TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
Cruise lines often list food, entertainment, personal service, a nautical experience and colorful destinations as key reasons to sail. Now, they’re experimenting with personalization as an addition to the portfolio, investing millions of dollars on gear that very few customers as yet are demanding.
If the cruise lines are right, they’ll have an inside track on luring a younger generation of global traveler, a cohort that is said to value experiences over things and is willing to spend its first earned dollars on seeing the world.
If they’re wrong, they will have squandered time, money and publicity on a passing fad.
“We definitely spent a lot of capital, more than most other companies would have invested,” said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, who put his company’s entry in the tech derby, the OceanMedallion, front and center by launching it in a keynote address at the 2017 CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.
“We have to experience it for a while. It’s still at the baby stage,” Donald said of the rollout of the OceanMedallion on Princess Cruises, adding that at this point, many guests aren’t fully aware of what they can do with it.
‘We think we’re onto something. The guests will tell us if we are or not.’
“We think we’re onto something,” he said. “The guests will tell us if we are or not. It’s not necessary that we have it, but if we do have it, we think it can be, longer term, a positive differentiator.”
Call it personalization. Call it digital wayfinding. Call it a pacifier for the on-demand generation. Call it what you will, but the biggest companies in the cruise industry are all pursuing a personal digital strategy with competitive zeal.
Beyond Carnival’s wonder gadget, there are several other personalization initiatives at major brands. MSC Cruises is regularly adding elements to its MSC for Me package. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) has its bundle of technologies that goes by the name Excalibur. And Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, although late out of the gate, is positioning its Cruise Freedom as more than an also-ran.
On a recent investment conference call, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CFO Mark Kempa reported, “We are making investments slowly but surely.”
For travel advisors, personalization technologies are a double-edged sword. On one hand, advisors must learn and explain new and complex systems to answer clients’ questions and sell the features. But the technologies promise to take some of the work out of cruising, for example by easing embarkation and making onboard activity reservations simpler.
And cruise executives say it will deliver a new clientele: tech users who haven’t before considered cruising.
MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato said that agents “will be able to attract segments of guests who are more keen on technologies, and they want to experience this kind of technology while being on the ship.”
Advisors ‘will be able to attract segments of guests who are more keen on technologies.’
Cruise lines hope to strike gold with digital natives who are comfortable with technology and expect to use it in daily transactions. That group comprises a new generation of cruiser who lives in an on-demand world that gets food delivered by GrubHub, orders movies on Netflix, is chauffeured by Uber and gets instant answers 24/7 on Google. They might hail a digital assistant to check the weather or play e-games in groups scattered across cities, countries or continents.
Many won’t move to the slow lane simply because they’re on vacation. Or on a ship.
Over the past decade, the continued advance of technologies such as high-speed internet, global positioning, cloud storage and artificial intelligence have led to a different way of living for many digital natives.
Big cruise companies see opportunity in catering to that lifestyle, and they fear the danger of writing it off.
Carnival’s bet on OceanMedallion as the cornerstone of its technology platform is starting to become reality on Princess Cruises, where four ships in the Caribbean will be offering Medallions to guests this year.
The technology enables guests, after security scans, to step aboard a ship with a wave of a passport and to open their cabin doors without carrying a key. In one of the most useful applications, passengers on Princess are now ordering food and drinks that find them wherever they are on a ship.
John Padgett, Carnival’s chief experience and innovation officer, said, “We’re turning the model upside down. On cruise ships, typically you’re moving to the location where you want to be served.”
Padgett, who previously worked at Disney on its MagicBand program and is the brains behind the OceanMedallion, said food and drink were the easiest items to undertake initially, but the platform can potentially be used to order any service, such as a massage.
“So, I’m on the deck and I want a massage,” Padgett said. “Instead of going to the spa and making an appointment, I can go ahead and order a massage on demand to this location with a portable table.”
But service delivery is only one of the functions enabled by the wearable Medallion. Others work in tandem with smartphone apps or interactive portals in public areas of the ship.
There are game apps, such as a scavenger hunt that sends guests from portal to portal. Several casino games, such as slots or keno, can be played from the portal or through the app, with real winnings and losses.
Because they are worn, Medallions enable location tracking for members of a cruise group through the OceanCompass app, which also enables digital wayfinding throughout the ship. Group members can chat with each other through the app, even if they decline to buy an internet package.
Other cruise lines are working on some of the same functions but using different approaches. At MSC Cruises, for example, frictionless embarkation is enabled through QR codes on smartphones, the same approach used by airlines.
Onorato called it “a huge step ahead, because we are all used to it from taking a flight.”
Another feature of MSC for Me that is common to a lot of lines is dynamic wayfinding, a system that shows graphically on screens and through step-by-step directions how guests can get to where they want to go.
Some functions are unique to particular brands. So far, MSC is the only line to develop a voice-activated personal digital assistant similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri.
MSC’s assistant, Zoe, has been programmed with 800 answers to questions that cruise passengers are likely to pose. It can answer in seven languages, including Mandarin, a key benefit for MSC, which has an international clientele. It also utilizes artificial intelligence, enabling it to learn over time.
The goal is to free guests from boring tasks and from waiting to talk to people to get information.
“If you are queuing up for one hour in front of the front desk to get an answer to a question which could be easily [resolved] while you are in the cabin — this has been the foundation of what we are designing,” Onorato said.
For now, Zoe is only on MSC’s newest ship, the Bellissima, with other ships set to receive it over time.
At RCCL, continuous innovation is a mantra. The company has shifted the platform for its technology package from the wearable Wow bands of several years ago to Excalibur, which is based on smartphones, which RCCL says are ubiquitous, flexible and less expensive than proprietary systems.
Excalibur’s key functions so far are frictionless check-in, luggage tracking, the ability to open cabin doors and text fellow passengers as well as answer questions that might otherwise go to the guest services desk.
On some ships, such as the Celebrity Edge, guests can use voice commands to turn cabin lights off and close shades by simply saying, “Computer, good night.” A “good morning” command will turn lights back on and open the shades. Passengers can also control the lighting, temperature and shades with smartphones.
Excalibur is at different stages on different ships, so some guests might experience several functions while others get fewer. One push is for the function that enables passengers to book onboard activities and shore excursions in advance.
Jason Liberty, the CFO at RCCL, said, “As we know, if we can get the consumer to book ahead of the cruise, we also are able to get them to spend when they’re on the ship. So those capabilities will be coming online through the course of 2019, but I would expect more of a full-year impact in 2020.”
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cruise Freedom is a guest experience platform being developed jointly with tech company DeCurtis Corp. Not much information about it has been forthcoming so far.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ Kempa said in a February investor call. He said the technology will involve wearables and will make its debut on the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Encore, which is to be delivered this fall.
‘We’re playing catch-up. We are making investments slowly but surely.’
One trend all cruise lines are looking to address with technology is the increasing size of ships, which is making onboard navigation harder to master within the sometimes-short window of a cruise.
One goal is to enable guests to quickly find activities and amenities that are personally important, while being able to ignore the rest. Another is for guests to feel like individuals and not just numbers in a sea of people.
Not having guests get lost when moving from their cabins to their chosen activity is another challenge on ships that are increasingly being built in the 4,000- to 6,000-passenger category. Personalization technology helps ease all of those issues.
Other segments of hospitality are fast at work on virtual concierges, digital room keys, voice-activated room controls, biometric check-ins and checkouts and other technology-driven improvements.
Cruise lines say that if nothing else, they have to keep pace to preserve cruising’s share of the vacation dollar.
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said, “Consumers are getting accustomed to a level of personalized service … that we have to stay competitive with.”
‘Consumers are getting accustomed to a level of personalized service.’
Giving the crew a means to personalize every interaction could tip the balance toward cruise, Swartz said, adding, “It is that difference that is going to drive greater and greater conversion to cruise as a vacation alternative, when we can deliver a level of personalized, attentive service that you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.”
At times, the rhetoric can get ahead of the reality. On a recent cruise to demonstrate the technology for reporters on the Caribbean Princess, many of the 3,000 paying passengers aboard seemed only mildly interested in the OceanMedallion. Some were more intent on enjoying the traditional cruise amenities.
And even for executives, some of the personalization functions seem mundane. Donald said he badgered Padgett to stop spending so much money on getting the OceanMedallion to open cabin doors. “It’s a nice gimmick, but nobody cares,” he recalled telling Padgett, though he eventually authorized the spending to make it happen.
Donald said he was proven wrong when guests started commenting on how much they liked it.
“They don’t have to worry about fooling with the door,” he said. “It’s one of the No. 1 things.”
Donald also said he was wrong about the level of privacy concerns that would be triggered by the tracking and preference-collecting functions of the Medallion.
“I thought we’d have hundreds and hundreds of people say, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not touching it’ on every given cruise,” Donald said.
In actual experience, no more than a half-dozen people opt out per cruise, he said.
Donald said that like any technology, the more passengers and travel advisors use it, play with it, have success with it and tell their friends and colleagues about it, the more comfortable they will become.
“It’s so different, and it’s so out of most people’s experience, that it’s hard to articulate it, and even if you capture it on video, it’s not quite the same,” he said. “You can see all kinds of cool features, but you don’t really know what that means unless you’re living it in real time. So it is a challenge.”
Donald said media reports and travel advisor recommendations will help promote understanding.
“But what’s really going to drive it,” Donald said, “is when people get off the ship and go and tell their colleagues and family members, ‘I just had an unbelievable experience. You have to try this.’ And that’s really what’s going to do it.”