Last week, Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, began its first revenue voyage, in the Eastern Caribbean. The first sailing followed the launch of its near-identical twin, the Oasis of the Seas, by one year.
Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann sat down with Richard Fain, the CEO and chairman of parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., aboard the Allure just prior to its inauguration.
Fain talked candidly about lessons learned during the year between the launch of the two ships; why Starbucks was initially hesitant to partner with RCCL on the first Starbucks at sea, which debuted on the Allure; and why the Allure is two centimeters larger than the Oasis.
TW: Between the time the Oasis launched and the Allure came on line, you made a few changes. What did you learn after the Oasis became operational that affected the design and passenger experience on the Allure?
Fain: People focus on the spectacular spaces, but I’ve known for years that the spectacular spaces would be spectacular. We could look at virtual-reality renderings, and we knew what we would be getting.
But the one thing you never really know until the ship actually starts operations is how the flow works. We’re very focused on the flow. It’s not just about finding your way around the ship but about not having to think about finding your way around the ship.
It’s like they say in the military: No plan survives the first contact with the enemy. That doesn’t mean you don’t plan, but it’s just going to be different than you expect. But I was pleased with how the flow worked. The logic to it was very intuitive.
We had three months after delivery of the Oasis when we could still make changes [to the Allure]. We looked at it intensely. One of the remarkable things was that what we thought didn’t work could be counted on one hand.
To give you an example, the biggest issue was the location of electrical outlets in the staterooms. We wanted to put in a lot, but it didn’t look so good on the desktop, so we hid them lower. But it didn’t really work, so on this ship we moved them up.
Also, we found that two of our specialty restaurants, the healthy dinner in the Solarium and the Seafood Shack on the Boardwalk, simply didn’t attract the demand we expected. Both had very low covers.
The healthy restaurant did extremely well for breakfast and lunch, but not for dinner. Lisa [Bauer, senior vice president for hotel operations] thought healthy, low-calorie entrees would work. I’m not a health food nut, and I thought: Who’d want to eat that?
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what Lisa likes or what I like; it’s what the guests like.
So, on this ship we swapped them out. In the evening, the Solarium converts to the Samba Grill, and the Seafood Shack was replaced by Rita’s Cantina [a Mexican restaurant].
One surprise for us: We added hot dogs [the Boardwalk Dog House], and we’re having trouble keeping up with demand. The hot dogs are crazy good.
TW: Vicki Freed, senior vice president for sales and trade support and services, tells me Starbucks was hard to get. I found that surprising, given that there are cities in the Pacific Northwest where Starbucks are catercorner from each other at an intersection. They’ve never seemed shy about expanding. What was their concern?
Fain: More than 80% of consumers have never taken a cruise, and I think the people at Starbucks had the wrong image of what cruising was all about. They weren’t sure that our image was consistent with their brand.
It took awhile, but once they began to realize what Royal Caribbean stood for, what our customers’ tastes are, it became an easy sell. They’re adamant about maintaining their brand image, and there was some concern initially that we would not be true to their specific training requirements. But one reason we wanted them was their very specific requirements. It’s a very intense program. Their training and ours have a lot in common.
Ultimately, the big success with our brand partnerships is synergy between markets. We need to complement one another.
TW: Have there been any franchises, perhaps entertainment franchises, that you wanted to get but that didn’t want to be on a cruise ship?
Fain: I can’t remember any. But with entertainment, I don’t think we ever contemplated a name brand. We weren’t focusing on the franchises. Entertainment is one of our core competencies, and we want to partner with people who can do things better than we can do it.
A good example is Johnny Rockets. We think food is one of our core competencies, but when we wanted to do something like that, it became clear we didn’t have the ability to provide service with that sort of style. We couldn’t make the transition. Johnny Rockets was fortuitous for us. They’ve developed a rigorous program, a certain way, a certain style, and it’s all in the training.
TW: I understand you’re not intending to build more Oasis-class ships. Boeing has demonstrated it’s not necessary to continue to just go bigger and bigger. It continues to produce 747s, but everything it has introduced after that model has been smaller. Do you imagine that you’ll go back to building smaller ships?
Fain: The 747 helped transform aviation. It was a great icon of the advances of the age. But there are different roles for different types of aircraft. Likewise, different types of ships. We believe that one size does not fit all.
We learned so much from building the Allure, the [Celebrity] Solstice and Freedom-class ships, and the logical thing to do is to take those learnings and extend them.
TW: Do you keep a list of ideas for future ships?
TW: What’s on the list?
Fain: That would be telling. One of the nice things about working for RCCL is that every person in the company feels empowered to add their two cents. Everyone’s constantly looking for how to improve.
We have a formal process called "Lessons Learned." We look at what we could have done better and prepare for the next ship in the series or the next series. And sometimes that backfires, because [employees] not only work to come up with ideas, but they will fight to defend them, sometimes fight to the death, and there are too many ideas. There simply aren’t hulls big enough to contain all the ideas people come up with.
TW: I understand that the Allure is two centimeters longer than the Oasis. Why?
Fain: We did discuss making [the Allure] bigger, and I rejected it because I didn’t see value to it. It would just seem to be a gimmick. But the crew decided they wanted to do it, just for the bragging rights. So they did it. It’s a trivial change. They never asked for my blessing; they just did it.