Business Monday

For Nick Weir, cruise entertainment is family business

Nick Weir seems to have been born for his job as vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International.

The 44-year-old is the son of two former cruise ship entertainers: His father, Leonard, was a stage actor and singer who went on to become a cruise director, and his mother, Beverley, also sang.

Nick and his brother Simon (now director of hotel operations for Royal Caribbean International) traveled with their parents, attending school on ships and “constantly bumping into dancers in feather costumes.”

Weir never expected to follow in his parents’ footsteps; instead, he considered a career in marine biology, which brought him to the University of Miami. That’s when he found the lure of a paycheck — and the industry he knew so well — was too strong to resist.

After first working as an audio-visual operator for Costa Cruises, he took other behind-the-scenes jobs handling sound and light, and then moved to the activities side. He worked briefly as a ship’s photographer and hotel director, but he enjoyed the role of cruise director most.

While working on his skills in front of the television camera, which became an essential way to communicate with guests on board, Weir was offered a job hosting and writing for the British game show Catchphrase. He did that for a couple of years before starting a consulting practice in Las Vegas in 2003, where he helped Celebrity Cruises (owned by parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.) develop entertainment for the Solstice class of ships.

Weir was hired as vice president for entertainment at Royal Caribbean International in September. The Miami-based cruise line is known for its Broadway shows at sea as well as ice skating performances, water spectacles and, on the soon-to-launch Quantum class, a new type of venue featuring giant screens controlled by robotic arms.

During an interview in his office at Royal Caribbean’s Miami headquarters, Weir talked about his family history, the challenges of his job and the cruise ship show he still travels to see.

Q. Did you ever expect that that would end up being your line of work as well? Did it seem inevitable at any point?

A. No, it didn’t. ... When your parents are in show business, you don’t want to do that. You want to do something else. You always want to do the opposite. So I really had no interest in it.

Q. So what brought you back , what brought you around full circle?

A. Two things at once: I was at the University of Miami and like any student, I was running out of money, so I needed to get a job fast. So because of the connections my dad had in the cruise industry, I went on cruise ships and did jobs. My first job in the cruise industry was in the a/v department, lights and sound.

Something had already happened to me: I remember doing a presentation at UM, it was part of a course I was on, and it required a 30-minute presentation. And I remember getting laughs. And I remember doing 25 minutes of standup and five minutes of biology. When you hear 1,000 people really laughing, you get hooked on it. I actually ended up going into performance. It’s only in the last 15, 10 years that I’ve been on the production side and on the management side. The first part of my career was actually as a performer.

Q. What are some of the biggest evolutions or changes that you’ve seen from when you were a kid to now?

A. There’s two big changes — the second one is technology and we’ll talk about that in a second — but first, when cruising first started, entertainment was an afterthought. It was a small part of the experience. ... I’m now heading up one of the biggest entertainment operations on the planet. Because entertainment is a huge part of any cruise; it’s particularly huge at Royal Caribbean and we’ve got 21 ships. I also oversee the Azamara fleet, so that’s 23 ships. So it’s become a massive player in worldwide entertainment. As you can see, Broadway are on board with us. This is a partnership that they relish as much as we do. It’s not a buyer’s market, it’s an equal market. We both want to do business together.

The quality of entertainers now are entertainers that work in Vegas when they’re not working with us. So we’re now a worldwide global player and that’s not where the cruise industry started.

Q. And how has technology changed what you can do?

A. Because one of the big competitive edges in the cruise industry between companies is newness, every time a new ship comes out we tend to always have the latest technology. Whatever is the latest technology available, it’s on board our ship. So for that reason, compared to anywhere in the world, Vegas included but particularly London theaters and New York theaters, we’re always right at the front of the curve of entertainment technology. Because if it exists and it’s a month old, it’s on board our ships. So we get to play with all the new toys.

But in Quantum class particularly, we’ve actually gone out and come up with technology that isn’t even existing on land. So we’re really taking a new step. Quantum class is the first time I’ve been involved in producing entertainment that’s a first not just in the cruise industry but worldwide.

Q. And what specifically is that?

A. The 270º room. The 270 is a theater at the back end of the ship. And there is some technology in there that is revolutionary: the Vistarama, which is a huge projection surface that is 150 feet wide. …

And then we’ve also got these robots. … You can manipulate video any way you want. But then if you can also manipulate the screen it’s playing on in three-dimensional space, you really can play with people’s minds. So that’s really exciting. And then if you put the two together, and then you get someone like Kristin Chenoweth as an entertainment advisor, who comes in and makes sure that we don’t forget the soul — because that’s a danger when you get very technological, you can become cold. But she’s an incredibly soulful performer, so her input to our program has been to keep it soulful and loving and human.

Q. What are the challenges of coming up with something new?

A. That’s one of the things with Quantum: We needed to make sure that we kept our core values and our root entertainment offerings in place. And so Mamma Mia! is an evolution of Broadway. The other show, Sonic Odyssey, is an evolution of our signature shows. So these things are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And then you get to 270, and I think it’s probably because of our chairman Richard Fain and how he embraces technology, he has made sure that we’re fully loaded. And so the technology actually is able to drive our creativity. And that’s the way it has been. When you look at six great big robot screens, you are very challenged by how you’re going to make those into something. So we went around the world and looked for producers and content creators that could partner up with us to make sure that we could deliver on the promise. But in this case ... the technology really asked us some questions.

Q. What have you found that has always been a hit with passengers? What’s a surefire way to be a crowd pleaser?

A. The thing that we get to do with our guests is we have them for longer than anyone else does. Even in a Vegas resort, the front door is open.

But a cruise line — we build a community over the length of a cruise. ... Anytime we can drive the community together, that’s all activities are. They’re just an excuse to get people in the same room. You know what the activity is, that could be important. Sometimes we’ve got a humdinger of an activity; people get lost in it. But it’s really just about getting those people together to react together. And if you’re a really good activities staff person, by the end of that activity, you’ve taken yourself out and it’s a self-sustaining reaction. It’s really all about that, it’s about the community. That’s what a cruise has got that no one else has got. And that’s probably the thing that we’re most challenged to keep. And that’s what people like Kristin, for example, help us with, because they’re soulful. So it’s important that people shed a tear when they walk down the gangway at the end of a cruise. If they don’t, we’ve missed.

Q. I know that some of your competitors have really focused on entertainment as well. Carnival launched its concert series, Norwegian has its Broadway shows. Is it a challenge to always stay ahead of the pack or at least try to position yourself ahead of the pack?

A. I’ve got to be careful how I frame this, because it really isn’t a challenge. We’ve got so much variety and we’re so rich with ideas and we’ve got such an engaged crew list that it’s surprisingly easy. And we’ve got great guests so the whole thing just works. I mean, we do ice shows. And once you’re done with the ice, we let the ice melt, you walk outside and see an aqua show. When you’re done with that, you can go and do a bit of rock climbing. On Quantum, you can free-parachute, free-fall, then you can go and see a Broadway show, and then you can go and see a show where six robots are dancing. Where’s the competition?

I’d like to make everyone feel better at Carnival that I sweat buckets. ... Our guests keep us honest, not other cruise lines.

Q. Do you have a favorite cruise destination?

A. I do. St. Thomas. It’s probably because of my roots, because I lived there once. As a cruise director, I remember, whenever I saw St. Thomas on a run, I knew that was going to be a great day for the guests. It’s dependable.

Q. What’s the best thing you ever saw, entertainment-wise, on a cruise?

A. Our treatment of Saturday Night Fever is unbelievable [on Liberty of the Seas]. We were able to play with it a little bit and it’s a slightly shorter version than the original, and it’s just magnificent. In fact, it’s so impressive to me that we have a production facility here in Hollywood, and every time it does its studio run — they do a run-through before they ship out to the ship — I get in my car and go up and watch it. It’s so clever.

Q. You’ve come up with all of these features for Quantum, and it’ll be in North America for a little while and then switches to china. So do you have to redo everything or just make some small tweaks?

A. The great thing is we create our entertainment from the beginning for human beings. And the Chinese are humans, so most of it will be exactly where it needs to be. There are some linguistic issues, which we have to make sure that we are conscious of. Digital signage is a big thing... we’ve got to figure out how to do that in full Mandarin. But the core entertainment, what’s beautiful, spectacular and impressive to one person is the same to another. So I will be making a trip out to China in the next couple of months, cruising, just to make sure that I have a really good feel for what the Chinese love and make sure we’ve got plenty of that. But the core principles are going to be fine.