Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Staterooms that fuse seamlessly with balconies. An overhanging platform that assumes multiple identities as it moves from deck to deck. Internationally renowned designers and architects collaborating to create an unprecedented aesthetic.

These attributes, which emerged during the presentation of Celebrity's new Edge-class ships last week, appear to provide a striking counterexample to proponents of parallelism, a business theory which, in part, assumes that large corporations do a terrible job innovating.

Although Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Celebrity's parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., is proud of the innovations aboard the Edge, he also understands why people could assume that large companies find it difficult to take transformative steps. In fact, he can cite internal debates that illustrate the challenges.

When the Legend of the Seas was on the drawing board in 1991, Royal Caribbean International had a fleet of five ships. Someone proposed that the Legend and its Vision-class sisters debut with significantly larger staterooms. It might be hard to believe today, but there was fierce opposition to the idea, with one executive threatening to quit if the cabins were enlarged.

Why?

"Our first inclination was that it would compete with our older ships, and that no one would want to sail on them," Fain told me. The person who threatened to leave went so far as to express the belief that bigger staterooms would destroy the company.

"I will tell you it wasn't an easy decision to make," Fain said. But in the end, management concluded that if the line didn't come out with larger staterooms, a competitor would.

Fain has now headed RCCL for almost 30 years, and has become more comfortable making decisions that entail short-term risk and, perhaps, long-term dividends.

"Experience has taught me that if you provide something better, people will reward you for it," he said. "[The] Oasis came out at the height of the Great Recession, and she was a home run from day one. If you build something truly transformative, it pays off."

Central to Fain's beliefs is the importance of maintaining a corporate culture that draws passionate, creative individuals.

"We are fortunate to have found terrific, talented people who attract like-minded people," he said. "If they believe they're in a company that encourages creativity and innovation, you'll find that success breeds success."

Fain also believes there's value in collaborating with top talent outside the company, but he admits that old stereotypes about cruising still makes prospective partners wary.

"They don't think of cruising as being in the forefront of design, innovation and technology," he said. "They're thinking, 'Would my brand be enhanced by working with a cruise line?' To say we've met resistance is not overstating the case. Recruitment involves effort."

Interior designer Nate Berkus, whose sensibility can be seen in many areas of the Edge, initially turned down the offer to work on the project.

Designer Kelly Hoppen, whose clean and imaginative vision is reflected in the suites and Retreat areas of the ship, wouldn't commit "until we convinced her just how determined we were to do something extraordinary," Fain acknowledged.

"At this level, a designer or architect has a significant brand, so each new job is not only a financial decision, it's a branding decision," Fain said. "And it did take a lot of persuasion to convince them that working with us would enhance their brand."

The line had, in the past, faced similar challenges in upgrading entertainment.

"We couldn't interest the top Broadway shows initially," Fain said. "But with our midlevel productions, we showed a high degree of professionalism, and that led to getting 'Chicago' and 'Saturday Night Fever' and then ['Mamma Mia!']. They saw how determined we were to do things at the highest level."

It was a similar story when courting high-end retail.

"We had to start with everyday shops," he said. "But we did get Kate Spade, and Tiffany and Chanel. You have to prove that this is where they want to be. It doesn't happen overnight."

Fain's joy in the process was evident as he walked through the Innovation Lab on the company campus last week.

"I love being part of the process," he said. "I'm convinced our process is part of our success, and the key to the process is empowering individuals. When things work, we all feel we're part of the success, and when it doesn't work, we all feel part of the failure."

I've seen recent evidence that the industry as a whole is keenly aware of the importance of changing its image and sharing innovations beyond its customer base. The launch of the Regent Seven Seas Explorer last summer, for example, seemed designed to attract lifestyle, as well as travel, media.

Perhaps nothing characterized old-style cruising more than the "Love Boat" TV show, set aboard Princess Cruises' ships. It's fitting, then, that Carnival Corp.'s most prominent recent innovation, the Ocean Medallion wearable device, will debut on Princess. What's more, the Medallion was announced not at Seatrade but during the opening keynote of CES, the tech world's highest-profile conference.

Not everyone in the creative class will answer the call when cruise lines beckon, but the Edge is the latest in a series of advancements demonstrating to the world that innovation not only soars, it can float, too.

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