Grant Van Ulbrich remembers his first experience on a ship like it was yesterday.

But it wasn’t a luxury liner that made the cruise industry veteran fall in love with life at sea — it was a naval ship.

Van Ulbrich served in the Navy during the Persian Gulf War, and for the Kansas native, leaving the Midwest behind to work alongside a group of people from all different backgrounds in an intimate space like a ship was exciting. It was a special time for Van Ulbrich — one in which he thought he learned everything there was to learn about diversity.

And then he stepped foot on his first cruise ship.

(above: Van Ulbrich serving in the Navy)

“I remember when I walked on board my very first Celebrity cruise ship,” Van Ulbrich said in an interview with GayTravel.com. “That day I met my first Serbian.  He was 7 feet tall. I’d never seen anyone like him. He figured out fairly quickly that I was gay, and that just wasn’t OK in Serbia. They stone you in the streets for that. He hated me.”

But cruise life being what it is, Van Ulbrich and the Serbian straight man spent every day for the next four months working alongside each other. And at the end of the four months, when the contract ended and it was time for everyone to go home, Van Ulbrich broke down. He ran up to his Serbian friend, threw his arms around him and started to cry – not exactly the goodbye the Serbian was expecting.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Why are you crying?’ I told him I loved him — he’d become such an important friend to me. And he looked at me and he said, ‘you don’t understand. You’ve changed my life. Now I have to go back to Serbia and tell people, gay is OK.’”

That was more than 10 years ago. This summer, Van Ulbrich is going to Serbia for the first time for a two week vacation with his Serbian friend. That’s the extraordinary impact cruises can have on people — cruising brings people together, Van Ulbrich says. That experience was also the first of many that have prepared him for his new position with Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.

Starting this May, Van Ulbrich will begin serving as the company’s first Director of Diversity and Inclusion with a focus on all minority groups – in particular, the LGBT community. It’s a coming out party of sorts – Van Ulbrich’s second but the company’s first. Though Royal Caribbean has long been committed to its LGBT employees and client base, in his new position, Van Ulbrich says he will officially be leading the company out of the corporate closet and sending a message to travelers all over the world.

“We’re you, we’re the same,” he says. “When you come on board, you can feel at home and be yourself. You have a strong LGBT ally in Royal Caribbean.”

After nearly 8 years working for Royal Caribbean in a variety of positions — most recently, he served as Associate Vice President overseeing Onboard Revenue and Sales — this latest position is a huge turning point for Van Ulbrich.

Just a few weeks ago, he set up a meeting with Royal Caribbean Chief HR Officer Paul Parker to discuss what he refers to as “making my dream come true.”

“I told him, ‘a lot of corporations are starting to have Chief Diversity Officers and I think that could be a huge benefit to our company.’ I figured not only could I help champion our LGBT guests, I could help us be the first cruise line to be that family support for LGBT clients. I thought we should be the ones to stand up and say, ‘come home to us, we’ll be your family.’”

Parker listened, and then he told Van Ulbrich to turn around and look at the whiteboard on the wall. Written on it? “Hire diversity.”

“I think I just found him,” Parker said.

Van Ulbrich and fellow crew members having a good time onboard a Royal Caribbean cruise.

(above: Van Ulbrich and fellow crew members having a good time onboard a Royal Caribbean cruise.)

Though Van Ulbrich is brand new to the position, his head is already swimming with ideas. First and foremost comes training and education — from employee research groups to manuals and protocols, Van Ulbrich wants to make Royal Caribbean a better place to work — one that makes it clear that every single employee is valued equally.

“I want Royal Caribbean to come out screaming — like your first Pride, where all you want to do is celebrate and tell it to the world.”

Not that Royal Caribbean hasn’t long celebrated the LGBT community. Same-sex weddings and ceremonies have been performed on Royal Caribbean’s fleet of ships since long before it was legalized in all 50 states. In the crew section of the ship, they’ve even held impromptu gay pride parades for LGBT members of the staff. Fortunately, Van Ulbrich says, this is "very normal onboard as Royal Caribbean celebrates all nationalities and all persons. It’s like a floating United Nations where peace is really possible."

And as for LGBT guests feeling welcome on board? In a previous role with the company, Van Ulbrich served as a Guest Relations Manager, a job he compares to a high school principal. If there’s an incident between guests, he sits them down and helps them arrive at a resolution.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, people behave and they work it out because they’re on a cruise and they want to be there. My job is to help them communicate because most of the time, when there’s conflict, it’s because of an absence of communication.”

In that rare instance when there isn’t a resolution — in other words, if a passenger were to discriminate against another passenger and make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe — Van Ulbrich says the existing company policy is clear.

“We accept zero discrimination in any way shape or form. We just don’t tolerate it and if you do it onboard our ship, you can get off — at your expense. We don’t need you on board.”

This new role will not only be about LGBT equality, but equality and support for everyone.  Every branch the company operates will encompass Diversity and Inclusion for employees and for guests. 

“I want to ensure all our brands, at sea and on land, recruits, trains, promotes, rewards and recognizes everyone — people of color, veterans, minorities, women, persons with disabilities, LGBT and all nationalities on an equal basis.” Van Ulbrich says he’s “very proud we already do celebrate equality, both for our employees and our guests.”

The next several months promise to be a lot of work for Van Ulbrich, but it’s work he’s excited about. In a news landscape that sees states like North Carolina and Mississippi passing laws making it legal to discriminate against LGBT people, he says this job and its responsibilities are very personal to him. And while it isn’t Royal Caribbean’s policy to engage in political discourse, he says with him overseeing diversity and inclusion, when you sail on any of the ships under the Royal Caribbean brand, “you’ll know our stance.”

As Pride Month nears, Van Ulbrich is most excited to see guests onboard
Royal Caribbean’s ships have a good time and celebrate inclusion. Cruises, he says, bring people together and break down borders. And in addition to the grand plan for
Royal Caribbean to lead the cruise industry charge in standing behind the LGBT community, it’s also an opportunity for Van Ulbrich to fully realize his career potential.  

“This is a life long journey for me as well too, coming from the Midwest. I never thought I’d be influencing a major corporation to support me or people like me. I’m proud of who we are as a company, and I can’t wait to share that with people.

(above: Grant Van Ulbrich)

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