June 12, 2020 -The cruise industry and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. will have to make changes to adjust to COVID-19, but they will be "evolutionary" and be aimed at still giving passengers a consistent experience, CEO and Chairman Richard Fain said. In an exclusive interview with Cruise Critic, Fain emphasized that changes will come, but that change has long been consistent in cruising, with outcomes that are "normally positive."
"It will be different than it was a year ago, but not in an existential way," he said. "If there had never been a COVID-19, it would be different today than it was a year ago. Because one of the things that we're proudest about the industry is that the industry is constantly changing and adapting to people's tastes."
RCCL has four cruise lines within its corporation: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea Cruises. All are currently on pause, due to a "no sail" order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which extends through July 24. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Azamara have extended their suspension dates through August 1, while Silversea has taken a ship-by-ship approach to resumption of service.
The pandemic has forced many businesses to look at their practices and adjust to keep people healthy, Fain noted. But while the radical adjustment is uncomfortable for many, innovation has been the norm within cruising, he said.
As an example, Fain pointed to the quiet game of shuffleboard, once a standard activity and popular activity on cruise ships. Royal Caribbean, in particular, has always pushed the bar in adding features that have never been on ships before, such as ice skating and skydiving simulators, he said.
That same kind of forward-thinking mindset is now being devoted to keeping passengers healthy and safe, he said.
"We have a team of people who are devoting day and night to visualizing how this might look in a different way, but a consistent way," Fain said. "When people say that this is all a new normal … it's not. It's going to be a wonderful experience, taking people to new and exciting [places] and creating new and exciting memories for people.
"So, it will be different a year from now. It will be different two years from now. And I think at the end of it, each person will come back and say that was even better than it was."
Unfortunately for Cruise Critic readers who are anxious to hear details of the changes coming to their favorite ships, Fain would not commit on anything, noting only that the company would look to a "holistic approach" to health standards, rather than approaching it a piece or area at a time.
Part of the delay -- not just for Royal Caribbean, but the entire cruise industry -- is because public health experts at the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other governmental agencies have yet to build a consensus around COVID-19 and best practices to fighting it.
Fain pointed to the confusion from the WHO over asymptomatic spread as just one example of how advice can come out -- and then just as quickly be rescinded.
"It's very clear there's still a great deal that is unknown," he said. "It would be more prudent for us to make sure we have a complete package than start talking about one or two pieces."
Two things that Fain pointed out, in regard to health authorities. For one, his company has to deal with more governmental regulation than the CDC, as the ships in the lines' fleets span every continent. And for another, the conversations about best practices and what the cruise lines need to do are a dialogue, not an edict, he said.
"It's not as though they're going into the Sistine Chapel and having a conclave, where at the end we will burn some white smoke and produce a leather-bound volume with the conclusions," Fain said. "As we come up with things, we will discuss it with them and with our experts. … So, it's an ongoing process as opposed to a papal conclave."
Cruise lines already have high health and sanitation standards, Fain said, but the innovation will come in how to make them even stronger.
"That's our objective. When you take a cruise, you will say, 'Wow, I still had the same great experience I had when I took it last year. But they added all these wonderful things and I feel safer because they upped their standard of health safety,' " he said. "Not only health safety for COVID-19, but for all illness.
"So our objective is to make sure we really raise the bar so that you're safer onboard a cruise ship than you are in your local community."
Fain said he recognized that all the uncertainty was difficult for all involved, be it passengers or people in the industry.
Cruisers have their favorite lines, but he was unable to specify what the return to the seas would look like, in terms of whether each cruise line would come back with one ship, whether Royal would start before Celebrity and the others, or even what area of the world would resume first.
"I don't know," he said. "It won't be all of a sudden, all the ships start going, but which ship is very much a question of which markets are the most reopened.
"And I know that's frustrating. They would like to know which comes first. So would I, by the way.
"We're learning a lot from opening up our societies. So as we see how society opens up and how quickly that moves … they also are learning things (as they open), and we want to learn those things, too."
The Cruise Critic message boards are full of speculation from passengers and fans, on every part of the onboard experience, from the buffet to social distancing to the pros and cons of temperature checking.
"Each person wants to get the answer to whatever it is that happens to intrigue them," he said. "You need to look at them in total."
One firm answer Fain did give: The company will not develop SeaFace, a mask concept for which it filed a patent for in the spring: "No, there's no plans to pursue it.
"For innovation to work, you need to look at a lot of ideas, including a lot of dumb ideas. … We look at a lot of ideas, and sometimes even the dumbest of them inspire really good related ideas. That was one idea that was thrown out of which we're not pursuing."
One area where passengers will continue to see development is Project Excalibur, the ongoing initiative that has already made cutting-edge tech a feature on at least two cruise lines: Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.
Already on some of those ships, people can check-in online without talking to an agent, or use facial recognition technology to embark and debark, Fain said. "All of these kinds of things are going to prove to be invaluable to us," he said, noting that they reduce the points of contact that people have on the ship. "We didn't make them with (COVID-19) in mind, but they are a godsend to us."
Having the suspension allows the company to expand the technology to more ships, he said.
Will other innovations, such as the Bionic Bar -- where robots make drinks -- also expand beyond their current position on Oasis- and Quantum-class ships? "I hadn't thought about the Bionic Bar, but it does eliminate that kind of interface," he said.
Another area where Fain felt confident predicting involves the importance of the company's private islands, such as Perfect Day at CocoCay.
Last year, Royal Caribbean invested $250 million in turning a Bahamian beach retreat into a resort-style destination, with a tallest waterslide in North America, the largest wave pool in the Caribbean and an iconic hot air balloon that rises high above the island.
The line was already centering Caribbean itineraries around Perfect Day at CocoCay for several reasons. One, the private island atmosphere means more profits for the cruise line. Two, it's easy to build short itineraries from south Florida, including some with multiple stops at the island. And three, the private islands are popular with been-there, done-that cruisers who sail primarily to relax as opposed to explore new places.
Now in the COVID-19 era, there's another plus. Royal Caribbean can control all aspects of the destination, which can reduce the likelihood of virus spread, Fain said.
"A likely startup will be fewer ships operating shorter itineraries, more from drive markets like South Florida and New York," he said. "And yes, to itineraries where we can minimize the potential vectors to infection. CocoCay would be a perfect example of that."
Royal Caribbean had planned to bring its Perfect Day concept to other islands not only in the Caribbean but around the world. Fain said that the virus would not accelerate that development, however.
"No matter how pessimistic you are, this is a finite period of time before we get to a vaccine and herd immunity," he said. "So, I don't think of it as having that level of long-term implications."
With ships that are always pushing the envelope, many of the RCCL brands -- particularly Royal Caribbean and Celebrity -- had been leaders in convincing non-cruisers to come on board in recent years.
In the interview, Fain articulated what many in the cruise industry already know: It could be a while before people who have never taken a cruise decide to go on one. At least, in the beginning, he stressed.
"The early startup will be most pronounced amongst experienced cruisers because they know what we do," he said. "They understand the level of sophistication on health matters that we already applied."
But Fain stressed that as the ships return and people see the health and safety protocols, the truth about cruising's value will come out. "The facts will speak for themselves," he said. "We'll eventually win them over.
"Our starting point is outstanding by historical standards. Having said that, historical standards are no longer the relevant standards. We need new standards, which raise the bar by significant levels for the future."