Hotel Director Craig Freeman is a cruise industry veteran with some 17 years experience.. He worked for many years with some of the biggest names in British cruising - - P&O Cruises and Thomson Cruises (now Marella Cruises). However, inasmuch as his career had been concentrated on one market, Mr. Freeman applied to work for Royal Caribbean.
“I wanted to come to Royal because Royal is truly global. The appeal to me was spectacular ships all over the world, different trades, international guests.”
His wish came true in 2017. But the line decided to tap into his considerable expertise and started him off as the hotel director of its UK-based ship Independence of the Seas.
It is axiomatic in maritime circles that every ship has its own unique personality and Independence of the Seas provides a clear example. In 2008, her first year in service, she spent part of the year sailing from Southampton, England and has returned for several seasons since then. She was not the first Royal Caribbean ship to sail from England nor is she the largest Royal ship to have been to the UK. However, during her time in the UK, she managed to captivate the market and endear herself to numerous fans.
“They are incredibly passionate. It is 'our Indy,' indicating a sense of belonging. It is incredible, the affection, the loyalty, the affinity that a core group of people have with Independence of the Seas. The UK fans have a Facebook page. There are 22,000 members on their Facebook page. It is a unique community. And of the 22,00 members, they are all active Independence of the Seas cruisers.”
Independence will not be sailing from Southampton in 2020. In her place will be the newer and larger Anthem of the Seas. “I think Anthem will be a big news story. She will make a noise. She'll certainly be one of, if not, the most spectacular ship sailing from Southampton.”
Prior to beginning her British season, Anthem will undergo a refit. “The expectation is very high. The British folk, because it is not the Independence, have high expectations, The ship is going to look polished and gleaming, bells and whistles I think it will be fine. There is certainly a lot of work going into the program for 2020. All the stuff that we have learned, we are sharing it with the Anthem team.”
The question remains, however, why are so many people are attracted to Independence? “A lot of the affinity is based on the software - - the software being the people. A lot of the crew have been here 11 years since the ship was launched. Certainly, the marine crew, the technical people, you try and keep them together for as long as possible because hey know the ship inside out. But a lot of the hotel crew have been here as well. So people who come back again and see [the same crew members], which is what our regular guests like. It also exudes confidence from the crew because they know the ship inside out, they know how the ship operates and all the little foibles as well. So there are a lot of very avid and loyal Indy guests, but also crew as well. They have been very loyal to the ship for many years.”
“What I love about this company is that Royal values the crew on a par with the guests. We have this incredible loyalty program for guests, the Crown and Anchor Society, we have all these food options - - we look after our guests, we give them a great experience. The crew, equally so, we give them a great experience.”
“We have a lot of loyalty. We have crew members who have been here 30, 35 years. These people are still giving 110 percent. Why? Royal has traditionally paid a little above the industry norm but from the outset, Royal has always looked after the crew. It has developed people and given them consistent contracts. We give our guests great food, we give our crews great food as well. We have an extensive activity program. We actually have an HR specialist on each ship. His or her job is just to liaise with the crew.”
“We encourage and develop the crew onboard. So once they have joined us - - which is a rigorous process - - you are moved through the ranks very quickly. Each of the ships has a learning and development specialist. We have a huge online training program, RCL University. There is a lot of retention because we develop from within. I was on a call the other day and they were saying over the next few years: 9,000 new positions, 9,000 promotions. The investment we put into the crew is very unique. [Other companies] do invest but not at this level”
Independence has also remained attractive because of Royal's commitment to keeping its fleet modern and up-to-date. In addition to continuing to build new ships, Royal Caribbean has repeatedly undertaken programs to enhance its existing fleet. More than a refurbishment program, the current program called “amplification” involves adding new features to the ships.
Independence was amplified in 2018 during a 30-day session in a shipyard in the Bahamas. “She was the first of the slightly older tonnage to be amplified. All the lessons learned from this particular amplification, they have [used to improve] all the other ships that are being amplified now I understand that when the amplification process is complete, they will come back to [Independence].”
“We added the Sky Pad and the slides - - the Perfect Storm. We revamped the Sky Lounge and the pool deck, that area had a bit of a makeover.”
“We added Playmakers. I believe it is the largest Playmakers in the fleet. It is incredibly popular. The Brits love it because of the UK football. The US love it because of all the US football, volleyball etc. We have access to all this.”
“We added in the hibachi Izumi. That used to be the disco – the Labyrinth. Very popular, particularly with the Brits.”
“We added in Fish and Ships, which is the only chips shop at sea. None of the other Royal ships have that. It was put in because of the UK element.”
“The smoking room forward near the Star Lounge became the library. Where the library and internet cafe were, we built some additional cabins.”
“We added cabins above the salon and the gym, oceanview cabins.”
“What was the chapel was turned into the escape room. You go in and you have an hour to get out, solve all the puzzles. The way it has been fitted out, the production values are really good. That is very popular.”
“Independence Dunes, the putting course, was at the aft end of the ship. It has been moved forward.”
“All the carpets were changed. The accommodation were not touched. That will come when they finish the program.”
“A lot of technical stuff as well. They upgraded the lighting on the Royal Promenade just to refresh and make it a little more relevant.”
Adding all the new amplification features is clearly good for those who are interested in such activities but it has also benefited those who are looking for a quieter cruise experience. “I think [the Freedom class] ships are perfect. Good layout, good size. You can do a lot of things on these ships. We have all the core stuff that we do but now we have bolted on all [of these features] on the back for the kids. You are driving the kids up to go and play on the Sky Pad, enjoy the slides and the Flowrider etc. Guests who do not want to be around so many kids can enjoy other parts of the ship.”
Cruise ship inside interviews - Royal Caribbean International - Independence of the Seas - Hotel Director Craig Freeman