Calm Captain Can Keep Everything Shipshape

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 15:20

Tom Skotnicki discovers that managing one of the largest cruise ships in the world requires both outstanding leadership skills and an unwavering focus on safety and security

A luxury liner is one of the most unique environments on earth. Captain Sverre Ryan, who is responsible for one of the world’s largest cruise ships, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, projects an aura of calmness that is in contrast with the frenetic activity taking place on board.

“It is a very complex operation,” he says. “It is a city at sea and there are few people you can call on if something goes wrong. It is a type of mosaic.”

Aboard there are thousands of passengers intent on making the most of the pampering that is an integral part of the experience – as are, for many, drinking, eating and partying to excess.

The average age of passengers on most cruises is in the mid-40s and, whereas at home they might be in bed by late evening, on board they will frequently party into the small hours of the morning, only to be seen lying around the pools, spas or working out at the fitness centre later in the day. The cruise experience is primarily designed around hedonism, with the passenger able to dial in to their particular preference.

It is hard to fathom the dimensions of the venue on which it all takes place. Voyager of the Seas, the second- largest ship afloat when it was built in 1999, has 12 decks, including accommodation, restaurants, dining halls, theatres and other entertainment facilities, such as a casino, dance venues and bars. On most voyages, the ship is home to more than 3000 passengers and 1250 crew.

Luxury ships have been described as floating hotels, but this fails to account for the complexity of the engineering required to safely transport people across thousands of kilometres of open seas in comfort. The ships are feats of engineering that require constant maintenance to ensure they are safe and fit for the purpose. The crew and officers are, by definition, extremely well trained and skilled. There are thousands of metres of deck devoted to serving food and beverages, while the ship has a massive desalination plant and huge electricity generators.

Captain Ryan is all too aware that a single safety breach, fire or engine breakdown, or even an onboard incident such as the disappearance of a passenger, can cause huge damage to the company’s reputation. This is why there are procedures and manuals that cover every aspect of the ship’s operation.

Captain Ryan began as an ordinary seaman aboard cargo ships before working his way up to becoming an officer. Like most Royal Caribbean captains, he is Norwegian.

He said the company was formed in the early 1970s from a merger of three Norwegian shipping lines, although its global headquarters is in Miami.

Captain Ryan said management training was a large aspect of the development of officers. In his case, after being appointed to his current rank, a vice-president of a leadership development company was assigned to work with him for six months.

“At one stage she spent a week aboard with me, observing my interactions with crew and passengers,” Captain Ryan says.

There were also many hours of telephone calls and online contact, including reading of a wide range of leadership and management books.

In the past two years he has attended several in-house development seminars, as well as a week-long residential course in the US. His main base is in Vancouver, but he also spends time living in Australia during our sailing season.

In addition to the leadership training, he also undertakes bridge management training, which is obviously of a more technical nature.

For the crew, there are a wide variety of technical skills development courses they have to undertake onshore and a range of onboard training requirements, which are supervised by a full-time, ship-based training development manager.

There is also a talent-spotting process across the company, whereby if a potential leader is identified they attend a residential course in Miami with up to 20 other crew and officers to groom them for senior roles within the fleet.

“Prior to an appointment as a captain, senior officers are also subjected to a battery of psychological testing to ensure their suitability for the rank,” Captain Ryan says.

“This is designed to evaluate whether they have the right type of mindset and have the capacity for leadership.”

It is also used to identify weaknesses that may require further development. The organisational structure has the key reporting lines as the hotel manager, chief engineer, staff captain (2IC), human resources manager, environmental officer and an assistant.

Captain Ryan leads a weekly board meeting, but is also heavily involved in key issues as they arise.

“The most important aspect of the job is to keep in mind the key priorities. The first of these has to be the safety and security of the passengers, the crew and the ship.”

Immediately after safety and security comes the enjoyment and satisfaction of passengers, and the efficient maintenance of the ship, he says.

Captain Ryan is most disappointed when he hears of complaints or concerns registered by passengers. One such complaint was about a delay in embarkation at Fremantle, which Captain Ryan said was caused by an inexperienced onshore contractor who was not accustomed to the demands of a cruise ship the size of the Voyager of the Seas.

There were also complaints about a disappointingly old-fashioned comedian, which Captain Ryan said was a result of too many decisions on entertainment being made by global head office, which he was working to rectify. Similarly, he said the struggles with accessing internet services were to be addressed by a communications upgrade in the next few months.

“There is a log kept of all complaints made on a daily basis which is constantly being examined and analysed,” he says.

The focus on passengers is reinforced frequently with crew, who all undertake regular courses on customer relations.

“It is known as the ‘Golden Anchor’ and back-of-house (as non-guest areas are called) there are signs everywhere reminding crew about the importance of customer satisfaction,” Captain Ryan says.

The main language of international cruising is English, with all front-of- house staff required to meet reasonable levels of proficiency.

However, as new large markets emerge, this is creating a new set of challenges – one result being the recruitment of many more Chinese speakers.

The cruise liners are also having to learn to be even more flexible, with not only very different demands for meals, beverages and entertainment, but also the types of shops and entertainment venues. There is an increasing trend to creating modular spaces in key common areas, such as the shopping and entertainment deck, known as the promenade, which can be virtually “stripped out” and replaced to cater for the demands of specific markets.

In the past three years, the cruise ship industry in Australia has grown by close to 70 per cent based on passenger numbers. It is an increasingly popular form of holiday, presumably because of the convenience, comfort, excellent value and relative safety of the experience. As the population continues to age, there is every indication that cruising will continue to grow.

However, to some extent the reason for the industry’s success is that a focus on guest satisfaction is paying dividends, with the cruise companies also becoming more efficient at targeting their experience to particular demographics.

This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.