Carnival Corp.’s new ‘smart ships’ know your name, what you want and where you want it

Imagine a future world defined by technology so subtle you hardly know its there.

Servers know what you want ahead of time, so your food is ready when you sit down. The “what should I do today?” question is answered by a list of curated options based on your personal interests. Standing in line is a remnant of a life long ago. And perhaps best of all, the technology works so smoothly that no users’ manual is required.

But this isn’t some distant, Trekkie future. Within months, passengers will find these features aboard Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess.

For the last 18 months, in a boxy building across from a Doral cow field, Carnival Corp. — parent of Princess and 9 other lines — has been imagining and then devising a seagoing smart city. In November, it will be introduced first on Royal Princess in Fort Lauderdale, creating a world in which the crew and even the ship itself respond to each guest’s needs — often before anyone asks.

The Doral-based cruise company is set to announce its futuristic innovation at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Wednesday, delivering what it promises will be the idea that changes how companies approach not only cruising, but the hospitality industry altogether.

It’s the first time that a company can know who you are, it can know what you want, it can know where you are, it can at least make a good guess at what mood you’re in and take everything on the ship and customize it to your individual need at this time. Joe Pine, co-author of the “Experience Economy”

The project directly addresses the argument that cruises are floating behemoths that carry thousands of people like they’re cattle and not individuals with specific needs, said Joe Pine, co-author of the “Experience Economy,” which theorized in 1998 that what consumers truly want are personalized experiences rather than goods.

Carnival is hoping its new approach reduces or even eliminates the major gripes surrounding cruising — both for those who have and haven’t traveled on a cruise ship before — such as crowding, queues to get on and off the ship, impersonal experiences and a lack of authenticity.

“It’s the first time that a company can know who you are, it can know what you want, it can know where you are, it can at least make a good guess at what mood you’re in and take everything on the ship and customize it to your individual need at this time,” Pine said.

What Carnival’s new system does well, he said, is maximize the time a vacationer spends on the things they enjoy, while minimizing the tedious logistics that can cut into their precious leisure experience.

Lines? No more; travelers will be able to book slots to disembark and skip the line when it’s time to get off. Crowded spaces? Services will come to the cruisers, rather than forcing them to congregate in one space while they wait for a drink or to book a shore excursion. Impersonal experience? Every cruiser will be addressed by name and crew members will know details about them even if they’ve never met. And lack of authenticity? Not so lacking in this smart world where activities are catered around individuals and not mass groups.

How it works

Don’t let the idea of super-smart tech overwhelm you. For the guest, Carnival’s new technology is deceptively simple.

It starts with a medallion, a quarter-sized disc weighing just under 2 ounces emblazoned with a traveler’s name, ship and sail date. Guests need only carry it around, or purchase a wristband or necklace to carry it in.

This medallion is like a starship room key embedded with information on the individual cruiser. Like card keys and bands on some other ships, the medallion helps travelers unlock doors and pay for goods. But here it does much more. It can alert crew to know who guests are as they approach. Guests preferences — such as dietary restrictions and dining reservations — will also be part of the information crew members see on tablets populated with information from the medallions.

The more cruisers do, the more the medallion knows what they like and the more customized their experience becomes.

We think once it’s actually executed in those first sailings in November on Princess, when people experience it, it’s going to be transformational. Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp.

Remind you of something? Part of the team behind Disney’s MagicBand, a wrist band that unlocks similar features at Disney parks, has been entrusted to create Carnival’s iteration. And they’ve kicked the experience up a few notches.

“Frictionless” is the word Carnival’s chief experience and innovation officer (and MagicBand’s creator) John Padgett uses to describe it.

“The millisecond it’s not perfect in its function, it becomes technology,” Padgett said during a tour of cruise company’s innovation center in early December. The experience, he said, is designed to be seamless.

With Carnival’s medallion for instance, guests don’t have to raise their hands to a sensor — as they do with the MagicBand — to open a door. Instead, the room already knows they’re coming — so it will also know to change the temperature of the cabin depending on the weather outside — and will open only for its occupants.

The medallion system isn’t that different from a smart phone and its operating system. Imagine the phone is the ship and the medallion is iOS or Android. The phone knows only to open for your pass code — and it knows your preferences, what apps you enjoy, what sites you frequent.

This medallion helps travelers unlock doors, pay for goods, communicate with crew members, book excursions and set up time slots to embark and disembark the ship.

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But for the medallion to know you — just as with a phone — you have to start by inputting information. Travelers are prompted prior to their vacations to plug in some simple background information, such as interests and credit card information, in a companion app called the OceanCompass. The OceanCompass can be accessed on a phone, computer or tablet and is also available on thousands of interactive screens — or “portals” — around the ship. The medallion does the rest.

“On the medallion, you don’t have to do anything, you just have it,” Padgett said. “It eliminates all action, unlike MagicBand.”

Based on information entered into the app and past choices (such as excursion purchases), the portal will analyze each guest’s interests (Do you like adventure and discovery? Fitness? Relaxation? All of the above?) and offer a selection of activities on board and at ports. Those offerings are based solely on guest interests, says Padgett, not on what makes money for the cruise line.

Thanks to location technology in the medallion, guests’ selection of options change as they move around the ship.

At the sports deck? Maybe a game of volleyball then or pick-up basketball. Near the bar? How about a wine tasting?

But there’s no need to worry about schedule conflicts; if guests already have booked something on their schedule, the OceanCompass won’t show options for that time slot. No need to for cruisers to feel stressed by running from place to place or worse, that sensation of missing out on something.

Ordering will be easier, too. Goods and services ordered through a mobile device or onboard portal will find guests, rather than the other way around. A traveler could order a drink via the app at the pool deck and then walk away. The server would be able to find them wherever on the ship they go.

‘Revolutionary’

“I think initially most people won’t comprehend it. And they will say, ‘We have stuff like that,’ and they are wrong. They don’t,” said Arnold Donald, Carnival’s president and CEO, in an interview. “We think once it’s actually executed in those first sailings in November on Princess, when people experience it, it’s going to be transformational.”

Stewart Chiron, a 27-year veteran of the industry, said Carnival’s technology is unlike any new project he’s ever seen in cruising.

Many previous shipboard innovations were adapted from concepts already available on shore, such as surfing simulators on Royal Caribbean or bowling alleys on Norwegian Cruise Line. Carnival Corp.’s new system is truly a first.

“This is a whole new level and it’s just not for cruising, it’s for hospitality. This kind of tech can be licensed anywhere,” Chrion said.

This is a whole new level and it’s just not for cruising, it’s for hospitality. This kind of tech can be licensed anywhere. Stewart Chiron, cruise industry expert

But the project does include some features cruisers may find invasive, Chiron said. For instance, the digital photo wall will mine the medallion’s location technology to project images of other cruisers who have passed within five feet of you on a voyage. Travelers can see photos of the couple they sat with at dinner or the family next to them at the pool that afternoon.

In staterooms, too, sensors alert crew to come back later when cruisers are occupied in their cabins.

Still, the ease of use will likely win detractors over, Chiron said.

He likens it to storing credit card information on a frequently used website, or the SunPass automated toll payment system. At first people were skeptical.

“Now people don’t care,” he said. “We are so advanced in technology today that they don’t have to recreate the mistakes from yesterday.”

The differentiator, said author Pine, is that when information demonstrably improves a customer’s experience, the concern of intrusion falls away.

It’s revolving around information about this individual, living, breathing person and using the information you gather to benefit that person. When you do that you have a powerful competitive advantage. Joe Pine, co-author of the “Experience Economy”

Pine predicts others companies will likely follow as they have with the MagicBand (Royal Caribbean International, for instance, has a band that opens doors when tapped against a pad on the door), but says it may take them years to catch up.

That’s thanks to the learning relationship the new technology fosters with its wearer. The information on what a cruiser likes is retained for the next time he or she sails and continues to evolve as the wearer’s needs evolve.

“It’s revolving around information about this individual, living, breathing person and using the information you gather to benefit that person. When you do that you have a powerful competitive advantage,” Pine said. “Even if a competitor comes along that has the same capabilities, what are the chances I would go to that competitor? Because I would have to teach a competitor all over again what Carnival already knows [about me] today.

“…It is revolutionary.”

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