Students go behind the scenes on Royal Caribbean cruise

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of students looking over ship blueprints and maps

Imagine preparing three meals a day for 2,500 guests, washing and folding thousands of bedsheets, and transporting a ship full of passengers on small boats—along with a complete lunch buffet—to a private island within a matter of hours.

Twenty students from the Hotel School witnessed firsthand how Royal Caribbean International successfully operates its cruises after they boarded the Enchantment of the Seas in February for a three-day experiential learning trip to the Bahamas.

The immersion trip was the second cruise offered in the past two years to students enrolled in Introduction to the Global Leisure Cruise Industry, a course created by Robert Kwortnik, associate professor of services marketing in the Hotel School.

The seven-week course has been sponsored by Royal Caribbean, which donated $34,000 to cover the cost of the course, the cruise, and helping with the students’ flights into Miami, the port of embarkation. The company has supported the course since it was first offered in 2016.

Austin Serling ’19, one of the students on the class trip, had never taken a cruise before he boarded the ship. “What I found the most interesting was not only to be a guest on the ship, but to have that back-of-the-house experience to see where the crew lives, trains, and eats,” said Serling, who now wants to explore the cruise industry as a possible career path.

Royal Caribbean arranged a full itinerary for the students, including tours of the bridge, the command and navigation area; the laundry facilities; the galleys; and the crew lounge and mess. On the second day of the trip, the students toured CocoCay, the cruise line’s private island.

Once back on the ship, the students participated in a surprise focus group led by Maria Zhankov ’17, who served last year as Kwortnik’s teaching assistant for the course and is now an account executive at Royal Caribbean. Zhankov is working on private island development, including a project the students had spotted on CocoCay.

Photo looking out into the ocean from a boat
Tenders ferry the students from the ship to the marina on Coco Cay.
Photo of a group of students listening to a tour guide
The group gathers for a guided walking tour of Coco Cay.

Back in class the following week, the students heard Mark Tamis ’88, senior vice president for hotel operations at Royal Caribbean, describe what is being built on Coco Cay—a huge waterpark that will boast the tallest waterslide in North America and the largest freshwater and wave pool in the Caribbean.

“It will be really cool and interesting to see how it plays out,” said Ilsa Gruber ’19, a teaching assistant for the course, who sailed with the class this year as well as last year, when she was there as a student. “The whole idea is trying to control that guest experience from start to finish, and that’s something that the cruise industry is particularly good at.”

Tamis has visited the class each year since launching it with Kwortnik in the spring of 2016. Tamis took his inspiration for the course from one he had taken as an undergraduate, Introduction to Gaming. That course featured guest lecturers from the industry and a casino tour in Atlantic City, and he wanted to replicate that experience in the cruise course.

“The more real-world examples and the more opportunities we give the students to interact with real situations and executives, the more we can bring it home for them and make it tangible,” he said.

This semester, eight senior executives from Royal Caribbean gave lectures in the course, half of them flying to Ithaca while the other half presented via web video on topics ranging from cruise pricing to social media marketing. Giving the students the opportunity to learn about the industry while taking a cruise was the next step in the course’s development.

“Even though we’re getting an unprecedented inside view into how a major cruise company is run by the guest speakers who come here, until you get on a ship and actually see how remarkable the operations are, you just can’t imagine how this hospitality model works,” Kwortnik said. “So I think that was what I really wanted the students to see.”

Photo of three people sitting in beach lounge chairs
Professor Rob Kwortnik soaks up some February sun with former student and TA Maria Zhankov ’17 and current student Austin Serling ’19 on the deck of the Enchantment of the Seas. Kwortnik created the course Introduction to the Global Leisure Cruise Industry with Mark Tamis ’88, a senior vice president at Royal Caribbean International. Zhankov now works for Royal Caribbean as an account executive.

While Royal Caribbean funded the course with an annual gift of $20,000 during the first two years it was offered, the cruise line increased its donation this year to make the trip more affordable to students.

“We just wanted to figure out a way to integrate the trip as part of the class,” Tamis said. “In order to do that, we increased our sponsorship, and we were able to make it a wholly rounded and exclusive experience for the class.”

Beyond touring the ship’s operations, the students met with division heads and managers on the cruise at a welcome reception, several class sessions—including participation in an HR training program used for onboarding new crew—and a debriefing on the last night of the trip. They also had free time to explore the 916-foot-long ship and stroll through Nassau on their own.

Carina Segredo ’19 spent her breaks from the immersion activities with four guests who booked the same cruise—her mother and her friend, her grandmother, and her boyfriend. While Segredo grew up in Miami and estimates she has taken at least 25 cruises, she said the trip helped her develop a new perspective on how the ships operate.

Photo of six students standing on the ship deck
From left, David Gee ’20, Matthew Whiting ’20, Alexander Fomenkov ’19, Elvis Ahn ’20, Tyler Esbin ’18, and Aashay Mehta ’19 enjoy a turn on deck. Ahn will intern with Royal Caribbean in Miami this summer.

“I really appreciated each employee’s enthusiasm and how Royal Caribbean keeps the employees, who are from 50-plus regions of the world, motivated in such small, confined quarters,” Segredo said. “It shows the human resources department is really doing its job and matching the company brand with employees’ personalities.”

Another student, Elvis Ahn ’20, learned three weeks after taking the cruise that he had been selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants to intern at Royal Caribbean in Miami this summer. Ahn, who is president of the Cornell Air and Sea Hospitality Club, will work in the finance and strategy department for Celebrity Cruises, a premium cruise line that is part of Royal Caribbean, Ltd.

“The more I think about it and the more I learn about it, the more I see myself in a career within the cruise industry,” Ahn said. “It’s a really amazing industry that’s full of possibilities.”