The scene in front of us is comical. A DJ whoops from behind his decks as 100 people dance energetically around him, mouthing lyrics to various songs. Guests stream in from different directions to join in, although it is the laughter that draws them, rather than music. Aside from the tapping of feet, the rustling of the crowd, and the odd shout, the air is silent. The music is instead emitted from headphones, which flash different colours – red, green, blue – depending on the channel chosen by the guests for their personal disco. I’ll admit this was not quite what I had expected from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) meet-up at the Martini bar, as advertised on the ship’s itinerary.
My girlfriend Georgie and I are on Celebrity Reflection – our first sailing with the line – on a voyage around the Med to celebrate my birthday. As a gay couple, we had decided to head to the LGBTQ gathering, and though we hadn’t been sure what to expect, a silent disco definitely wasn’t it.
Bemused, I ask a crew member if we are in the right place. “Yep,” she grins as she hands me headphones, “it’s for anyone and everyone.”
And this, explains the ship’s event coordinator Zsofia Bak, is exactly how the ship’s LGBTQ events should be.
“We don’t want to segregate people,” she smiles. “We advertise it [the meet-up] in the daily information guides so LGBTQ people know that there will be others here, but we also want to make sure everyone is welcome.”
It is this ethos that was behind Celebrity Cruises’s new slogan – “Sail beyond borders” – introduced by the line last year and which has been behind it securing numerous LGBTQ awards in recent years, including LGBTQ Friendly Travel Company of the Year at last year’s TTG Travel Awards.
We embark Reflection in Barcelona, when it is halfway through its western Mediterranean tour. Waiting in our stateroom is a double bed (always a nice surprise for an LGBTQ couple) and a bottle of champagne wishing me Happy Birthday – one of the many touches offered for those celebrating special occasions.
This also includes a complimentary dinner that evening in one of the ship’s speciality restaurants. We opt for the Tuscan Grille, where we enjoy Italian dishes at a table for two, watching the orange dusk as it is slowly pinpricked by stars.
Later in the week we find ourselves at another LGBTQ meet-up, again at the Martini Bar, enjoying post-dinner cocktails with a variety of other guests. The first LGBTQ meet-up on each sailing is given a slightly different format however. Held in the same venue, Bak explains that it is hosted by senior officers – which is important, she says, because of the message it sends.
“We want LGBTQ guests to know that we are around and approachable, and here for them if they need us.”
The line’s support of LGBTQ people – and diversity in general – is a move driven from the top, and is not just limited to guests; last year parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd appointed its first director of diversity and inclusion to encourage and embrace diversity among its employees (see box).
“When crew first come onboard, they must complete the diversity training the same way they do with safety training, and they must pass it,” Bak explains.
Guests too are held just as accountable with the line operating “a zero-tolerance policy”.
“Of course, that works both ways,” she giggles. “We don’t want anyone behaving inappropriately – gay or straight.”
My girlfriend and I are greeted and accepted warmly by passengers and crew, all of whom assume correctly that we are together, rather than just friends. This welcoming attitude is also acknowledged by another gay couple we happen to meet while on a Ben Fogle mountain biking excursion in the foothills of Malaga (crafted by the expedition expert himself for Celebrity).
As we head for lunch, our legs aching, a fellow cyclist explains that he and his husband enjoy cruising with Celebrity precisely because they feel so comfortable to be themselves as a couple. “We’ve done gay cruises solely for LGBTQ people, but we find they tend to be more for single people and groups. We love going on cruises with Celebrity because they’re for everyone. We can be a couple, just like everyone else.”
And as with any guests, whether families, elderly couples, solo travellers, or LGBTQ passengers, Bak says the crew are keen to help with advice about port calls.
“If we know we have a large LGBTQ group coming onboard [which she says is common], then we make sure we’ve done our research about places they might like to go to in port. In Mykonos, for example, we know a good gay beach to recommend, and in Istanbul there’s a great LGBTQ bar we can suggest. And of course there’s lots of great gay bars in Barcelona,” she grins.
Meanwhile, onboard the ship the line offers same-sex weddings with Bak herself helping to organise several.
“We’ve also got a lesbian engagement coming up that we’re preparing for,” she adds. “The lady has already contacted us because she wants to propose on the helipad, so we’re going to set that up. Actually, two ladies just got engaged on this cruise,” she smiles.
Back at the silent disco, the crowd continues to grow and it’s impossible to discern who is here for the LGBTQ meet-up. Everyone, though, is clearly here to dance. I slip on a pair of headphones, flicking the channel to green and join others in attempting to moonwalk as we sing along to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. My girlfriend, ever the cooler one, flicks hers to blue and starts mouthing lyrics to Kanye West’s Stronger. We all sway to our different rhythms, a sea of flashing lights; one crowd together.
Book it: Celebrity Cruises’ 11-night Best of Western Mediterranean fly/cruise starts from £2,249pp, including the classic drinks package, $300 onboard credit, flights and transfers. Price based on two sharing and an August 21, 2017 departure.
GRANT VAN ULBRICH
Director, diversity and inclusion, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd
WHAT IS YOUR REMIT?
I work on behalf of the cruise line’s crew at sea and on land, worldwide, ensuring that we attract, celebrate, reward and retain a diverse and inclusive employee base while supporting all guests. I champion our Executive Diversity Council and Employee Resource Groups and challenge the status quo.
WHY WAS YOUR ROLE CREATED?
I made the case for the role to RCCL human resources boss Paul Parker and Royal Caribbean International president and chief executive Michael Bayley. The word has been getting out to the fleet and has encouraged more crew members to come out.
WHY IS YOUR ROLE IMPORTANT TO THE BUSINESS?
When you bring unconscious bias training, for example, into your enterprise, your return on investment is huge. It affects everything from employee retention to who gets hired in the first place. It ensures that the business has the right people in place for the role.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT IN YOUR ROLE?
I’ve learnt that you can’t really show your political leaning… You have to champion the other side too if you’re going to be truly inclusive. I’ve learnt a lot about unconscious bias and we’re rolling out an e-learning platform about that.