With five new ships on order and 10 vessels undergoing refurbishment under Royal Caribbean International’s four-year $900 million programme, boss Michael Bayley is gearing up for another busy year. Sophie Griffiths catches up with him to hear Royal’s plans for 2019.
Michael Bayley is in a good mood. It’s a cold, grey January day in London, the UK is about to be plunged further into political chaos as Theresa May braces for MPs to vote on her ill-fated Brexit deal (she later suffered the greatest defeat in UK political history) and we’re discussing the impending entrance of a new competitor into the market. But Royal Caribbean International’s boss is characteristically upbeat.
“I think it’s great,” he smiles excitedly in reference to the imminent launch of Virgin Voyages, which will go on sale in February.
“It’s exciting that another brand like that is coming into the market.”
With cruise accounting for around two million of the 45 million holidays typically taken by Brits annually, there remains, as Bayley happily points out, significant opportunity for the sector. Which is why Royal Caribbean’s head honcho is unashamedly enthusiastic about Richard Branson’s new venture. “I think it’s interesting – I’m looking forward to seeing how the brand evolves.”
It helps, of course, that the new line will be adults-only, “an interesting model” Bayley acknowledges, but one Royal is unlikely to follow.
“I would never say that we would never look at an idea that would have legs and be attractive to our guests. But it strays a bit from what we are – we’re multigenerational… But good luck to them,” he grins.
Bayley has reason to smile. Despite the ongoing political turmoil in the UK, sales are holding up well. “Ben [Bouldin, Royal’s UK boss] seems pretty happy. We opened our 2020 programme earlier and we’re seeing pretty strong demand there too.”
Bayley is less happy about the ongoing Brexit chaos, though. “We have legal advisors, financial advisors, consultants that we have monthly calls with – and no one knows what is going to happen,” he sighs. “What businesses don’t like is uncertainty.”
I ask whether Royal Caribbean has measures in place to mitigate a negative impact such as the predicted fall in the pound should the UK leave the EU without a deal. “There’s very little we can do to put measures in place for currency,” he concedes.
And yet Bayley is adamant the UK remains key for the line. “The UK is a very important market for Royal Caribbean – we’re not changing that perspective,” he insists. “We continue with the belief that this is a turbulent time but it will pass. No one will benefit from a no deal. The fact we’re putting Anthem of the Seas in the UK in 2020 is a reflection of that.”
Not only is the line adding capacity in the UK with its 4,180-passenger ship Anthem, it is also investing $900 million in its Royal Amplified programme, which will see substantial refurbishment of 10 of its ships over four years – including UK favourite Independent of the Seas in 2018.
A further four ships will follow suit this year, the first being Navigator of the Seas with a $115 million refit that will see all staterooms and public spaces revamped and new features added, including slides The Perfect Storm and The Blaster – the longest waterslide at sea. Oasis and Allure of the Seas will follow later in the year, with features from Symphony of the Seas added, such as Playmakers and the Ultimate Abyss.
“We’re looking at facial recognition and notifications based on the profile of the passenger”
Michael Bayley, president and chief executive of Royal Caribbean International
Royal’s new-build vessels meanwhile, will adopt one of the key features onboard the newest ship of sister line Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge – the Infinite Veranda. “Edge has a lot of innovation. We need time to assess what works well and what doesn’t but we will take on some elements and put them on the new class of ship – Icon class and potentially Oasis 5,” he says.
Of course, Celebrity Edge is a game changer in many other ways too, not least for its focus on gender equality among its crew. Women comprise 30% of its onboard staff compared with the industry average – thought to be in the high teens – a goal championed by Celebrity’s chief executive, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo.
So will Royal look to replicate this ambition? “We are definitely mindful of it,” Bayley agrees. “Our overall strategy is to focus on diversity, inclusion and equality. It’s about being open and equal to everyone – and making sure that everyone has access to roles. We really do believe our biggest strength is our people,” he adds. “And we genuinely believe we have a super-transparent workplace.”
On this latter point, it would be remiss not to mention the tragic death of 20-year-old British cruise worker Arron Hough, who went missing while onboard Harmony of the Seas last month. At the time, press reports questioned his mental health. Bayley acknowledges the issue is a concern for the line and reveals it is an area it has invested in.
“It is terribly tragic when something like this occurs. There is an entry medical examination that all crew go through when they join the ships. But there are also things that we are already trialling onboard such as more mental health support.”
This includes a new confidential freephone helpline that crew can call “if they’re feeling vulnerable”. It’s currently undergoing a three-month trial on two of the line’s ships but Bayley says his “hope is that if the trial is successful we will implement it throughout the fleet”, with the aim of it being available to all crew by the end of 2019.
“We’re also looking at putting someone onboard the four biggest ships,” he adds. “We have 50-60,000 people working for us, some of whom are young and without their families for the first time, and you can feel vulnerable. I hope this trial will be successful.”
“Our overall strategy is to focus on diversity, inclusion and equality. It’s about being open and equal to everyone – and making sure that everyone has access to roles”
Elsewhere, other focuses for the line include Royal’s continued investment in its technology initiative, Excalibur. I ask if Bayley is concerned by Princess Cruises’ introduction of its wearable tech innovation Princess Medallion.
He refuses to be drawn on this but says: “We’ve had the WOW band [a wristband that allows passengers to enter their staterooms and buy drinks onboard] on our Oasis-class ships for a while but we’re moving more towards the ‘userability’ of devices now.
“We’ve invested heavily in Excalibur, which will allow guests to use their phones to open the door and pay for things that way through an app. I believe the future is having applications that work on multiple devices,” he adds.
Bayley says the tech will be available on around 12 ships by the end of the year and the rest of the Royal Caribbean fleet by early 2020. And Royal is keen to keep evolving, he adds. “We’re looking at facial recognition and notifications based on the profile of the passenger.”
Such tech is revolutionary for the cruise sector, but Bayley admits the line “hasn’t really made a big deal of it”. “Our philosophy is let’s really make this tech right and relevant, and our guests will really enjoy what we’re giving to them.
It’s not the reason for the vacation but if it helps them have a good time they will think more positively about their holiday.”
And with that, our time is up. The breaking news apps pop up on our own devices informing us of Theresa May’s impending defeat. But with sales remaining strong and research suggesting Brits are keen to continue getting away from the UK’s ongoing political drama, Bayley will likely have reason to keep smiling yet.