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Staying flexible and agile key to Hodges Bethge's Royal Caribbean duties

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Laura Hodges Bethge's new EVP role at Royal Caribbean Group puts her in the grip of supply chain challenges due to inflation and Russia's war in Ukraine, COVID issues that affect port operations and crew movement, new workplace solutions and more.

To cope with them all, she stresses flexibility and agility and the support of a seasoned team, with some new additions.

Leading shared services, Hodges Bethge oversees safety, security and environment, risk management, supply chain, port operations, workplace solutions, travel services and crew movement.

The versatile 14-year company veteran — who's held a variety of roles corporately and within the Royal Caribbean International brand — had been overseeing customer experience/product development as SVP at Royal Caribbean International until March 2020 when the pandemic forced a pause in many capital investments.

Perfect Day at CocoCay accomplishment

A proud accomplishment was overseeing the development of Perfect Day at CocoCay, 'one of the most challenging and amazing experiences in my career,' Hodges Bethge said, and a 'collaboration across multiple departments. It really transformed our destination experience and is part of the reason our guests are coming to us.' Perfect Day is the company's top-rated destination globally.

With capital investments on hold, during the pandemic Hodges Bethge pitched in on shared services. She was heavily involved in crew repatriation, helping get tens of thousands of seafarers home from ships all over the world — an incredibly complex undertaking at a time when many borders were closed. She also helped with the mobilization of COVID-19 testing in ports, a key to the company's healthy return to service.

These efforts led into her appointment as SVP shared services operations for Royal Caribbean Group in December 2020, which blossomed into an expanded EVP position reporting directly to new CEO Jason Liberty this year. She is said to be one of his most trusted team members; she first worked for him as VP investor relations when Liberty was CFO.

Supply chain challenges

In the supply chain area, 'Everything is percolating,' Hodges Bethge said.

There are shortages based on pandemic-induced labor scarcity. Some plants have shut down. Pandemic recovery is fueling inflation. And Russia's war in Ukraine has sent fuel prices soaring and sparked shortages of commodities like soybeans and wheat. Essential items like marine lubricants are also in short supply.

To cope, the company has become more flexible and agile.

'We had to shift our way of purchasing. Given inflation, we are doing more short-term purchasing,' Hodges Bethge said. And 'If we can't get quite what we need, we have to find different suppliers.' Expanding the supplier base, she added, should be beneficial long-term.

Despite all the challenges, 'We have been able to make sure our ships are stocked. We had to change tactics,' but not the onboard product offering.

Reporting to Hodges Bethge is James Wells, the company's new chief supply chain officer who just joined from Nestlé.

Getting crew 'travel ready'

When it comes to crew movement and travel services, Hodges Bethge's stayed close to the teams she worked with during the pandemic repatriation mission. Carlos Garcia is VP travel services, and Tanay Alonso is AVP, HR global operations.

'Our crew are the lifeblood of everything we do,' Hodges Bethge said, and making the onboarding process as seamless as possible for them is 'really important.' Getting crew visas remains 'very challenging.' Everything is backlogged — visas and passports.

Employing crew from many countries means navigating the myriad and changing rules of countries from the Philippines to India to the UK, including all the different COVID testing requirements.

The process is 'really prolonged,' though 'definitely better' than it was. Still, some seafarers have to overstay their normal contracts and it can take three months to get a crew member 'travel ready' now. 'In this landscape, we have to be very agile,' Hodges Bethge said.

Port operations

Led by company veteran Capt. Hernan Zini, VP worldwide port operations, this area has been on a 'very interesting ride the last two years as we got back into business with new health protocols,' Hodges Bethge summed up.

'We pride ourselves in "car to bar" in less than 10 minutes,' she said. Due to COVID protocols, that time stretched — in the beginning, it was 30 minutes, and longer for unvaccinated passengers who had to take a PCR test.

'We're back to 12.5 to 13 minutes and working it down,' Hodges Bethge said, adding: 'I'm super proud of the teams. Now testing is down to a science.' It's all a digital process and 'working well.'

Things are in constant flux — though mostly for the better now.

'It's all trending in the right direction,' Hodges Bethge said. 'One month ago we were very concerned about Europe because rules were so drastically different [from country to country].' But things are getting more uniform so she's 'really, really optimistic.

'Every country is making a concerted effort to open borders as [COVID] case counts are coming down,' she said.

Italy, for example, is letting up on restrictions. And Canada just a few days ago removed COVID testing for fully vaccinated travelers starting in April so this takes away what would have been a chore for Alaska cruises sailing around-trip Seattle; before this, all travelers would have needed to be tested before arriving at Victoria, BC, mid-cruise.

Workplace solutions

This area of oversight deals with facilities around the world. Recently the UK team moved into new, more modern office space in Weybridge. And the PortMiami complex has been remodeled to make 'more modern, collaborative spaces.'

In all Royal Caribbean Group offices, there's been an effort to create more 'inspiring' surroundings.

'We want to make sure we're keeping everyone in touch with the product,' Hodges Bethge explained. So offices sport images of Perfect Day at CocoCay, the Celebrity Edge-class Magic Carpet and Royal Caribbean's Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slides at sea.

Currently the goal is to get everyone back to the office. A new schedule has employees in the office Monday through Thursday and working from home Friday. The Miramar facility reopened, and the 'new technology' team — e-commerce and digital — is at a temporary offsite location on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard.

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Construction on the new headquarters is to start by end 2024

New PortMiami headquarters back on track

Royal Caribbean's new PortMiami headquarters were put on hold due to the pandemic. The company has renegotiated with Miami-Dade County and now is committed to build by the end of 2024.

Cesar Colls is director of facilities management; he joined in November 2020.

Safety, security, environment and risk management

New areas for Hodges Bethge include environment and risk management oversight. Since her operations experience involved marine hotel matters, though, she's attuned to 'ways to keep our crew safe,' which is at the root of mitigating risk. Mario Rodriguez reports to her as VP risk management.

Environment includes Royal Caribbean's WWF partnership and matters related to carbon reduction. In these areas, Hodges Bethge and her team work closely with Silvia Garrigo, chief environmental, social and governance officer, and Harri Kulovaara, EVP maritime, who's critical to achieving the company's ambitious goal of a net-zero carbon ship by 2035. Together with Liberty, they're all on the company's ESG committee.

Safety and security have been 'exceptionally well-run for a long time. They're our top priority, along with the envrionment,' Hodges Bethge said. 'Nothng is drastically changing that. We just have to stay focused and meeting the very high standards we set.'

Company veteran Eddie Segev was recently promoted to from VP to SVP safety, security and environmental stewardship.

Within the shared services group, Hodges Bethge also has a vertical addressing strategy, technology and analytics, helping everyone to work more collaboratively, she said.

Look for Laura Hodges Bethge as one of '10 to watch' across the cruise industry in a feature in Seatrade Cruise Review, the official publication of Seatrade Cruise Global in April.

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