The cruise sector still has a reputation as being behind the times, but, as Sam Ballard reports, some of latest developments in entertainment, accommodation, apps and wearable technology are leading the way for the entire travel industry and – from the gimmicky to the genius – have to be seen to be believed.
The cruise industry holds a unique position within the world of travel. No other sector manages to be seen as behind the times and ahead of the curve at the same time. Much of that misalignment comes from the myths that still exist around cruise (ie they are for the newly wed, overfed and nearly dead). However, as those who work in the industry will already know, these are lazy assertions.
For starters, recent enhancements to passenger experience have been exceptional. Entertainment is no longer cabaret and washed-up comedians, it’s original productions and shortened versions of West End shows – from Grease to Cirque du Soleil – with amazing sets, incredible performers and high production values. Many cruise lines have gone even further, making the theatres themselves more technologically advanced than land-based venues could even dream of. Royal Caribbean International set the bar pretty high with Two70 – a lounge that has floor-to-ceiling windows that transform into a 30m wide, high definition screen (larger than an Imax)– bolstered by six more screens on robotic arms. The whole ensemble is choreographed to routines by Royal’s equally impressive human performers.
Accommodation is another area where cruise lines have been at the forefront of innovation. Inside staterooms, the entry-level accommodation on all cruise ships, have been seen by many customers as fairly claustrophobic places to stay. However, Disney Cruise Line opened the spaces up on Disney Fantasy with their Magic Portholes – round screens showing live footage from outside the ship. The company took the technology to another level by having Disney characters coming into view every 20 minutes – be it Aladdin riding a magic carpet or the starfish from Finding Nemo.
When it comes to innovations within the accommodation on board cruise ships, it would be remiss not to mention the infinite verandas on board Celebrity Edge. Inspired by the French balconies on European river ships, Celebrity has essentially moved the balcony area inside the cabin – allowing the top portion of the window to be lowered and the area separated by bifolding doors. This adds 23 per cent to the cabin’s interior space and means that if, for instance, the weather isn’t great – the space can still be utilised. If it’s sunny then it can become a standard balcony. Not having external balconies also allows for external appendages, like the ship’s much talked about Magic Carpet – an external platform that gives outside space to alternating decks during the day.
When it comes to much of the innovation on cruise ships, it is sometimes hard to filter out the truly genius ideas from the gimmicks. Submarines, speedboats and go-kart tracks could be put into either camp depending on your disposition. Ponant’s Blue Eye Lounge – an underwater venue that will include huge windows to view marine life – is an amazing installation, especially on ships that will be able to handle polar ice – but the vibrating seats that mimic the underwater noises may stray too far in the other direction.
Many of the innovations that are being pioneered by travel companies come down to an ambition to improve one thing in particular: making the experience more personal for guests. This is easier said than done, especially when you’re dealing with thousands of people.
Norwegian Cruise Line challenged the orthodoxy of set dining times and allocated tables when it introduced Freestyle Cruising – now called free and flexible cruising – which meant that passengers were allowed to eat whenever and wherever they wanted.
“In the past you were told where to dine, when to dine and with whom to dine,” explains Nick Wilkinson, vice-president and managing director of Norwegian Cruise Line. “We believe that a cruise is a personal experience and we want our guests to have the freedom and flexibility to dine when they’re hungry. To enjoy the entertainment with whoever they want and whenever they want. In that way we create a resort-style feel and challenge that sector.”
It is that search for the personal touch on board which has seen other companies innovate.
Carnival Corporation took the technological approach last year when it announced the introduction of the Ocean Medallion – a small disc that holds details about the holder, enabling a world of experiences to be opened up. Staterooms unlock when you come within a certain distance, barmen know your favourite drink and security staff can verify your identity as you approach them. It goes beyond that, though – thousands of screens will be installed on each ship that will display a chosen avatar, called a Tagalong, when you approach them. If you’re a family then your avatars will all be together, interacting. Your status within the loyalty scheme will be reflected, too – if you’re an elite guest your avatar may get a crown, for instance.
The entire programme is being led by John Padgett, Carnival’s innovation officer, who previously worked at Disney where he launched the MagicBand, a similar device, at Walt Disney World. The Ocean Medallion is being tested at present on Regal Princess.
These moves haven’t gone unnoticed at Carnival’s main rival, Royal Caribbean. Although there is one big difference in the way both companies are approaching the next stage of their passenger experience – namely in Royal’s choice not to use wearable technology.
“The Royal Caribbean app is our foundation,” explains Tim Klauda, vice-president of product, digital experience for Royal Caribbean Cruises. “One day we might move to wearables, but we already know that most of our guests show up with smartphones so it makes more sense to start there.”
The app, which will be activated across half the fleet (including Celebrity and Azamara) by the end of the year, is the company’s answer to Ocean Medallion.
Although in its infancy, the idea behind the app is simple: it will allow check-in, frictionless boarding (with the aim of getting guests from car to bar in 10 minutes) while also enhancing the onboard experience, potentially replacing the SeaPass Card for those who want it. Everything from yoga classes to restaurants will be bookable via the app, while the company is also planning a new on-ship location finder that works with a drinks ordering function and a messaging service – all of which will be especially useful on the 6,000 plus passenger, Oasis-class ships.
It’s no secret that the cruise industry has upped its game in the last ten years or so. The perceptions about a stale sector will die away as more and more lines publicise their innovations. And the message coming from the different lines is the same: the competition is no longer other cruise lines, it’s land-based resorts.