As it launches the biggest cruise ship in the world, Sam Ballard asks Michael Bayley, the company’s chief executive: what is the key to its success?
“We do fun extremely well,” Bayley tells ABTA Magazine at the launch of Symphony of the Seas. “We use words like adventure, excitement, experience, choice – all of those things capture the kind of experience that you can have on board a Royal Caribbean holiday.”
In a sector not always known for its innovation, the brand has consistently sought industry firsts, be it the first climbing wall at sea, ice rink or, more recently, an adrenaline-fuelled ten-floor slide. It has made a statement by becoming the first ship to strike up a partnership with Starbucks, so you can get your favourite cappuccino while sailing in the Caribbean. If you fancy something a bit stronger, head to the ship’s Bionic Bar, where the cocktails are mixed and served by robot barmen.
“If you look at our advertising, we use fast-moving images and vibrant music,” Bayley adds. “We try to capture the adrenaline and fun that customers will have on board. It’s not a place for a traditional afternoon tea with a butler.”
Formed in 1968, Royal Caribbean International has enjoyed huge growth. Its first vessel, the Song of Norway, catered for a thousand passengers, weighing 23,000 gross tons. Launched in March, Symphony of the Seas, at 228,000 gross tons, is ten times the size, and can carry 6,600 passengers. Bayley has seen the company grow first-hand: he worked his way up to CEO and president from assistant purser – effectively an onboard accountant – with Nordic Prince, the company’s second ship, launched in 1971.
The company now has a fleet of 25 ships, with another one to be added every year for the foreseeable future. Amenities on board Symphony of the Seas include laser tag, where guests compete in a virtual shootout, and an escape room game, where they must solve puzzles to break out of a fictional spaceship. As night falls, the ship’s dazzling new light show features a swarm of drones.
It’s a style of holiday that Royal’s own bosses know is not for everybody. Its largest vessels, the Oasis-class ships (which include Symphony, as well as Oasis, Allure and Harmony of the Seas) can each handle more than 6,000 guests, plus more than 2,000 staff. There are 19 places to eat, seven of them included in the price of the ticket, and a strip of garden called Central Park that sits between two accommodation towers. When there, you can easily forget that you’re even on board a cruise ship.
The company argues that all of this innovation is doing more to attract the much sought after “new-to-cruise” customers, particularly families, to the sector than any of their competitors. One of the most talked about features on board Symphony of the Seas is the Ultimate Family Suite, which can sleep up to eight guests and features a slide, hot tub, cinema and popcorn maker (see Fast Fact, above).
While there is no doubt that there is a huge market for a more traditional cruise model, it is companies such as Royal Caribbean that act as a funnel for much of the industry’s new-to-cruise business. The same is true of the company’s wider stable: Royal sits alongside the more luxurious Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
Many of the large cruise lines own their own private islands, and Royal Carribean is no exception. Coco Cay in the Bahamas will soon be the subject of a $200 million overhaul. The idea, Bayley explains, is simple: more industry firsts.
“We know everybody’s private islands. We’ve visited them all and have studies on what everybody has – and what they don’t have,” he explains. “We will have the largest wave pool in the Caribbean, the tallest waterslide in America, the largest fresh-water lagoon pool and a hot air balloon ride.” Guests will choose whether they want to “chill” or “thrill”, Bayley says.
The result will be the company’s first “Perfect Day” resort, a concept which it will expand to sites in Australia and Asia, creating private hideaways tailored to their respective local market.
“When you look at our competitors’ private destinations, although they have great experiences, they’re all in the same category,” Bayley says. “What we’re doing with Perfect Day is saying we’re leaving the category – we’re going to another place where we’re going to deliver a perfect day to a Caribbean customer.”
There is little doubt that, with Bayley at the helm of Royal Caribbean, the company is going to continue its rapid expansion. However, as it continues to invest in land resorts, could Royal Caribbean ever start offering land-based holidays? No, the chief executive says.
“The Perfect Day concept is the beginnings of ideas that we have, but we will always be connected to who we are as a cruise brand,” he explains. “Our thing is the ocean, the sea and cruise. But as we develop Perfect Day and add more locations, that concept will evolve.”