Fantastic Voyage

“Voyager of the Seas” is a big boat — the largest cruise ship ever. And the story of its creation offers powerful lessons — in strategic daring, relentless execution, and devotion to design.

When Royal Caribbean builds a new ship, nothing is left to chance. The contract with the shipyard specifies not only the ship’s top speed but also its gas mileage. The enormous chandelier in the main dining room is custom-made of crystal prisms that are hand wired into place and separated by clear rubber grommets so that the fixture never rattles at dinner. When a Royal Caribbean ship sets sail on its first trial run, 10 technicians are aboard for the express purpose of measuring sound and vibration — in cabins, in stairwells, on the pool deck, and across the floor of the disco.


Almost nothing that is ready-made is quite good enough for a Royal Caribbean ship. The leather-covered banquettes in the 24-hour café are handmade, as are the light fixtures; the chairs in the library are designed for comfort, and the stools in the disco are custom-made for style. The mattresses in every passenger cabin are designed and manufactured to Royal Caribbean specifications.

When the big boss — the CEO of Royal Caribbean — asks for the third time if the ship’s dining room will be quiet enough, Royal Caribbean’s shipbuilding office in Oslo, Norway recommends an acoustician to the dining-room expert in Viken, Sweden. Actually, that’s the second consulting acoustician. He’s checking the work of the first consulting acoustician, who was hired to check the work of a company that has been designing ship interiors for 50 years.

So the surprise that crept up on Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in the construction of its newest ship was all the more amazing, given the company’s meticulous approach. Without deliberate intention, RCCL created the largest, most extravagant passenger ship in history. It’s not just a nose bigger than other ships. It’s 75% bigger than any ship that Royal Caribbean now operates — three times the size of the Titanic.


The leap in scale is dramatic. For a half century, Cunard’s original Queen Elizabeth, at nearly 84,000 gross tons, was the largest and (after the Titanic) the most famous passenger ship in history. In 1996, that title passed to Carnival’s Destiny, and two years later, to Grand Princess from Princess Cruises. But Voyager of the Seas — at 137,276 gross tons — is 25% bigger than Grand Princess.

The superlatives for Voyager, which made its maiden voyage last November, are almost as expansive as the ship itself. It’s not just the largest; it’s also the most expensive ($700 million) and has the largest art budget (about $12 million), the largest floating casino, and the only ice-skating rink afloat. Except for a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, Royal Caribbean’s new ship may be the most complicated vessel ever assembled.

But Voyager’s abundance is not simply the result of Royal Caribbean’s efforts to top its cruise-company rivals. This big boat represents a huge strategic bet — a $700 million answer to questions that occupy growth-oriented companies in every industry: How do we expand our markets beyond our existing customers? How do we not only grow our business but also expand our vision of who our customers are? In this case, Voyager is a cruise ship designed in part by people who are not Royal Caribbean customers. Voyager is designed to appeal specifically to people who identify themselves as “not cruise-ship people.” Says Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain, 50: “If you have something — the cruise-ship experience — whose success rate exceeds that of chocolate but that the vast majority of the American public has never tried, then you’re on to something that’s potentially really big.”


Of course, identifying a strategic opportunity is one thing, and delivering on it is quite another. The creation of a ship this big, this complex, this different required that Royal Caribbean manage the design and construction of Voyager with as much improvisation as the careful choreography of the cruise line’s routine operations. RCCL executives encouraged the most outrageous ideas from the widest range of sources. For example, Voyager is the first RCCL ship to have a topless sunbathing area — an idea suggested by one of the company’s British managers. Royal Caribbean’s CEO personally designed one of the men’s bathrooms, which provides a spectacular ocean view — from 11 stories high — beyond the granite-wall urinal. And Voyager’s 40-by-60-foot ice-skating rink? Even after the first two attempts at making ice didn’t work, Royal Caribbean persisted. The ship’s performers now include 10 full-time skaters.

Voyager is a floating testament to the power of ingenuity when creativity itself must be managed. In an era obsessed with efficiency, Royal Caribbean can get the kind of ship it wants — the kind of ship it needs — only by abandoning the conventional wisdom about managing large projects. RCCL routinely sacrifices management simplicity for other values — like inspiration. For the Voyager project, consultants, engineers, designers, experts, and architects are spread across 10 time zones. The company often hires firms that have no shipbuilding experience to design critical spaces. And although everyone knows who is ultimately in charge, often it seems that no one is in charge. The creation may be chaotic, but the ship cannot be. So Voyager of the Seas is a ship designed for people who don’t necessarily fancy ships, using a management process that looks something like a kids’ soccer game. The product: a vessel of an exactitude that would do NASA proud.

Still, the idea that you would stumble onto creating the largest cruise ship in history by accident almost defies belief — it certainly defies modern corporate mythmaking, not to mention reasonable business practices. But there you have it: Royal Caribbean says that while everyone was busy trying to make Voyager a great vacation spot, building the ship got a little out of hand — a case study in strategic innovation, tactical improvisation, and relentless execution.


The Captain: A Passion for Detail

Richard Fain stops in the middle of one of the most unusual spaces ever created on a ship. Fore and aft, a promenade stretches the length of a football field. The enclosed boulevard, which runs down the center of Voyager, is 30 feet wide and 4 stories high. At either end, it spills into Voyager’s two 10-story atria. Because the Royal Promenade is just eight weeks from delivery, construction activity is intense. And though it is still clogged with scaffolding, shipwrights, and a half-dozen cherry pickers, the promenade is already expansively dramatic.

The space is huge and delicately balanced — a bubble in the heart of a big ship — a place where instinct and logic would envision lots of strong steel beams. A 24-hour café, a sports bar, a perfume shop, a casino, and an English pub line the pedestrian level. On the upper floors, cabins with bay windows overlook the space. The promenade’s deck is paved with cobblestones, similar to those lining the sidewalks of Turku, the Finnish city that is Voyager’s birthplace. The wide walkway meanders around trees and past an antique roadster, wrought-iron lampposts, and even an authentic English telephone box.

Fain traveled to Finland from Miami to inspect the progress on Voyager. The kinetic CEO understands the importance of the promenade’s details, as does Harri Kulovaara, the 47-year-old senior VP of marine operations who inspired the idea. Not quite a hotel lobby, not quite a plaza, not quite a galleria, the promenade has been a difficult space to perfect. Too narrow, and it will feel like an alley; too wide, a warehouse; too bright, a shopping mall; too kitschy, a beachside arcade.


But if the Royal Promenade works the way Kulovaara and Fain hope, it will become Voyager’s main street and its signature. If it fails — if it “strangles,” a word that Fain has used in moments of concern — it will leave the most expensive passenger ship in the world with a hollow center.

Fain stops in the middle of the promenade, head canted back, arms crossed over his chest, face clouded. Kulovaara, who listens more than he talks, stands at one elbow; RCCL president and COO Jack L. Williams, 50, stands at the other. Fain scowls at a black truss overhead that’s loaded with sophisticated lighting.

“We didn’t want to break up the ceiling,” says Fain. “It divides the room, visually.” An RCCL lighting expert reminds the group why the lights have ended up on this central bracket. “We took the lights and effects off the tops of the shop signs and facades, and we put them on this truss.”


Fain is famous for his precise memory, for his ability to recall conversations and plans, even when eight ships are in design and construction at once. “You tell me we need to gather the lights,” he says, “so they are not visible on top of the facades from the cabins above — but now everyone can see them. They hang down four feet! Right in the middle!”

Fain and Kulovaara have labored to create a sense of openness about the promenade. Space on ships is such a precious commodity — crammed behind every panel are conduits, ducts, pipes, cables — that protecting open space can feel as formidable as holding back the sea. “We’ve been so anxious about preserving the space,” says Fain. “What we wanted was one big area — open, free.”

He moves on. Sometimes the three men — Fain, Kulovaara, and Williams — find a problem and immediately offer a solution. Sometimes they just leave a clear impression of what isn’t right.


Fain sweeps into Cleopatra’s Needle, a dance lounge adjacent to the promenade. The theme here is, of course, Egyptian — the walls and columns are clad in hieroglyph-embossed stone. Fat, gold tassels hang from the backs of the sofas that are scattered around the lounge. Fain reaches to tug on one without breaking stride. “Will that last?” he asks. Passengers take tassels as souvenirs. The shipyard has already been asked to reinforce the stitching. “It will last,” assures Kulovaara.

The group now heads farther aft, into the soaring three-level dining room. Scaffolding blocks the way. As Fain ducks and high-steps over the metal piping, he calls to Kulovaara: “Planters! Harri, I thought we agreed we were getting rid of those planters.”

Kulovaara’s memory is at least as acute as Fain’s. “We agreed to leave them until we can clear out the scaffolding and see how they look. If they don’t work, then there’s another spot for them.”


“And do you have marble to fill in the floor underneath if they’re moved?” asks Fain.

“It’s taken care of,” says Kulovaara.

The Opportunity: Mess with Success

The world seems to be divided between two equally partisan camps: those who like cruise ships and those who wouldn’t be caught dead on one of them.


Cruise-company executives know better. The world is divided, but between two different groups: those who have been on a cruise ship and have loved it, and those who haven’t yet been on one.

Only 11% of Americans have ever taken a cruise. Of those, 94% say that a cruise vacation is as good as, or better than, a vacation on land. “That’s amazing,” says Fain. “Toys don’t get that kind of approval rating. Even chocolate doesn’t get that kind of approval rating.”

Despite the fast-growing popularity of cruise ships — nearly 6 million North American passengers boarded U.S.-based ships in 1999, up from about 1.5 million in 1980 — cruises still get only a tiny slice of Americans’ vacation time. Just 5% of people who take vacations longer than five days, and who are willing to spend $1,000 per person, take cruises.


Numbers like those can inspire an entire industry. About 120 cruise ships are now afloat; the industry has plans for 60 more through 2004. Royal Caribbean, which operates 17 ships under two different lines, carried 1.8 million passengers in 1998 — almost as many as it carried during its first 20 years of operation. RCCL ships run at 105% capacity, on average. People are so eager for a berth that they’ll accommodate a third or a fourth family member in one cabin.

Even without aggressively courting the uninitiated, RCCL sometimes has to turn away enough customers to fill five or six additional ships. Cruise-ship popularity is increasing so reliably that doing something that’s different seems as if it would be wasted effort. So why not just keeping building what’s already bringing in customers?

Because Royal Caribbean keeps thinking about the future. Demographics and preferences about leisure time are changing quickly. The useful commercial life of a cruise ship is 25 years. All told, Voyager and its two sister ships will cost more than the company’s total net profits for the past 10 years. For the company to keep its fleet profitable, it must anticipate what will constitute a good vacation 10 years from now and continue to broaden the market for cruise ships. RCCL has to be as interested in noncruisers as it is in cruisers.


Thus Voyager of the Seas was born. Back in 1996, before Voyager had a name, a shipyard to be built in, or even a basic floor plan, it had a mission: Find a way to woo those people who wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise ship. The classic objections that people raise to vacationing on a cruise ship have remained the same for nearly 20 years: People worry about feeling trapped; they’d rather participate in activities than sit in a pool lounge all day long; they don’t like having to eat in an elegant dining room, seven nights in a row, with strangers seated at their table; and they don’t like having to eat at a set time.

Voyager tackled those objections. That’s how it ended up with an in-line skating track, a kids-only pool, a rock-climbing wall, an English pub, a Johnny Rockets restaurant, and a roulette wheel so big that gamblers can ride around its rim as if it were a carousel.

The Ship: Design Options

Royal Caribbean has been analyzing passenger comment cards for nearly 30 years. On behalf of RCCL, market-research firm Yankelovich Partners recently asked 1,000 Americans about their vacation preferences. The study, which involved interviews of 60 to 90 minutes, compared cruises with other vacations — ski packages, family trips, tours of European cities.


All of Royal Caribbean’s expensive research can be boiled down to a single word — options. Americans want a vacation that gives them latitude: They want beaches and museums; they want gourmet cuisine on Sunday and pizza on Monday; and they want to hike in the afternoon and to gamble in the evening.

Voyager and its sister ships were born out of just such insight back in 1995, during early discussions about RCCL’s next category of ships, which the company called Eagle. Harri Kulovaara — who grew up in Turku, the same town in which Voyager was built — came from a family not of shipbuilders but of lawyers and politicians. Kulovaara, who joined RCCL in 1995 as head of shipbuilding, had a reputation for innovative design and for teaching shipyards how they could build the things that he imagined.

“Project Eagle was relatively unique because the ship’s end users — the guests — were taken into consideration during the design process much more so than anyone else,” says Kulovaara, who was promoted to senior VP of marine operations in 1997. “We spent a lot of time thinking, ‘What do we want to offer passengers, not tomorrow but in 2010? What will their lifestyles be like then?’ “

One of the earliest additions to the three Eagle ships was a new kind of performance venue — something beyond the usual theater and secondary show lounge. “What we wanted was a very flexible, very high-tech space,” says Peter Compton, 56, director of entertainment for Royal Caribbean. “Plenty of lighting, sound, and video capacity. We wanted a place that was more interactive than the typical theatergoing experience.”

At a meeting in 1996, Compton and two of his staff members, Gene Hull and Bill Witiak, were trying to imagine a personality for the big, empty performance spaces aboard the Eagle ships. They were sketching a small version of the modern arena — a place in which the NBA and Ringling Brothers could be equally at home, a place just as suitable for monster trucks as for Ricky Martin or Mary Chapin Carpenter. Someone on the team suggested bringing in a “glice show.” “Glice” is synthetic flooring that works like ice. Glice shows tour smaller U.S. markets, bringing figure skating to places that don’t have an ice rink. Richard Fain wandered into the room at that point during the discussion. “Why don’t we just put in a real ice rink?” he asked.

“My jaw hit the floor,” recalls Witiak, who was once assistant manager of a rink called Polar Palace, in Boone, North Carolina. “I know something about ice.”

“That idea really hit the chairman’s button,” says Compton. “An ice rink on a ship! It doesn’t belong there, and it’s hard to do — so we should do it! I remember thinking, ‘Thanks for the support. Now how in the world are we going to do that?’ “

In dozens of other places aboard Voyager, that same combination of research and serendipity has produced something distinctive. The moment of inspiration in every case was happenstance, whereas the framework that gave rise to that moment was not.

Royal Caribbean assigns the design of some spaces on the ship to architecture firms whose work appeals to the company. For some of the other spaces, firms are invited to compete by submitting designs. New companies — particularly those with no ship experience — are hired to work on almost every ship.

Voyager’s main theater — three decks of space visible to passengers and an additional deck that includes backstage areas and an orchestra pit — is the work of Boston-based Wilson Butler Lodge Inc. Not only had those designers never worked on a ship, but also “we’d never been on a cruise, or even on a cruise ship,” says principal Scott Wilson, 47. To complete their work for the competition, they ran to a nearby travel agent and got brochures showing ship interiors. Fortunately, however, the subject that they did know well was theater design, so they treated RCCL’s basic specs as if they were the dimensions of an old, gutted theater that was waiting to be rebuilt.

The Vault, Voyager’s outrageous nightclub, is the work of an established hotel-and-cruise firm, Yran & Storbraaten Architects, whose offices are located in an old rowing club in the middle of the Oslo harbor. The centerpiece of the Vault is a two-story enclosed dance floor. The inside walls have video screens, speakers, smoke machines, and mats of translucent, glow-in-the-dark tendrils. “It’s an enveloping kinetic wall,” says Trond Sigurdsen, 41, a senior architect who helped design the nightclub. “It’s like a thunderstorm in there.” Sigurdsen completed the basic design in one night after RCCL rejected a tamer version.

Arkitektbyran, a Swedish firm that had originally worked on land-based designs, has been doing pool-deck areas on RCCL ships for eight years. Harri Kulovaara invited the firm to be one of three outside companies to come up with a complete, general plan for Voyager. Given a blank sheet of paper and some basic dimensions and capacities, what would Arkitektbyran’s designers come up with? One of the ideas that they offered: Design pool decks so that people could listen to music outside — and dance — at night.

In the end, Kulovaara chose Arkitektbyran to design all of the outdoor decks and kids’ areas on Voyager. The all-day diner, which is convenient to the extensive kids’ facilities, became Johnny Rockets. Designers also proposed the in-line skating track on Deck 13, the unusual tiered sunning areas that are between Decks 11 and 12, and the poolside bandstand on Deck 11. In addition, they submitted five full pool-deck designs for Voyager before one design was chosen.

A rock-climbing wall was in Arkitektbyran’s first proposal for the outdoor decks. Lars Iwdal, 51, chief architect and owner of Arkitektbyran, suggested a wall 6 meters high — less than 20 feet tall. “Richard Fain said, ‘If there is anyone on this ship who has done any climbing, a 6-meter wall will be a joke. I want a climbing wall. It has to be at least 10 meters high.’ ” Iwdal did some rock climbing and discovered that Fain was right. The wall that runs up the back of Voyager’s main funnel, arcing over itself, is 10 meters — almost 33 feet — high.

As Voyager’s features multiplied — conference center, wedding chapel, basketball court, and all the rest — so did its dimensions. The early discussions envisioned a ship of 100,000 tons. “We never said, ‘Let’s see how big we can build this ship,’ ” says Adam Goldstein, 40, RCCL’s senior VP of total guest satisfaction. “We said, ‘Here are the diverse things people will do on a vacation if they have the opportunity.’ It was not within our plans to build a ship that was roughly 140,000 tons — but that’s how big it needed to be to capture all of the opportunities.”

There’s no one at Royal Caribbean who is under the impression that anyone will take a cruise on Voyager just because it has an ice-skating rink. Not even the most devoted rock climbers will decide to vacation on Voyager just to scale its climbing wall. No one will choose the ship because of the engineering marvel that is the Royal Promenade, or because it boasts a gym and health spa that’s the size of a small Wal-Mart.

Indeed, any one of those features, taken alone, seems absurd. Oddly, it is the cumulative impact of all of those features that gives each one its credibility. You are free to be bored on Voyager, to lounge away the afternoon drinking daiquiris by the pool. But you’ve got no reason to be bored if you don’t want to be.

The Project: Steering through Complexity

The quay in Turku, where the Eagle ships are being built, looks like an oversize playroom. All sorts of mechanical stuff — like life-size pieces of Erector sets and Tinkertoys — are scattered everywhere. Twelve shiny propeller blades, each 18 feet long, await installation. Yellow lifeboats are ready for hoisting onto their davits; each is a miniature ship — two stories high, 30 feet long.

On the pier sits a complete version of RCCL’s signature smokestack and wraparound Viking Crown lounge, a 14-story-high room that will hold 300 people. You can walk under the lounge and surrounding deck areas — a steel chunk of ship six decks tall — and see the internal stairways, doorways, decks, and ducts. It’s a complete piece of an Eagle ship, ready to be picked up and snapped into place. Nearby is the entire rear starboard fantail of the same ship. The outside deck rails are already fastened and painted.

Modern ships are made like Lego creations; sections are built, hoisted aboard, and welded into place. Passenger cabins are manufactured and finished off-site — down to the bathroom fixtures and carpeting — and are brought to the shipyard and slid into place.

In Turku, two ships are lined up, one a schematic of the other. Eagle 1 — formally named Voyager of the Seas — is afloat, tied to the dock, its sides painted a gleaming white, a curlicue of smoke drifting from its stack. Twenty steps in front of Eagle 1 stands a stripped-down, peeled-open version of the same vessel. Eagle 2 sits in a rock-sided dry dock, the vast ship propped up on large jack stands. Eagle 2 is mostly raw, red steel. Its hull is finished; its topside, gap-toothed.

Although the basic steel structure for all three Eagle ships is almost identical, the interior designs and themes will be different — as most likely will be the designers of those spaces.

For Voyager alone, RCCL ended up with a dozen outside architects. The ice rink was designed and engineered in Boston; Portland, Oregon; Turku; and the Tirolean region of Austria. The main dining rooms and the large casual dining areas were designed in Viken, Sweden. The 5,000-gallon saltwater aquariums — the largest ever on a ship — were designed and built in Grand Junction, Colorado; a company in Florida stocked the fish. The Egyptian dance lounge and the cigar club were both designed in London. The 24-hour sidewalk café and the English pub on the Royal Promenade were designed in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A London-based firm coordinated all the art, which was bought from artists in eight countries. The casino was designed in Miami.

To anyone who is accustomed to managing large projects (let alone a kitchen renovation), such a dispersal of talent and responsibility sounds like a prescription for disaster. And it is not necessarily the industry standard. Carnival Cruise Lines, which is bigger than RCCL, not only uses one person to design all of its cruise ships, but Carnival also employs the same person to design every single space on every one of those ships.

The idea of a simpler, cheaper way to design and build ships makes Kulovaara smile. He has a corner office in Royal Caribbean’s headquarters, in the Port of Miami — the windows overlook Biscayne Bay, which changes dramatically with the weather. “Our strength is that our designers come from different backgrounds,” he says. “I cannot build a ship with these two hands. I would not even get the keel laid. When you’re leading this kind of process, the most important thing is to have creative, reliable people — people who do what they say they will do.

“I’ve been involved in the building of 35 ships. Execution is relatively easy, compared with finding talent,” he says. “It’s more important that the designers know what they are doing than that they live in a convenient place.” In a strange way, the spectrum of talent gives Kulovaara and Fain more control rather than less. It allows them to demand standards of quality and attention to detail that might be hard to enforce if everyone actually worked for RCCL in Miami or Oslo.

A steering committee oversees design, cost, and overall progress. But this committee destroys most notions about meetings and committees: Its sessions are long — a full day, often two — but they’re rarely dull. Real work gets done. Innovative design survives the committee, and sometimes gets even better. Everyone always sits in the same place. Fain, Kulovaara, and Jack Williams can be found on one long side of the conference table, flanked by others from RCCL in Miami. The new-building group, from Oslo, sits opposite Fain, anchored in the center by Olav Eftedal, its technical director. Eftedal, 64, is a deceptively mild-mannered engineer who joined the company back in 1968, when it was building its first cruise ship; he oversees all day-to-day shipbuilding procedures. In discussions, when Eftedal wants to look up something about a ship, he hoists a full-size ledger filled with his careful handwriting onto the table and says wryly, “Let me consult my laptop.” Against the wall sit the designers. In an adjacent room are their models, plans, renderings, and samples.

The format is simple: Each meeting has a schedule of presentations. You say what you’ve come to say, show your opera-themed dining room or the art that will hang in the 10-story atrium, mention any problems, and ask for any decisions that need to be made. Then the fun begins, usually the same way, with Richard Fain saying, “Can I ask a couple questions?”

It’s the first hour of a steering-committee meeting that took place late last year. Fain raises a variety of topics: the size of luxury cabins, the adequacy of handicapped access to the main theater, and the sturdiness of sneeze guards for the ship’s self-service cafeteria.

The decisions usually range from trivial to dramatic. In the afternoon, Arkitektbyrån presents a redesigned top-deck area for six ships being built in Germany. The first ship is almost done; Kulovaara wanted a more distinctive topside for the sister ships, and the proposal includes a spectacular curved-glass stern.

After discussing potential problems, Fain rocks back in his chair, does a head swivel, looks down at the models, and says, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m speechless. You’ve convinced me, Harri. You can really build it? At a reasonable price?”

“Yes,” affirms Kulovaara.

“The wisdom of these meetings,” says Scott Wilson, of Wilson Butler Lodge, “is that the freewheeling style results in some things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. There is a real lack of ego at those meetings — my idea, your idea — and it becomes the adopted philosophy of the team.”

Such a setting is not one that Wilson had encountered in other assignments. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says. “You have to come in confident of your design, prepared to explain and to defend it. If it has a fundamental flaw, you better have found it, because otherwise they will.”

The meetings also set a standard for the design’s intensity, care, and quality. “Richard tries to get the best out of people by asking awkward questions,” says Eric Mouzourides, 40, cofounder of London-based Designteam, which created the shops, Egyptian lounge, library, and cigar club on Voyager. “He’s really giving you order and direction when he’s asking questions. He’s testing the strength of your convictions, and he’s very rarely wrong.”

If the CEO of a $2.6 billion company is going to ask about sneeze guards and couch tassels, even in passing, then you’d better get those things right, along with the capacity of the dining room and the lighting in the theater. In your own space, you must become Fain and Kulovaara, because they will eventually be in your space.

It’s Royal Caribbean’s unconventional organization of such an enormous project that makes it possible to create and maintain such an incredible level of intensity. The steering-committee meetings are backstopped by shipboard inspections of relentless detail. Instead of two huge bureaucracies — Royal Caribbean and the shipyard — pushing against each other, Voyager has a dozen small design companies with only a few spaces each. Those firms give their spaces extraordinary attention and insist on proper construction — because they really care about those spaces, because they know RCCL really cares about them, and because many future ships, with many future design contracts, are hanging in the balance.

“The quality of the details creates the quality of the whole,” says Kulovaara. “These things are much more important on vacation than they are in normal life: that you live like royalty, eat the best food, stay in a comfortable cabin, and sleep in a properly made bed. If you want the perfect experience, every detail is important. That’s what amazes you. That’s why you’ll take another cruise.”

The Top Team: Double Vision

Fain and Kulovaara are having a tug-of-war over columns. Fain looks up from the blueprints of the main dining room that is in another group of ships called Vantage. “Can we take out this column, this column, and this one?” he asks Kulovaara, drawing Xs on the sheet with his finger. The columns block the flow of guests near the entrance.

Kulovaara follows Fain’s finger, then gazes into space for a long moment. You can almost see detailed drawings of the ship flashing before his eyes — decks and machinery below, decks and machinery above, stress, loads, vibration. “These” — Kulovaara points to two of the columns — “no problem. This one” — he points to the one nearest the entrance — “must stay.”

“But that’s the most important one to get rid of!” Fain protests.

“It’s a vibration problem. We can’t take it out if you want to maintain comfort.”

“No, the question isn’t vibration.” Fain has the beginnings of a smile, more for the steering-committee audience than for Kulovaara. “It’s how you solve the vibration problem. Harri, you always complain, and you always fix it in the end.”

Many people at Royal Caribbean see the creation of Voyager of the Seas as a corporate achievement — a vessel inspired by the data of the marketing department, given form by the ideas of the designers and operations people, made possible by the savvy of finance, and made real by the determination and problem solving of the new-building group. Every phase of the Eagle ships requires armies of staff to execute, and progress is overseen by a committee.

That, too, is the official line: Royal Caribbean created the largest cruise ship in the world through teamwork. But nothing so dramatic can be the product of a committee; the heart and spirit of Voyager come from Fain and Kulovaara. Their decisions shaped the ship — literally and figuratively. “The ship,” says David Stanley, 52, RCCL’s longtime head of casino operations and shipboard revenue, “is the ambition of Richard Fain and Harri Kulovaara.” Indeed, Voyager is as much the product of the relationship between Fain and Kulovaara as of their individual visions.

In the 12 years since Fain became chairman of Royal Caribbean, the company has grown dramatically: Sales are up by a factor of 5, profits are up by a fact of 10; RCCL went public in 1993 and bough the high-end line Celebrity in 1997. Fain and Kulovaara have known each other for years, but it was not until April 1995 that Fain hired Kulovaara as the head of shipbuilding. Kulovaara came on board not only as Royal Caribbean began planning another huge fleet expansion, but also as the company became mired in the worst pollution scandal in U.S. cruise-ship-company history. Kulovaara brought with him an impeccable reputation, along with expertise in both building and running ships.

He also brought the idea for the Royal Promenade, which is a vivid illustration of the complicated creative relationship between Fain and Kulovaara. The men are very different, but they have a clear chemistry. They trust each other’s instincts and experience. Superficially, Fain seems to be the outgoing CEO with the ideas and the sense of style, and Kulovaara the more reserved naval architect who speaks with absolute authority about what is possible inside a steel hull. But Fain — who began his career working for a company that owned liquefied-natural-gas tankers, and who carries a legendary ability to read blueprints — has a busy mind, so busy that he can be difficult to engage in casual conversation. Kulovaara has a powerful sense of design, and, one-on-one, he is as charming as a ship’s captain. The men share a plainspokenness. Kulovaara, who loves the Eagle ships, readily acknowledges that he wishes that they were less stocky. He wanted them 30 feet longer — to help improve their lines — but ports imply weren’t big enough for a 1,050-foot ship.

The men also share a suspicion of excess reliance on research. “Surveys cannot tell you whether this pool deck or that poll deck is right,” says Kulovaara. “You have to use your intuition.”

Fain and Kulovaara had no trouble agreeing on the aesthetic and practical value of the promenade. On a ship the size of Voyager, open space helps passengers orient themselves. “You don’t want passengers to be confused,” says Fain. RCCL put the first atrium on a ship in 1987, and every other major cruise line has copied the design, not only because of the sense of space, but also because people instantly understand where they are when they stand in the atrium. The promenade gives the ship a central place — a kind of civic square, as its main architect, Njal Eide, describes it. It also provides a way of managing huge pedestrian traffic flows — the main dining room opens onto the promenade, and the main theater is one deck down. Together, they have seats for all 3,200 passengers on board.

But Fain and Kulovaara disagreed on the proportions of the promenade. The dispute came down to a single meter — 39 inches. Kulovaara’s promenade was 8 meters wide, from storefront to storefront. Eight meters is a standard width of open space in shipbuilding — anything wider, and vibrations become a significant problem. The two horizontal atria Kulovaara built — on cruise ferries in the Baltic — were 8 meters wide.

But for all their drama, the promenades on those ships have always felt a little tight. As you stand in the middle, you can see both walls in your peripheral vision. Fain wanted another meter — a promenade 9 meters wide.

“Richard pushed hard,” says Kulovaara. “It was very symbolic; it was his intuition. He was putting his finger on something very important. He said, ‘Harri, we cannot accept it at 8 meters.'”

The shipyard said 9 meters were not technically possible. Fain said that he wouldn’t have a promenade at all if it had to be 8 meters.

Kulovaara — Fain calls him “a genius” — ultimately came up with a solution. The promenade is 9 meters — except on the fourth story. There, the bay windows of the cabins angle inward, so that at the ceiling, the promenade is 8 meters wide. That, with some structural compensations, provided the stiffness the ship needed to accommodate Fain’s 9-meter space.

“His influence is all over,” says Kulovaara. “He knows the ship better than I do.”

Fain gets away with a style that almost seems like micromanaging for a simple reason: He is so often right. Says Cecilia Kinnison, 39, an interior architect from Tillberg Design AG who designed Voyager‘s elegant main dining room, “The pushing, the cornering he does improves things. The ideas he comes up with aren’t stupid, so I don’t consider it meddling.”

If Fain were mostly wrong, he’d be micromanaging the ships. But because he’s so often right — only because he’s so often right — his style works. And he clearly revels in the abundance of the ships.

But Fain could not possibly be having more fun than Kulovaara. “I have had one dream — to become a naval architect,” says Kulovaara. “I love ships. I only want to build and operate them.” He has nearly a million gross tons of ships under construction — worth more than $4 billion. “We put our soul into the design. Clearly, we don’t build these ships just to make money.”

Charles Fishman ( is a Fast Company Senior Editor. When he was nine years old, he took a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s First cruise ship, Song of Norway, which was barely one-seventh the size of Voyager of the Seas. To learn more about the cruise-ship industry, visit Royal Caribbean on the web (


About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.