In June, 1,100 containers were delivered to Navantia’s Cadiz shipyard where nearly 2,000 contractors carried out the biggest refurbishment in Royal Caribbean’s history.

After 33 days, Mariner of the Seas emerged from its dry dock not only with additional staterooms, upgrades to all existing ones, and a slew of new restaurants and bars, but also a completely reimagined top deck featuring a pair of three-storey-high racing water slides, a 40ft surf simulator and a virtual bungee trampoline experience, called the Sky Pad.

In 2019, Mariner’s sister ship, Navigator of the Seas, will undergo a similar overhaul, as will Voyager of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, which was the world’s largest cruise ship when it debuted ten years ago.

Allure of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas will follow suit in 2020, with Liberty of the Seas and Adventure of the Seas concluding the company’s $900-million modernisation effort (dubbed Royal Amplified) in 2021.

Kevin Douglas, Royal Caribbean’s vice-president of technical projects and new builds, is the man in charge of making sure that every project in the programme, which aims to improve all aspects of a guest’s experience, goes to plan. Not to mention the major refurbishments across Royal Caribbean’s many other brands, like the transformation of the Adonia into the Azamara Pursuit, which also took place this year ahead of its maiden voyage from Southampton to Norway, in August.

Douglas says that once you get down to granular level, anywhere between 2,000–3,000 people – including architects, IT experts, engineers and equipment manufacturers – are involved in major modernisation projects like these.

“It all starts at the front end with the product development group within each of the brands,” he explains. “They will work with our design group to define what the options are and what we’re trying to achieve. Are we putting new restaurants on board because the old ones are tired, or is this part of a wider strategic initiative or a response to a changing trend within the market?”

The ideas are often big and bold.“We want to surprise and delight our guests,” Douglas says, and once the ideas are on the table, it’s time to bring in external architects, designers and consultants to work out whether they’re realistic.

“Of course, we get some cooperation between what’s being developed on our new builds, and that helps us understand the venues that are most relevant and contemporary,” Douglas says. “We don’t copy and paste, but some of those ideas – such as the ‘Ultimate Family Suite’ on the Symphony of the Seas [which includes everything from an in-suite slide to a balcony whirlpool] – will become part of the core consistency across the brand.”

Feasibility rolls out into detailed design, at which point even more experts – from lighting consultants to specialist water-park engineers – are brought in. Next comes procurement, manufacturing, delivery and, finally, construction. “We have anywhere between 1,000–2,000 workers turning up to do the work,” Douglas says. “For a number of days in June, the refurbishment of the Mariner of the Seas was the single biggest industrial construction project in Spain. It was also the largest hotel in the country. That’s quite something.”

At every phase of every project, there is one question that Douglas always keeps in mind: “Is this improving the guest experience?”

But there are also many technical factors to consider when adding new staterooms, attractions or dining facilities.

Is the ship’s life-saving capacity great enough to handle more guests? Are there enough seats in the dining areas? Do the load factors add up? If new accommodation blocks are being added high up on the ship – as they have been on Voyager and Freedom-class vessels – will it remain stable?

“We also have to look at the water generation, the sewage systems and the air conditioning in order to work out if we can accommodate the required additional crew,” Douglas says. “If we’re adding recreational facilities or restaurants, we need to have the staff to run them. And those staff are also counted in the life-saving capacity. You need to have the balance right.”

For a number of days in June, the refurbishment of the Mariner of the Seas was the single biggest industrial construction project in Spain. It was also the largest hotel in the country. That’s quite something.

Projects within projects

It’s important to remember that fleet modernisation isn’t only about adding impressive new features and facilities. It’s an opportunity to take care of the infrastructure and general condition of the ship.

“There are a whole bunch of projects all happening at the same time,” Douglas says. “We might be working on the propulsion systems or the steering gear along with the air conditioning and the laundry. In some recent projects, we actually replaced all the equipment in the laundries.”

Big refurbishment projects are also an excellent opportunity for Royal Caribbean’s ‘Excalibur Project’ team – the IT experts behind the company’s top-to-bottom tech revamp – to get on board. “They act as an internal contractor,” Douglas explains. “They might fit new satellite dishes, run new cables or change the door lock system – anything to improve connectivity. They become part and parcel of the overall project.”

Energy efficiency upgrades – from changing a bulbous bow to replacing the propeller blades on the pods or introducing a new hull coating – may also take place during dry dock, if it makes sense from a financial perspective.

Although, when it comes to urgent technical projects, like installing scrubbers to reduce SO2 emissions, it’s not always possible to wait. “Dry docks are normally set on a five-year rolling plan,” Douglas explains. “But with the 2020 cap on emissions right around the corner, many of these scrubberinstallation projects are done in service.”

Adhering to the processes

Douglas says that no project will be successful without the four Ps – partnership, processes, people and passion.

“We have a large, talented team looking after the various aspects of these projects – from cost estimating to design to procurement – and something we’ve worked exceptionally hard on are our processes,” he says.

He’s particularly proud of the partnership approach Royal Caribbean has with its vendors. “Obviously, we need to be their client of choice and they need to be our vendor of choice, so we put a lot of time into developing that relationship. Not just by giving them contracts, but by thinking about how we improve both sides of the equation – what we need to do better on our side, and what we can get them to do better on their side.”

The company’s ongoing collaboration with Porsche Consulting has been invaluable in this regard.

“Some years ago, we took all our vendors to a Porsche car-manufacturing factory in Leipzig, where we ran a series of workshops on lean production,” Douglas recalls.

Today, with 50 containers being lifted on board every day (15 years ago, it was 12–16), this is more important than ever. “A dozen or so years ago, if we could spend $800,000 a day we were lucky,” Douglas says. “Now, our metrics are upwards of $2.8 million a day, so we’re doing three or four times the volume of work that we used to do. We want to go faster and do more with less.”

It’s through meticulous planning – as well as learning lessons from the car industry about real-time supply – that the Royal Caribbean team and its partners have been able to speed up so significantly.

“The teams need time to plan, plan again and then do the plan a third time,” Douglas says. “Then it’s all about the logistics and materials turning up at the right time, in the right frequency and at the right location.

“When you have 50 containers worth of material on board every day, it has to go to the right place or you can quickly get snarled up. If you need the materials in two-days’ time, they shouldn’t be on board the ship. The flow-line approach we’ve learned from the car industry minimises that issue.”

When you look at 50 containers worth of material on board every day, it has to go to the right place or you can quickly get snarled up. If you need the materials in two-days’ time, they shouldn’t be on board the ship.

Royal Caribbean’s development, planning, procurement and logistics processes have been worked out and perfected over many years. And having the discipline to follow them is crucial to success. However, once a project gets under way, it’s the people working on the ship that have the team’s undivided attention.

“We have up to 1,200 crew members and 2,000 contractors living on board, so the single biggest thing we focus on when we execute these projects is safety,” Douglas concludes.