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Royal Caribbean Managing Employees as Smoothly as a Cruise

April 1, 1997
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
With ship names such as Song of Norway, Legend of the Seas and Sun Viking, who could possibly resist the idea of a luxury cruise? While it promises sunshine, relaxation and dancing for guests, it means work for 8,000 shipboard employees of Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Managing an international pool of land and predominantly shipboard employees is unique, according to Tom Murrill, vice president of HR. Unlike land-based operations, however, those on a ship must serve clientele 24 hours a day, seven days a week—without any physical separation from the guests for days at a time. Here are some of Murrill’s HR insights on his unique job.

How did you end up with this particular job in this industry?
I’ve been in the service business for 20 years. I started in California with Burlington Air Express—a cargo express company. I was the senior vice president and general counsel as well as the one responsible for human resources. I’ve always focused predominantly on the HR area. Then I worked for Ecolab—a provider of cleaning and sanitation products. This was also in the service industry. Then I was recruited from Columbus, Ohio, where I was working for an Ecolab division, to work for Royal Caribbean. That was two years ago.

What are the biggest challenges of your industry?
The biggest challenge is managing the growth in our industry. We’re adding two new ships this year and another one in 1998. With the growth, it means we have to continue to find, train and develop the best employees in the vacation industry. One of the complexities is that as [global] economies improve, foreign nationals find more job opportunities in their own home countries.

So we reengineered our recruitment process two years ago when I came. We developed a network of 20 staffing partners around the world and identified job profiles for all the positions we require. We also have an onsite training and orientation process with the hiring partners to screen all employees and make them fully aware of our job expectations.

What are some of the stresses for shipboard employees?
The biggest stress factor is that shipboard employees are away from home. Some may come from India or Europe—and end up sailing on a ship cruising to the Caribbean or Asia. That’s the main change for most individuals. Most people work in their own communities. On a ship, they move to a new community. So one of our challenges is to welcome and make them comfortable and ensure they’ll be successful on the cruise ship.

Shipboard employees have a rotating schedule, so depending on their schedule, they can get from a half to a full day off in the various ports. But of course, the majority of their time is working to service the guests.

We also have a medical staff with physicians on every ship. And our captain and his staff (staff captain, hotel manager and chief engineer) are the four senior positions on the ship. They spend a great deal of time providing mentoring, leadership and assistance to our employees.

What’s unique about the customer service required for ship guests?
When guests are on a ship, they never go home. Customer service has to be provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike a hotel, where guests spend many hours away from the site, we have cruise guests seven to 14 days, 24 hours a day. This is why we have a high ratio of 1 employee for every 2.7 guests; we have to provide world-class service on a 24-hour basis.

Is retention an issue?
Like all service businesses, retention is an issue. Since our employees are away from home, some [prospective] staff think they’d like being shipboard but later decide it’s not for them. So we try to address these issues through such programs as our Royal Recognition Club, through mentoring and compassionate leaves for those with family emergencies. I think the vacation industry recognizes the need for flexibility in order to manage change.

We also have a wonderful cruise program for our shipboard and shoreside employees. After one year, all employees receive one free familiarization cruise. Now, for shipboard employees, that’s only appealing when they can bring their families. Family members get significantly discounted, almost free cruises. And for more distant family members, we even provide discount cruise options. This is a strong benefit that shipboard and shoreside employees enjoy.

How is HR viewed at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.?
Shoreside, human resources is one of the seven pillars of our company’s strategic plan. We have a high profile and commitment to the training and development of our employees.

Shipboard, HR comes about in many ways. The purser’s office is there to address such concerns. The crew relations purser [employees] are those who handle things behind the scenes, such as administrative and financial matters. And the captain has regular meetings with the staff and employees to update them on what the company is doing.

Are all of your captains male?
Currently, all of our captains are male. The majority are Norwegian and Swedish. Overall, however, we have a broad diversity not only in terms of nationality, but in gender as well with men and women in all other positions. But the marine side has traditionally been a male-dominated culture. And we’re cracking that. One of our targets is to broaden our diversity.

Is your customer base changing?
Yes. The cruise industry is experiencing a shift from the traditionally [older, retired] cruiser toward families and younger, first-time cruisers who see cruises as a viable vacation option. We’re competing against Las Vegas, resort hotels and entertainment theme parks. One of the biggest changes in the industry is in the design of our ships and the amenities. On one ship, we even provide 18 rounds of miniature golf. Cruising is one of the best pampering experiences one can have.

How would you define the culture of your organization?
Our corporate culture is one of high customer satisfaction and one that promotes diversity. Shoreside, for example, 53 percent of our employees are Hispanic and 57 percent are women.

Moreover, all of our employees must speak English because there are strong international safety standards. But many of our employees are bilingual. On each ship, we have a cruise director and an international host/hostess who are multilingual. If our non-English-speaking guests require services, there’s always somebody on ship who speaks the language of the guest. We have bilingual staff from many countries.

Do you get to travel very much?
I don’t get to cruise that often. But when I go on a ship for training, I must admit, it’s certainly nice to be visiting ships in beautiful waters of the world.

Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 76, No. 4, pp. 91-92.


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