BY CHABELLI HERRERA
This is not your grandma?s cruise anymore.
The cruising industry is at the cusp of a technological revolution that, for the most part, spells good news for consumers. In the next five years, the new normal in cruising is going to be a better-connected voyage that will largely do away with lines and waiting ? some of the factors that deter travelers from cruising to begin with.
In the past year, the four top cruise companies ? Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises ? have all come out with tech that promises to make cruising a less cumbersome experience. Most of it incorporates facial recognition and geo-location.
?It seems like it has really been on the horizon for a while but everybody has been coming out with their product right about now,? said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at CruiseCritic.com.
The intricacy of the new technology ranges from complex infrastructure that turns vessels into smart ships, to simple apps that travelers can access on their own devices to skip lines or order services.
The move to a tech focus is a departure for the cruise lines, which have focused more on upgrading ships ? with water slides and zip lines and go-karts ? but previously left the underlying experience at status quo. The technology aims to ease irritations: the long lines to embark or disembark, crowded bars, the impersonal feeling of a mass congregation of people.
And perhaps most importantly, technology levels the playing field for all travelers, said Joe Pine, co-author of ?The Experience Economy,? which suggested as early as 1998 that consumers truly valued personalized experiences over goods.
?It elevates the experience for everyone, not just the highest paying passengers, and not just on its best and newest (ships),? Pine said. ?I think it will become the norm ? eventually in the cruise industry and in other tourism (entities).?
It?s already happening. In 2014, Starwood Hotels announced plans to start using smart phones as hotel keys, with the help of an app and Bluetooth connection. Hilton this year discussed plans to build a ?Connected Room? in 2018, which will allow guests to control features of the room through an app, including lighting, entertainment and temperature.
But with the new technology will likely come privacy concerns. Much of the software cruise lines are introducing also involves capturing passenger information and using it to curate suggestions about what to do.
In the past year, the four top cruise companies ? Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises ? have all come out with tech that promises to make cruising a less cumbersome experience.
Experts agree there will likely be an adaptation process. But they also say that if the technology makes the experience easier, cruisers ? and maybe even first-time cruisers ? will buy in.
?I think of it as Facebook,? McDaniel said. ?People always had privacy concerns about Facebook and eventually it?s grown to the point where everybody is using Facebook. People still have privacy concerns but it doesn?t deter them from using it.?
If a cruise is on your horizon in the next few years, take a peak at what that may look like from now on:
In the arms race to create new cruise technology, Carnival Corp. finished first.
The Doral, Fla.-based cruise company was the first to unveil plans for an entire suite of technological developments that will transform its fleet into smart ships. In January, Carnival revealed the result of an 18-month project aimed at making the cruise experience more intuitive.
Instead of largely relying on a smart phone, the company chose to build a ?medallion.? The quarter-sized, 2-ounce disc contains passenger information, incorporates geo-location services and is personalized with each cruiser?s name and sail date. It can be carried in pockets or worn on wristbands or pendants for an additional cost.
The medallion interacts with the whole of the ship, which will be retrofitted with thousands of sensors and interactive screens, and miles of cable.
For example, as guests approach their stateroom doors, the door senses the medallion and unlocks it for them. A digital photo wall senses a passenger?s approach ? thanks to the medallion ? and adjusts to show the cruiser his or her vacation pictures. After a guest requests a drink, either on an interactive screen, a smart phone or other device, crew can find that passenger wherever he or she is on the vessel because of the geo-location in the medallion.
The operating system behind the medallion is Ocean Compass, an online vacation profile that passengers create before sailing, where they input their preferences; during the trip, they can add information via onboard screens and personal devices. Crew can also access passenger profiles in Ocean Compass, allowing them to offer relevant suggestions and address passengers by name.
As passengers move around the ship, the Ocean Compass will also suggest activities in line with guest preferences.
The technology also essentially eliminates lines. Travelers who check-in online via their Ocean Compass profiles will be able to board ships immediately (medallions can be sent in the mail prior to a sailing or collected at the port). Passengers can later book a slot to disembark the ship, skipping what is often an hourslong slog to reach dry land.
?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,? Arnold Donald, Carnival?s president and CEO, said in an interview late last year. ?We think once it?s actually executed ? when people experience it, it?s going to be transformational.?
But just how well Carnival?s vast new technological infrastructure will play out is still untested.
The nine-line cruise company was first scheduled to debut the tech in November onboard Princess Cruises? Regal Princess from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ? but the launch was postponed. Carnival is now opting for a phased implementation during spring 2018 that will roll out the technology on select cabins at a time, before completely offering it to all passengers on cruise ships.
ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES
Early last month, Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises teased what the near and more-distant future of cruising may look like for its cruise lines, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
Royal is turning its focus to experiences, a major shift for a company that has made its name as a leader in hardware enhancement. It was the first to put a rock climbing wall and an ice skating rink on a ship, a trend it then continued with water parks, surfing simulators, its multi-neighborhood concept, virtual balconies, skydiving, bumper cars and other innovations that first came to sea on Royal Caribbean ships.
Now, the cruise line is looking at the technology that could elevate the time spent on board.
In the short-term, those innovations will look like this: Guests will check in through facial recognition technology ? not check-in counters, thus eliminating lines. On board, passengers will be able to sign up for excursions, order drinks and make dinner reservations from a new Royal Caribbean app that also will enable crew to find passengers based on facial recognition.
The app will partner with Royal?s WOW Bands, similar to Disney?s MagicBands, to open stateroom doors. And, thanks to RFID tags on luggage, guests will also be able to track the progress of their bags to their rooms. As with Carnival, the more passengers interact with the technology, the better equipped the app will be to offer meaningful recommendations.
The features will be available to passengers on the company?s 48-ship fleet over the next two years, Royal Caribbean said. About 15 percent of ships will have the app enabled by the end of 2017, and more than 30 percent of ships will have it by the end of 2018.
Beyond that, Royal Caribbean plans to add virtual reality and augmented reality into the passenger experience. These concepts might transform cabin interiors with images of a starry night or a peaceful sunset displayed on screens on the walls, ceiling and floors. It could also transform dining by introducing virtual reality glasses that can transform the venue into a new landscape based on the cuisine passengers are eating.
?We all know that the world is moving in this unbelievable, digital way. That customers, ourselves, we connect to the world around us very much now in a digital way. So it?s really important that Royal Caribbean take those steps and transform ourselves into the same place and space that our customers already live in,? said Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, at an event to unveil the new technology in New York.
?We are creating an ecosystem.?
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE
For travelers who sail on Norwegian, the key to tapping into the line?s new technology is already in their pockets: All they need is a smart phone.
The Miami-based cruise line announced earlier this month a new Cruise Norwegian app that will allow passengers to check in ahead of their vacation, book excursions, make dinner and show reservations, and purchase drink packages or other amenities. Unlike the Carnival or Royal Caribbean versions, the app doesn?t change the physical embarkation process, but it does offer the option to go paperless with the documentation needed to go aboard.
On board, cruisers will get complimentary connection to the ship?s Wi-Fi to use the app. For families who want to stay connected with each other while on the ship, unlimited onboard calls and messages through Cruise Norwegian comes with a $9.95 fee. The app will offer group messaging and photo-sharing capabilities. To connect with loved ones off the ship, outbound calls will cost $0.79 a minute.
When it?s time to leave, the app will also include information about onboard purchases and the disembarkation process.
?Once on board, the Cruise Norwegian app will allow guests to continue customizing their ideal cruise experience and view or manage their existing account information, allowing them to maximize their time and spend it on the things they enjoy the most,? Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said in a news release.
The app is currently available on the Norwegian Sky, and will be on the Norwegian Bliss when it launches in summer 2018. Cruise Norwegian will be available in the entire fleet by the end of 2018, the line said.
Geneva-based MSC Cruises? version of shipboard technology incorporates bits and pieces of what each of the three major cruise lines is offering.
Like Norwegian, it will rely heavily on an app component, that, like Carnival, will also be available on interactive screens around the ship, in addition to mobile devices and stateroom TVs. And, like Royal, MSC will have a smart watch with geo-location that is also connected to the app.
The technology is a result of a three-year project in collaboration with brands including Deloitte Digital, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Samsung, and encompasses 130 different technological functions.
The app will also have facial recognition to allow crew to identify passengers. Other features include way-finding navigation ? such as Google Maps for ships ? the ability to make purchases, request services, book excursions and plan daily activities in-app. The MSC for Me app will also offer suggestions based on guest preferences.
Wristbands, which open doors, come for an additional price but are free for children.
The technology debuted on MSC Meraviglia in the Mediterranean earlier this year and will come to Miami this month during the debut of the MSC Seaside. Meraviglia is scheduled to come to Miami in late 2019.
The program will take longer to reach MSC?s other ships: It will be rolled out in the line?s rapidly growing fleet of vessels over the next 10 years.