Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last week I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to attend CES (formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show), the world's largest trade show. I was going to hear Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald give a keynote about Ocean Medallion, a wearable token that performs a range of functions, from room key to onboard currency.

But it does much more than these somewhat utilitarian functions. It follows a guest's movement through the ship so that, for instance, guests' cabin lights and air conditioning will turn on as Bluetooth sensors track their progress down a hallway toward their room. Or, knowing your location and having access to your photo, a server can bring food to you anywhere on a ship.

As I was thinking about this, Sting's voice came over the car speaker: "Every step you take, I'll be watching you."

Although that song has plenty of menace behind the lyrics, the Carnival initiative is aimed at improving guest experiences. Even so, it's hard not to think about privacy issues when new technologies are introduced that are, in words used by a Carnival spokesperson to describe Medallion's functionality, "persistent."

My first meeting in Las Vegas was with Shelly Palmer, a technology consultant whose daily newsletter I find to be persistently insightful.

Ocean Medallion and its associated app, Ocean Compass, he said, are part of a paradigm shift that will soon become table stakes in every area of the travel industry because these systems provide multiple benefits to both hosts and guests.

Privacy concerns about trusted brands using data that they collect don't, for the moment, appear to be a major issue for consumers, he said. They're still willing to agree to accept the myriad ways a company can forage their observed or deduced preferences in exchange for access to entertainment, information, goods or services. Palmer does think that in the future there could be a reckoning in the form of a hack or malevolent use of data that will change public perceptions about privacy issues.

Carnival has emphasized that the medallion itself contains no data, and Donald told me that if there is a privacy concern, guests can opt out of the program.

"The line between 'cool' and 'creepy' is personal," Palmer said. "It's not the same for everyone. You can draw the line where you want, and that line can move."

As long as the use of data and Bluetooth sensors that track movement are deployed in the service of guest satisfaction, it can be a beautiful thing, Palmer believes.

"Travel is a logical place to start, and the concept is clear: People are paying for experiences, and your job is to provide experiences. You want to know how people are experiencing your destination, whatever that is, and what can make it better," he said.

Palmer made a plea to those who exploit data without the goal of refining experiences and setting new standards: "Please don't. Just stop. If people get it right, it can revolutionize the industry. If they get it wrong, it can set it back 20 years."

At CES, Carnival Corp. and Princess, the line that will debut Medallion, were focused on showcasing the physical medallion itself and how it enables a better experience. Princess president Jan Swartz gave me a great example of its benefits: Currently, if you and your significant other are watching a sunset at a railing and it occurs to you how nice it would be to have Champagne at that moment, one of you would have to leave and get it. With Medallion, it can be summoned to you.

Palmer noted that what's revolutionary about this and similar initiatives (other cruise lines have guest technology offering some of the functionality of Medallion) is what goes on behind the scenes.

"The physical medallion interface and sensors are less interesting than the data set, the way that data is used and how we evolve as a society," he said. "Data is more powerful in the presence of other data [and with systems such as Medallion], you can go from data poor to data rich quickly."

But the data analysis is only useful in the presence of business goals.

"If a machine is looking at this data under a supervised set of rules, or even looks for patterns in unstructured data, you can increase sales," he said. In addition to providing ways to reduce friction, he suggested, "data may also reveal that, for example, people who buy 50 SPF sunscreen are also likely to buy a kale salad."

That knowledge plays into the paradigm shift that is changing the landscape in everything from retail to education: the move from active engagement to passive engagement. For example, on a cruise ship, rather than putting a tent card on the nightstand offering every guest 50% off a second massage, the knowledge gained from systems like Medallion enables targeted, location-sensitive and customized offers based on what the system knows about the guest.

Palmer emphasized that these are early days.

"I don't know how this plays out," he said. "This is where you learn -- build, test and learn. If you approach this like a student, you'll have a great experience and be part of the discovery process. If you don't, you won't."

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