also playing a pivotal role in helping the company and its brands to prepare for a return to commercial operation.
“People have mobilised to come together in cross-functional working groups, and the insights and ideas that have been emerging have been really quite amazing,” says Fain. “Many of these suggestions have been included on the plan that is currently being reviewed by our Healthy Sail Panel.
“In many ways, Covid-19’s impact on the world is unlike anything we have seen in our living memory, and yet there are similarities to other crises we have overcome, such as SARS, H1N1 and terror attacks. The one constant in this industry is change, and we’re no strangers to that at Royal Caribbean Group. Not only do we embrace change, but we also harness it – in fact, it’s part of our mantra of ‘continuous improvement’.”
That mantra is evidenced by Royal Caribbean Group’s work with ports, destination authorities, shore excursion providers and others in the wider travel industry to ensure guests and crew will have safe and enjoyable onshore experiences during their future cruises.
“Keeping our guests and crew as safe on land as they are onboard our ships has always been an essential part of the cruise holiday for all of our brands,” says Fain. “We are closely collaborating with the authorities and our destination partners to develop ways we can ensure our health and safety standards take into account the need to protect both guests and local communities. This, too, is part of the larger plan the Healthy Sail Panel is reviewing.”
Like every other cruise company, Royal Caribbean Group and its brands have been significantly impacted by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic over the past few months. “Few could have imagined just how long the pandemic would impact the world to the degree that it has, but here we are in the second half of the year and most operations have not resumed,” says Fain. “We have made several difficult, but necessary, decisions to see us through the situation. In addition, shipyard closures and the effects of the pandemic on global supply chains have also altered the timelines for our upcoming newbuilds and revitalisation projects.”
Some of the most recent changes include delaying Odyssey of the Seas’ delivery to Royal Caribbean International to spring 2021 and postponing the ‘Royal Amplified’ upgrade and enhancement projects on Allure of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas to a later date. “We hope to bring those amplifications to life soon, likely after 2021,” says Fain.
However, there has been good news; two of Royal Caribbean Group’s brands have celebrated important milestones over the past few months. In what is believed to be a cruise industry first, Celebrity Cruises took virtual delivery of its second Edge-class ship, Celebrity Apex, via a video conference with officials from Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in April. Then in June, Silversea Cruises took delivery of Silver Origin from Shipyard De Hoop in Rotterdam, Netherlands, marking the first in-person cruise ship delivery since the Covid-19 pandemic. And in July, Royal Caribbean Group purchased the remaining shares of Silversea, taking full ownership of the luxury cruise line.
“Silversea has been a great fit for our company from the very first day,” says Fain. “The cultures of the two organisations have proven to be harmonious, and guests have responded favourably to the combination. We’re looking forward to the future, including the delivery of the new Silver Moon later this year.”
Fain adds: “In similar news, our joint venture, TUI Cruises, finalised the integration with Germany-based luxury and expedition cruise operator Hapag-Lloyd Cruises in July.”
These glimmers of hope mirror the positive messages Fain gives in the inspirational videos he has been posting on Royal Caribbean Group’s corporate social media channels throughout the pandemic. The primary purpose of these videos is to provide customers and industry stakeholders with information and reassure them that the cruise industry is doing all it can to ensure it can provide safe and enjoyable holidays in the future.
“It’s understandable for people to be uncertain about any form of travel right now,” says Fain. “We are facing an entirely new disease, and most travellers will have new questions and expectations as they plan their next holiday, whether that’s a cruise or otherwise. The cruise industry has the same questions, and we’re looking to experts like those on our Healthy Sail Panel for the answers that will ease everyone’s concerns.”
Once the industry has these answers, it must work proactively and collaboratively to share it far and wide, says Fain. “Cruise companies need to share a robust set of resources and communications for travel agents, our destination partners, suppliers, the media and other stakeholder groups,” he says. “Together, we can be a key source of information to help educate our guests, our partners’ employees and our shareholders. Knowledge is a public good, now more so than ever before.”
Despite the challenges of the past few months, Fain is confident that the global cruise industry will bounce back. “Parts of the world are slowly reopening, and we are already seeing cruises successfully resume in regions such as Europe,” explains Fain. “In fact, TUI Cruises has started sailing again in Germany. We are doing our homework as an industry, and the proof will be in the pudding as things continue to progress.
“I would encourage travellers to take time to learn about the industry’s protocols once they are available, ask lots of questions and seek out guidance from travel advisors and those they know personally who are open to travelling and cruising in particular. I plan to do the same for my next holiday, which can’t come soon enough!”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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