The news that Richard Fain would step down as CEO of Royal Caribbean Group came as a huge surprise to travel advisors -- most of whom have not known Royal Caribbean without Fain as its boss.
He will relinquish the CEO title after 33 years at the helm: He took over a single cruise line, Royal Caribbean International. It was the same year that the Sovereign of the Seas entered service as the largest ship in the world, carrying a whopping 2,278 passengers.
Fain has been recording video messages to travel agent partners throughout the pandemic, and he and his camerawoman -- his wife, Colleen - took to video again to address advisors directly about his decision to step back from the company. "I'm not disappearing from this industry we all love," he said in the video. "I will remain as chair, and I will continue my involvement in our new building projects. But starting in January, I will no longer be involved in the day to day running of the business."
Fain praised his successor, Jason Liberty, Royal's currents CFO, who he called his "longtime friend and partner."
"Jason and I have worked together for half of my 33 years in Royal Caribbean, and I could not be more pleased to see such a principal and effectively leader taking the helm of this wonderful company," Fain said.
Power List advisors laud Fain, and vice versa
Brad Tolkin, co-CEO of World Travel Holdings, praised Fain's "fanatical belief in the travel distribution system."
"Richard recognized more than anyone else that in order to succeed he would need the army of professional travel advisors to support his brands," Tolkin said. "He never wavered from this commitment and showed it once again by loaning the small travel agency money during this pandemic in spite of the significant financial challenges his own company faced."
Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, seconded that commitment.
"Richard Fain is an absolute legend and icon in the travel industry, and it has been an honor to have worked so closely with him all these years and witness the growth and success of Royal Caribbean under his leadership," she said. "As proud as I am of the work he's done, seeing his wholehearted commitment to help travel advisors pull through the uncertainty of the pandemic reminds me that beyond his visionary leadership is his heart for the people in our industry, and I for one would like to sincerely thank him for leaving such an indelible mark in the travel industry."
Advisors also pointed to his contribution to industry innovation.
"He changed the game with the build of the Oasis-class ships," Tolkin said. "This was not just a larger ship but a huge jump from the previous size of any class of ships. And he had the misfortune of rolling it out in the height of the financial crisis -- December 2009."
Tolkin said that the Oasis class ships "hold the biggest price premium of any class of ships in any company."
The outgoing CEO doled the praise right back at the trade.
"Our trajectory has been clear and consistent, and your partnership has been part of that trajectory every step of the way," Fain said in the video message. "There have been bumps in the road. And Covid has certainly been a huge bump. But nothing has deterred our people from reaching for the stars."
Why would Fain step down now?
He said the company was poised for growth again and that this is "the right time for someone else to lead the company as we enter this new phase of our growth."
"Things are going to change," he added. "They'll change for me and they will change for the company," Fain said. "That is right and good. At the Royal Caribbean Group our mantra has long been 'continuous improvement.' We are better today than we were a year ago or five years ago. We will be even better a year from now, and the following year will provide even further improvement. That is what has made our group so successful and will make us more successful going forward."
Brad Anderson, CEO of Avoya Travel, said the timing of Fain's decision made sense.
"Stepping back now that the industry is once again growing to spend time with his family and grandchildren is totally understandable," he said. "His role is changing at a time when the leadership team at Royal, Celebrity and Silversea Cruises are ready for the tasks at hand. They understand that value that the retail agent brings to their brands and to the customer."
"Richard has been a giant of innovation, creativity, professionalism and integrity for decades," Anderson added. "His leadership through the pandemic gave everyone involved in selling cruise vacations the strength and courage to keep going even when things looked bleak."
(Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann will be interviewing Fain at Travel Weekly's annual CruiseWorld event Wednesday afternoon.)