Aug 10, 2018 · News

Science, empathy calm guests when Mother Nature threatens

One serves up science. The other deals in emotion. When hurricane season is on, both shift into overdrive.

James Van Fleet is the only weather forecaster working full time for a cruiseline. As Royal Caribbean International’s chief meteorologist, he’s rapidly becoming as familiar to guests as a local TV weatherman, which he used to be. In a way, he still is.

Besides keeping the bridge informed about weather conditions ahead, contingency routes for avoiding trouble, and safe ports to tuck into as needed, Van Fleet now creates video weathercasts packed with the same information for guests to watch in their staterooms on the line’s 25 ships.

Besides audio weather-related announcements made ship-wide by the captain and others, the videos add “a second voice and some explanation, showing (guests and crew), here’s this system or here’s what’s going to happen, and if we went this way, this is what we’d see. So this is why we’re going to do X, Y, Z,” Van Fleet says.

“The lines at Guest Services – asking questions and making arrangements or changes – dropped significantly in last year’s hurricane coverage, just by doing just that.”

The videos were a response to 2017’s historic hurricane season in the Caribbean, which prompted a 7,000 percent increase in Royal Caribbean International’s social media traffic, says Aurora Yera-Rodriguez, director of Guest Relations for Royal Caribbean International.

Staff and guests alike know her as Laly, and she describes herself and her work as offering love, mothering and “squishiness” for the people who entrust their vacations to Royal Caribbean.

“You picked me to spend your precious vacation time with,” Laly says. “I’ve gotta love you. That’s my entire job.”

“You add a hurricane to that, a factor that’s so unpredictable, uncontrollable, that it becomes a very, very emotional thing. It’s important for us to always remember and understand that.”

Van Fleet and Laly explain that a cruise ship is one of the safest places to be during serious weather. While those in affected cities must flee or batten down, a cruise ship is free to move to a calmer area. The best evidence: As Hurricane Irma moved toward Miami, Royal Caribbean loaded employees, their families and pets aboard a ship and sailed to the lee side of Cuba, where it became command central during the storm.

To feed the need for information to pass on to sometimes-frantic guests and their families, Van Fleet has multiple global weather sources – including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To disseminate that info and interact with guests, Laly leads an around-the-clock team that aggregates social media posts, emails, texts and other channels to track their questions and concerns and responds quickly.

Laly says she still receives thanks about her team’s work on the hurricanes, and not only from guests.

“Just yesterday an intern proudly told us that when she got the job, she told her family, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be working for the folks that saved you guys from Puerto Rico.’”

Rarely do commendations for a job well done come as high.