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Monday,  March 4, 2024 9:58 PM 

“It’s not about building the biggest ship, it’s about building the best ship”: RCI’s Lisa Connell unpacks Icon


“It’s not about building the biggest ship, it’s about building the best ship”: RCI’s Lisa Connell unpacks Icon
The Canadian Royal Caribbean International sales team (in blue) poses with Vicki Freed, SVP, sales, trade support & service (in pink), on board Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

This story was updated on Saturday, January 27, at 10:14 a.m. EST. 


There’s something Titanic-like about boarding the world’s largest cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean’s newest megaship, Icon of the Seas, which wrapped up a series of preview sailings out of Miami on Friday (Jan 26), is way larger than the Titanic in every dimension (and, obviously, it has not suffered the same fate as the doomed ocean liner of 1912).

But in the same vein as Titanic, Icon – at least in the eyes of Royal’s executive team – is a ship of dreams.

The first-of-its-class, 365 metre-long ship with twenty decks, more than forty restaurants, bars and lounges, 28 different types of accommodations, and with a maximum capacity for 7,600 passengers (nearly 10,000 if you include the crew) has been seven years in the making.

Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

As the story goes, some design aspects of the two-billion (U.S.) dollar vessel – like the all-new AquaDome, the single-largest glass and steel structure ever to be lifted onto a cruise ship – were literally drawn up on a napkin, years back, by Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean’s former CEO (who’s now Chair of The Board of Directors).

READ MORE: On Location: “Wow” – Canadian travel pros share first impressions of Icon of the Seas

Icon of the Seas, which PAX previewed this week on a sailing from Miami to Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas), is full of firsts and favourites as far as amenities go.

Across eight playful neighbourhoods, there are adrenaline-pumping thrills, like six waterslides at Category 6 and the Crown’s Edge experience, which unfolds 154 feet above the ocean (which PAX tried – stay tuned), and more ways to chill at seven pools – one for every day of the week.

(Pax Global Media)

Inside Icon, there’s a glowing, golf ball-like sphere, called The Pearl, plopped in the centre of the ship’s 362-foot long, two-deck Royal Promenade, which has a ceiling of multi-coloured lights that are reminiscent of Las Vegas' Fremont Street.

There are four signature stages – themed around air, ice, water and theatre – for full-scale shows, including an orchestra-supported production of The Wizard of Oz (Royal Caribbean is the first cruise line to stage the classic tale), and new venues, like Lou’s Jazz ‘n Blues and Dueling Pianos (the latter has quickly emerged as a popular it-spot on board).

The Pearl. (Pax Global Media)

Dueling Pianos. (Pax Global Media)

As for the ship’s accommodations, more than 75 per cent of staterooms on Icon can accommodate families of three or more – which is 60 per cent more than any other ship in Royal Caribbean’s fleet.

As Canadian travel pros told PAX earlier this week, Icon is definitely built for families and multi-generational travel, but the consensus is that the adults-only clientele (such as couples and friends) will love it too. 

It’s Las Vegas, but on water, as one advisor put it.

Pearl Cafe on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

Building the best ship

Icon may hold the title of “the world’s largest cruise ship” – it’s a headline that likely won’t disappear anytime soon – but according to Lisa Connell, director of sales, Canada at Royal Caribbean International (RCI), there’s more to creating the ultimate family vacation than just size.

“It’s not about building the biggest ship, it’s about building the best ship,” Connell told PAX in a sit-down interview in Icon’s high-tech AquaTheatre on Thursday (Jan. 25). “It’s about building the best experience and delivering on that.”

(Pax Global Media)

Family-oriented, multi-generational vacations have always been in Royal Caribbean’s DNA, Connell explained, and Icon of the Seas is an evolution of everything the nearly 56-year-old brand has accomplished.

“We know who we are. We know what we do well. And we do it very well,” Connell said. “That really comes to life in this ship.”

Icon has all the goodies kids will love, from racing waterslides at Thrill Island to candy-coloured Surfside, for young families, with its signature carousel and waterpark features.

Waterslides galore on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

But there’s fun for grown-ups, too. The futuristic ship includes a beach club-inspired Hideaway section, an adults-only, multilevel terrace with sun chairs, whirlpools, and a suspended infinity pool – 135 feet above the ocean.

Connell compared Icon to a luxury resort that one might find in Las Vegas.

“Whether you’re a family, or couple or on a girls’ getaway, you’re going to get different experiences,” Connell said. “You can come on and have all the thrills you want, or chill out.”

The Hideaway on board Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

Crown’s Edge, a ropes course and skywalk, is the newest thrill experience at sea. (Pax Global Media)

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, echoed those remarks, telling media earlier in the week that, in addition to Vegas, Icon’s target market are families that, for example, vacation at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

“We feel we’re very competitive with a brand like Disney. In many ways, we’re broader than Disney. There’s a sweet spot for a Disney customer – usually the three to nine-year-old. So, when you look at our teen program, our FlowRider and rock-climbing wall, and all the activities we have, we feel like we extend to the teen arm as well.”

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales, trade support and service. (Pax Global Media)

Icon of the Seas may be more expensive, but for travel advisors, it’s all about qualifying the right clients, for the right ship, Freed explained.

“It’s not about selling from your own pocketbook. It’s about selling value,” she said. “We’re training travel advisors to feel comfortable with selling the value experience, and the return on investment in vacation dollars.”

When you consider all that Icon has, from the largest waterpark at sea to Broadway and Vegas-level shows, the ship packs a punch as far as value goes. There's always something to do. 

And Icon of the Seas, with all of its many parts, is a complex product – just like Walt Disney World. 

Surfside on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

If anything, it's a ship that qualified travel advisors should be selling as they can effectively match clients with the right staterooms, help them understand the amenities and offer guidance on where to spend time on board. 

Using a travel professional could be the difference between an awesome vacation and a lousy one. 

Still, not every client may be a good fit for Icon, which is why Freed encourages the trade to ask their customers honest, qualifying questions. 

It can start with something as simple as: What are you looking for in a vacation? That approach, she said, can then pair travellers with a ship that's perfect for them. 

Iconic sales

Icon of the Seas arrives as Royal Caribbean charts a successful course in its post-pandemic recovery.

Connell says RCI’s Canadian business – largely driven by families and friends wanting to travel together after years of pandemic-induced separation – has already surpassed 2019 levels.

One of Icon's many pools. (Pax Global Media)

Cocktail time on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

The meeting and incentive market, as well as affinity groups, has also bounced back with a vengeance, she said.

And 2024 and 2025 is already seeing a spike in sales – especially with Icon’s upcoming sister ship, Star of the Seas, gearing up for a 2025 debut.

Royal Caribbean's sixth Oasis-class ship, Utopia of the Seas, is also set to launch this summer.

Aerialists and diving in the all-new AquaDome. (Pax Global Media)

As for Icon, strong demand for the ship has broken records – the ship’s first official ocean voyage, set for Jan. 27, quickly sold out in October of 2022.

READ MORE: Strong demand sparks early release of Icon of the Seas' 2025-26 voyages

Executives say Icon’s inaugural season is quickly filling up, and that premium suites, like the three-story Ultimate Family Townhouse, are already sold out.

Icon of the Seas has debuted the first Ultimate Family Townhouse. (Royal Caribbean)

Inside a balcony stateroom cabin. (Pax Global Media)

It’s for this reason that Connell strongly advises the trade to book their clients early.

“Travel advisors need to be booking further in advance,” she said, explaining how Royal’s inventory is sold on a global platform. “When inventory opens, it scoops up.”

Suspended infinity pool at the adults-only Hideaway. (Pax Global Media)

“Our goal is new to cruise”

While Icon certainly commands attention, the strategy for the ship isn’t to lure customers away from other brands.

“Our goal is new to cruise,” Connell explained. “Our industry is growing and we want everybody to do well. There’s a lot of people who will continue to travel by land. But there are also people out there who want something different, from FIT travellers to people who enjoy all-inclusive resorts.”

Central Park on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

This, Connell said, is where all travel advisors have an opportunity to grow their business – and Royal Caribbean’s sales team is available to help.

“We can help advisors understand what type of customers they have and how they can work within their community,” Connell said.

Lisa Connell, director of sales, Canada at Royal Caribbean International. (Pax Global Media)

For agents new to cruising, understanding a massive ship like Icon of the Seas can for sure be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be when guided by proper training.

The cruise line’s training portal, Royal Caribbean University, is a good place to start any sales voyage.  

The Canadian sales team for Royal Caribbean International. (Pax Global Media)

How big will they go?

Icon of the Seas may be the world’s biggest cruise ship, but it’s not the biggest ship by much.

It’s about six per cent larger than the Oasis-class Wonder of the Seas, which debuted last year.

Wonder actually has more staterooms (2874) than Icon (2805), but Icon carries more passengers due to her higher occupancy accommodations.

Icon of the Seas parked next to Vision of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

Will Royal Caribbean’s ships continue to get bigger and bigger?

At a press conference earlier this week, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty said port constraints ultimately dictate how big the cruise line can go.

From left: Royal Caribbean International’s President and CEO Michael Bayley; Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty. (Pax Global Media)

Vicki Freed told journalists that she doesn't expect to see a major size increase throughout the Icon class.

"Probably maybe an inch or two,” she said.

However: “Because of the size, there’s more choice. And that’s what people want,” she later said.

Connell says there’s “no cap” on how many Icons will be built, but signs indicate that more are on the way.

At a Q&A for travel advisors sailing on Icon this week, Royal Caribbean International’s President and CEO Michael Bayley hinted that an Icon ship will eventually debut in Galveston, Texas.

“Everybody wants one of these ships now that she’s come to life,” Connell shared.

The Royal Caribbean sales team show off some bling on Icon of the Seas. (Pax Global Media)

Connell and her Canadian sales team spent nearly two weeks on Icon hosting travel advisors on preview sailings, and while the anticipation of a new ship always puts pressure on the company, Icon’s arrival has been a “game-changer,” she says.

“Every time you bring out a new ship, it’s exciting. The team is beaming,” she said. “Our cheeks are sore from smiling and having so much fun. It’s a lot of work, but we’re just so proud.”

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on location coverage of Icon of the Seas.


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