Aligning Hiring With Service at Sea

Problem: Experiencing rapid growth, Royal Caribbean needed a robust assessment tool to complement its existing process for hiring shipboard leaders — a critical role to deliver on its mission of an extraordinary guest experience.

Solution: The cruise line implemented a strategic hiring initiative focused on customized assessments, giving hiring managers the ability to precisely identify candidates with exceptional managerial skills and a service-driven mindset.

Imagine staffing the equivalent of a small city every year. Now, imagine that staff is dispersed around the world and in continuous motion. This is reality for Eric Stewart, director of global talent acquisition for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL), whose team of 25 will find 14,000 potential new hires by the end of this year in offices around the world. The team recruits shipboard employees for five brands: Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and TUI Cruises. For RCL, hiring the right people to deliver exceptional customer experiences is critical to the cruise line’s mission.

The Royal Caribbean Ltd. hiring team faces a challenging hiring environment, including:

• An active workforce database of more than 50,000.

• 35,000 employees across 40 ships at any given time.

• Recruiting conducted in more than 60 countries.

• More than 110,000 hits a month on its career websites.

• More than 100 different ?nationalities working together.

RCL’s growth is fueling the hiring volume. Revenues have increased during the last decade from approximately $3.1 billion to $6.8 billion, and RCL has built a new ship every year. Today, with 40 ships in service and another under construction, it holds a 24 percent share in the world cruise market.

Guest Experience Invites Repeat Cruisers?

Stewart said he believes many first-time cruisers are drawn to a vacation at sea by the amenities offered on the vessels, but service makes them return.

“We can build big, beautiful ships, with new and better features, and we know guests will come once,” Stewart said. “But, as our guest satisfaction survey data shows, it is our crew’s exceptional service that brings guests back time and again.”

RCL conducts surveys of all guests after every cruise. The feedback shows crew engagement is the common thread in an exceptional guest experience across all RCL brands, each of which is designed to provide a different ambiance and guest experience.

Stewart said when guests return, they have high expectations. “They continuously challenge us to be on the forefront of hospitality.”

To ensure employees have the appropriate demeanor and desire to meet guests’ expectations, Stewart and his team have implemented consistent processes for hiring crew members who fit into the cruise line’s service-driven culture.

“Most people can be trained to be technically proficient — a knowledgeable waiter, a good cook or a detail-oriented housekeeper,” Stewart said. “But you can’t infuse people with a drive to go above and beyond a job duty. That innate passion is the hospitality gene; people either have it or they don’t.”

For almost a decade, Royal Caribbean has been using customized assessments to hire fully engaged leaders for the line’s shipboard hotel operations team. The assessments include a realistic job preview, a management qualities inventory, a drive for service index and a situational judgment test.

The assessments go beyond looking at functional skills and basic personality traits and measure the qualities critical to RCL’s culture. Managing a hotel at sea brings unique challenges and requirements. In addition to needing excellent operational and leadership skills, these managers are always “on,” interacting with guests seven days a week. They also live in a small town environment where they all know each other and are away from their own family and friends for months at a time.

According to Lyssett Montiel-Lleonart, who reports to Stewart and is one of the shipboard talent acquisition managers for RCL, the goal of the assessments is to identify leaders who are wired for Royal Caribbean’s service culture. “They need the qualities to deliver Royal Caribbean’s signature Gold Anchor service, which is our commitment to providing friendly, engaging and personal service to all guests,” Montiel-Lleonart said.

Conduct a Deep Analysis?

In 2003, Royal Caribbean International (RCI) began working with a team of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists from Corvirtus (Editor’s note: The author works for Corvirtus). First, the psychologists boarded one of the ships to better understand the different shipboard management roles. For a week, as the ship hosted 3,000 guests and traveled to six countries, the psychologists studied the hotel management side of the operation, which includes the guest services, housekeeping, finance, bar, restaurant, on-board revenue and culinary departments.

The I/O team gathered data through surveys and interviews with managers as well as observations of those managers and their teams as they interacted with guests. Further, they reviewed job descriptions and key performance indicators for 12 management positions ranging from purser to hotel director. The on-board study also included one-on-one meetings with managers and interviews with dozens of employees.

Stewart said this groundwork is critical to a successful assessment strategy because in the typical rush to hire, organizations fail to effectively analyze their needs. “Some companies take a ready, shoot, aim approach when it comes to assessments,” he said. “However, talent acquisition professionals should stop and ask: What does a fully engaged, highly sought-after employee look like to us? What attributes — both technical and behavioral — do our best contributors have that make them so effective? The conversation should start there, so you can better understand what your assessment should measure.”

Based on the analysis results, Corvirtus developed a realistic job preview (RJP) tool — a two-page document that outlines the expectations for managers joining the cruise line. The RJP includes benefits — room and meals free of charge, minimal expenses; challenges — limited access to some of the conveniences of home; and expectations — ability to drive for results, strong leadership and flexibility. It also includes questions a candidate should ask himself or herself, such as: “Do I have the stamina that is associated with being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for four months in a row?”

“If they don’t feel they would easily acclimate to shipboard life, candidates are able to self-select out at this point,” Montiel-Lleonart said. “And for those who proceed to the next step, they have a much more realistic view right from the start.”

Assess for the Best Fit?

The team developed multiple assessments, which candidates complete online following their RJP review.

The management qualities inventory measures qualities such as conscientiousness — the candidate’s strong tendency to do what is right — and empathy, including the likelihood that the candidate will make a strong effort to understand the nature of a problem as opposed to just offering a quick fix.

The drive for service index measures how well a candidate will fit into RCI’s service-focused culture. It measures behaviors such as treating customers with care, showing enthusiasm and demonstrating courtesy and respect.

The situational judgment test evaluates the way a candidate is likely to respond to real-life work situations that typically occur as part of the role for which he or she is applying.

Based on a candidate’s scores, RCI’s hiring managers can predict whether or not that individual will succeed. For example, candidates who score in the recommended range for the three assessments are likely to be sympathetic and able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

RCI’s hiring managers can expect candidates who score well to be a solid fit with the company’s environment where high levels of hospitality, customer service and personal touch are required. “We can gain better insight to the candidate’s ability to thrive in an intense and guest-focused environment,” Montiel-Lleonart said.

Since the assessment was first launched, the cruise line has continuously refined the assessments as requirements have evolved and the Royal Caribbean International brand has grown. “Our shipboard management recruiters closely collaborate with the hiring managers throughout every step of the interview process, and are in contact with Corvirtus on a regular basis,” Montiel-Lleonart said. “If we need to tweak a question, for example, we can structure it in a way that won’t compromise the validity of the assessment. While the approach is highly systematic, it’s still flexible enough to accommodate our parameters.”

RCI receives thousands of applications and interviews hundreds of candidates each year for key hotel leadership roles. Montiel-Lleonart said she believes the custom-built assessment is a helpful tool to gauge whether a management candidate is the right fit. “The assessment work we do today helps to ensure that we are always aligning the selection of potential new hires with the requirements of our unique business environment,” she said. “We believe that our ability to hire the right leaders helps us build better-performing teams, resulting in steady improvements in service quality and guest satisfaction.”

Ultimately, hiring the best shipboard leaders is critical to Royal Caribbean’s mission to deliver an extraordinary guest experience. “What was true for Royal Caribbean in 1968 is true today, and will be true in the future — a fully-engaged crew makes all the difference for our guests,” Stewart said. “You can develop skills, but you can’t develop the DNA for service, so you need to hire people with that innate passion and the ability to inspire others to achieve the highest levels of service and business results; and in order to do that, you need the right tools.”

Leanne Buehler is director of experience solutions for Corvirtus. She can be reached at