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The unsung heroes of the Harmony of the Seas

FROM THE INITIAL designs of the Harmony of the Seas to when it docked in Southampton, the making of the world’s largest cruise ship took an incredible 32 months in total. Here at Spinnaker, we’re home to the Maritime HR Association, of which Royal Caribbean Cruises, Harmony’s cruise line, are members. So the MD of the HR Consulting division Karen Waltham and I were invited to take a tour of the ship the day before its maiden voyage on 19 May 2016. 

Built in Saint Nazaire, France, the ship possesses some dizzying statistics. Over 2,700 staterooms, 23 swimming pools, a casino, a park (with real trees), zip wires, a ten-storey spiral slide (the ‘Ultimate Abyss’), a 1400 seat Broadway-style theatre… a whole running track… an ice rink… mind sufficiently boggled yet? But the press clamour has focused on these headline-making features so obsessively over the past few months that it’s easy to forget about the real life people who made this ship happen. From concept to completion, these Naval Architects, Engineers and Operations staff are the ‘unsung heroes’ of this gargantuan project. 

Incredibly, only one French national – Gerard Parre, Superintendent – worked on the project in Saint Nazaire (we were able to meet Parre by the impressive carousel during our day-long tour). The rest of the team was brought together by May MacInnes, HR Business Partner, Newbuild & Marine Operations at Royal Caribbean. MacInnes was able to hire a team of 35 people, predominantly from Turku and Papenburg, but from outside Europe also. 

Again, it’s easy to forget the sheer logistics of getting a team together for a build like Harmony. Marjo Keiramo, Business Administration Manager for the Newbuilding division of Royal Caribbean told us that “It was quite a smooth process within the EU, but at times was time-consuming within non EU countries.”

Saint Nazaire is a small French town where the locals don’t generally speak a lot of English. How do you sell that to a Finnish shipbuilder? It can be a difficult thing, asking a staff member to move their whole life, their family, to a new location. Thankfully, Saint Nazaire is also known for its great weather, good food and wine and beautiful sailing opportunities, plus the project was already gaining a high profile in the press, giving an extra, attractive edge to the relocation package. Prospective staff were given trips to the location to check it out beforehand, and even had dedicated helpers when it came to house-hunting. Royal Caribbean clearly feel passionately about caring for staff. The HR department fully supported the Harmony team, helping them to feel at home and even setting up an English-speaking helpline in case they had any questions about their new location. It took an incredible amount of planning and organisation, or as Keiramo put it, “Timely and seamless collaboration is one of the key elements for us.”

So, the team was in place. Saint Nazaire had some new, newbuilding professionals in town. They were all – pardon the pun – in the same boat; new to the area, and about to start work on one of the most talked-about shipbuilding projects in history. And that’s where the notion of ‘family’ comes into it. Over 32 months, from the design and steel importing to the construction and electrical hurdles, everyone came together and made something amazing. 

Walking around the ship – most crew members walk 6,000 steps on average each day, which we matched according to our pedometer app – it was incredible how warm and friendly everybody was, and how MacInnes knew everyone. They stopped and said hello. They talked about how emotional it was getting on board the Harmony for the first time (pictured top right). And these people have undertaken an exhausting job; everything on this ship is perfect. It all has its place. There is no room for error, and every light fitting, carpet pattern and piece of art (of which there are thousands) have been specifically chosen by people with a massive sense of pride. 

So what keeps staff so engaged on such a consuming piece of work? There was 100% retention on the Harmony project. Nobody left, because they were proud of the ship and their work, and because everybody wanted to see it through from its drawing-board stages to the unveiling. Keiramo said shipbuilding is a “very immersive environment, offering many career opportunities from technical positions to marketing, communications, finance, legal, HR and administration. In spite of which area of expertise you have, you always work very close to the end product.”

The team structure and relationships are essential to keeping everyone – second pun of the day, sorry – on board. We met Petteri Keso, Project Director for Harmony, and with someone like this heading up the team, it’s no wonder everyone is so engaged. Keso is clearly cool and calm. With a background in ship repair, you have to work well under pressure (if a ship is in dry dock and has one week until it sails, you have to get the job done!) and that is a perfect quality for a leader of a project like this. MacInnes told us what a great motivator the Finnish director is. This ship has a great design, it’s innovative; it’s something to be proud of, and that’s something that Keso encouraged within the whole team. 

So you see, when the press reports on the fact there’s a Jamie’s Italian or Cartier store on board, or how long it took them to whizz down the super-slide, take a moment to think about the unsung heroes behind all that. They’ve been working tirelessly for 32 months, from scratch, to make the most incredible experience for guests and crew alike. And what made it all possible? Well, as home to the Maritime HR Association we always like to see HR teams get the credit they deserve, especially when you think that a few years ago, HR didn’t seem to exist in the shipping industry. That care, that nurturing that MacInnes, Keiramo and the team provided, set the project out into the world when it was just an idea in Royal Caribbean’s order book. 

The personal journey that the staff have been on throughout the Harmony of the Seas’ build – now that’s a voyage worth talking about. 

Rachel Morgan, Head of Marketing, Spinnaker Global

Photos from top:
1. The moment Harmony of the Seas sailed for the first time from Saint Nazaire (Image source: STX Europe, Saint Nazaire France)
2. L-R: Rachel Morgan, Spinnaker Global, Petteri Keso, RCL: Project Director for Harmony, May MacInnes RCL: HR, Janne Lietzen, RC: AVP, Newbuilding, and Karen Waltham, MD, HR Consulting for Spinnaker Global
3. Rachel shows the scale of the ship upon seeing her for the first time!

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