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No longer plain sailing: The cruise ship industry is on course for a wave of tech innovation, from robotic bartenders to smart check-in

Shifting consumer behaviour has led to a tidal wave of digital innovation, and now smart technology has the potential to disrupt a candidate unlikely for transformation – the cruise ship industry.

Remember when cruise ships were all about buffet foods, bingo, cabaret singing, incredible looking water slides and lectures from marine biologists?

The truth is, they’ve always been about much more and there are a lot of different cruises out there. But the perception of cruise holidays doesn’t fall far from that, even to this day, despite the fact they are undergoing something of a transformation.

Big cruise businesses like SixthMan, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean are partnering with music labels and acts such as Major Lazer’s label Mad Decent and Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley. And with time to kill while you are at sea, why not have a full-on party to Diplo or Toots and the Maytals? It sure beats doing the same in a muddy field in the UK.

The next shift in cruise holiday future-proofing is much bigger than entertainment, however, and involves millions of pounds of investment in hardware and software as innovation starts to become a brand differentiator.

For Frank Gillett, Forrester Research’s vice-president and principal analyst serving chief information officers, this digital transition for cruise businesses is ripe with opportunity, akin to what’s happening at amusement parks where Disney is the innovator.

“It’s a designed experience and it is contained, like an amusement park. The Disney Magic Band is designed like that too. You control the entire space and have the ability to design experience into space with sensors, etc,” he says.

“But because cruise ships have existed for decades, it is hard to go back and retrofit them. It’s an expensive proposition as they have to be designed at the start or be part of a major refit; you don’t casually add this on with cheap technology.”

MSC Cruises last month announced a major partnership with Samsung to provide smart tech, alongside a new brand positioning that intends to reflect its investment in innovative experiences. And, as Gillett says, it’s not cheap. The cost per ship to update the technology in order to host a tech-enhanced Cirque Du Soleil show is £20m.

Royal Caribbean is another brand taking tech to the high seas. Its ship Quantum of the Seas boasts robotic bartenders (pictured), while two new ships due to set sail in the coming years will be similarly equipped with AI-powered 3D experiences and robotic servers. It also has a team of engineers, analysts and ‘why not’ creatives charged with seeing this vision through.

Stuart Leven, the managing director for the UK and Ireland at Royal Caribbean International, says: “Our aim is to keep one step ahead of expectations so we’re at the forefront of what’s possible at sea. Cruise lines are leading the way with digital technology as we aim to create the ultimate holiday experience for our guests. When you have a captive audience, the onus is on you to keep guests entertained and make their holiday as extraordinary as possible.”

Like Royal Caribbean, MSC’s Samsung deal also means upgrades to the fleet and new ships, with consumer-facing tech being added such as screens, mobile and tablet technology. But it also means a significant upgrade to its ‘back-end’ services, such as medical and operations technology, to make the ships more ‘frictionless’.

“It’s about choice and removing friction,” says Riccardo Casalino, chief marketing officer at MSC, who cites the ease of Uber as an example of how consumer expectations have changed. “You can call a cab by pushing a button on Uber. More people prefer to push a button on an app and not worry about getting out money – it is tidy and polite.”

The quest to remove friction is shared by Royal Caribbean, which is using mobile technology to ensure check-ins are seamless.

Leven says: “We offer smart check-in where our staff are ready to expedite guest boarding using iPads and RFID tracking, which means that guests can monitor the progress of their luggage from check-in to its arrival at their stateroom.”

Forrester has researched the impact of smart technology on different parts of the travel industry, but, specifically, Gillett has looked into the tracking of luggage. He believes something as simple as offering this technology could create a premium feel to travel brands, increasing spend and loyalty.

“I found myself thinking, when I looked at the Adelphi Pluggage and several other smart suitcase examples, that, because you track as an individual rather than piggyback off the apps on cellphones [like startups like The Tile do], you are asked to pay a monthly fee to track – what a pain,” he says.

“I fly 100,000 miles a year – why not give me luggage tracking like that for free? It makes you rethink the experience and who would pay for it,” adds Gillett.

One of the main priorities for MSC is around loyalty and converting people into regular cruise goers and Casalino believes using smart technology to power personalisation is one way to do it.

Elsewhere in smart travel

It’s not just cruise ships that offer the perfect vessel for innovation. Technology is set to shake up the future of travel in a number of different ways.

Airbnb and Lapka

Last year Airbnb surprised us all when it bought Russian smart sensor business Lapka. The environmental sensor monitors things like humidity levels and even radiation. The link between the businesses even seems to bemuse Lapka, whose chief executive wrote on its site: “What we’re capable of building together is beyond explanation, so let’s leave that for later news. The future is long.”

Delsey Pluggage and The Tile

Tracking luggage is an obvious application for luggage and is fast becoming something major brands are looking to as a value add. Two brands to watch are Delsey’s Pluggage product, which is fitted into the luggage, and The Tile, a device that piggybacks off its own bluetooth network of app users.

Easyjet Mobile Host

In the air travel space, easyJet launched a new tool alongside Gatwick Airport and Google. Within the app you can sign up for real-time information about flights and even be directed to your gate in the fastest time using real-time airport data and Google’s indoor maps.

OneGo

A new app is claiming to rethink the way flights are booked by offering a Netflix-style subscription service for air travel. OneGo, currently only available in the US, allows users to book unlimited flights for a flat monthly fee, and have up to four reservations open at any one time.

“We already have some opportunities to personalise and one area is communication. Around 45 per cent of guests have never been on a cruise ship before – they are in need of tailored information. We need to make the experience better, not clutter guests with useless information,” says Casalino.

According to Casalino, the screens on ships are used to inform people of excursions, trips and itineraries. The future, he believes, is using customer data and preferences to enhance this even further.

“Personalisation is definitely one of our areas of focus, in full compliance with regulation and in line with what customers want,” he adds.

Being in line with customers is key. The demographic of cruise goers is getting younger, and with that becoming more accepting of personalisation, handing over data and using smart technology. However, cruises do still over-index to an older age of customers and privacy is a fine line too easily crossed.

Forrester looks at the readiness for this technology in terms of demographics via its ‘Mobile Mindshift’ research. “Certain cultures and younger demographics have shifted to be more open to, and interested in, smartphones and intimate devices. The cruise population may not be a group that’s there yet but the travel industry should be experimenting with this anyway,” argues Gillett.

Despite some serious arguments pushing against the tide of innovation in cruise ships, it’s an industry sometimes counter-intuitively letting itself get caught adrift. It doesn’t (yet) have the right demographic for robots and AI, it’s playing a balancing act with privacy and personalisation and it’s battling costly and lengthy lead times for new products. Yet the industry is putting some of its travel counterparts to shame, at least in terms of the vision these brands have for smart technology in their businesses.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 10 February issue.

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