Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Richard Fain has long been associated with cruise ship innovation and delivering the industry's largest cruise ships.

But for the longtime Royal Caribbean Group chief, who is stepping down from that role after more than 30 years, it was never about the ships' size -- but rather their details. And it wasn't about the title of "world's largest" but about having the space on a cruise ship for all of the company's ideas.

In an interview last week, Fain recalled that when he joined the board of what was Royal Caribbean International in 1985, the company was considering ordering a ship, but some board members were skeptical about whether the public would accept a ship of more than 1,500 passengers; whether there were enough places to cruise to justify adding a sixth itinerary; and whether the market would grow fast enough to handle a new ship so quickly after the introduction of the previous one -- the Song of Norway, in 1982.

Of course, Royal Caribbean ordered that ship: the Sovereign of the Seas, the first real megaship. Three years later the ship was delivered and Fain became CEO. And many more big cruise ships would follow and set records: The Voyager of the Seas, the Freedom of the Seas, the Oasis of the Seas.

Still, "we didn't set out to build the largest ship," Fain said of the Sovereign. "We set out to build the ship with the most choice of activities and amenities. And we originally were going to build a ship of 1,600 berths, but to fit all our ideas in we needed to make it 2,200 berths.

"And what it proved was our thesis that people wanted more from cruising. And that continues to drive us to this day."

While he and Royal Caribbean are often lauded for industry innovation, Fain said it's not the actual innovations that he thinks are most remarkable.

"If you ask me what innovation I am most pleased with, the most proud of, I think it would have to be the fact that that innovative spirit is so well entrenched in the company," he said.

"In many respects, it's the details. And it's not just the ships. It's the details on the technology -- the ability to check in based on your face. The ability to do mustering without everybody congregating together. So over 33 years, it's not a question of which innovations. It's a pattern of innovations. This isn't a question of a few specific, big ideas. This is the culmination of a culture that values innovation, and group of people, each of whom feel that that's part of their job."

Royal's fleet was not all that grew during Fain's tenure. The company added Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises and joint ownership of European lines including Hapag-Lloyd and TUI Cruises. Fain said that growth was about sharing the company's "secret sauce."

"We felt we had a secret sauce when it came to designing ships, designing programs, designing systems, and so we thought we could take advantage of that and scale it up," he said. "Some of our innovations are very expensive to do. Whether that's a computer system or our Innovation Lab, there is a fixed cost. And you can spread it over one brand or five brands."

And of course, multiple brands give consumers more options.

"As much as we want you to have a lot of choices on the ships, we wanted the consumer to have choice of which kind of vacation they wanted," he said. "So we wanted brands that covered the waterfront .... And were just distinctly different. We didn't want to have homogenous brands. And I think that's one of the things that's been very helpful to our industry: each brand is different. This isn't like the airlines where one airline is the same as another. This is highly differentiated, and we wanted to be able to offer the consumer choice. And so we're now in that position."

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