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Grading Up: Onboard IT Challenges


10 May 2011 Brent Davidson


Advances in technology are improving the cruise experience for passengers, but these can pose challenges for operators. Rebecca Burgess explores the impact of software upgrades with Giuseppe Flammia of MSC Cruises and Holland America's Brent Davidson.


Technological advances mean state-of-the-art software is essential for achieving a good customer experience both onboard and offshore. Keeping that software up to date, and introducing upgrades without compromising service or taking a ship out of operation for longer than is necessary, is the challenge that IT teams now face on a daily basis.

Giuseppe Flammia, chief information officer at MSC Cruises, agrees that updating the existing software of ships in service holds some challenges.

"One of the biggest demands is to avoid any operation disturbance while carrying out the upgrade," he says. "To avoid disturbing passengers, software upgrades often take place at night. Another major task is to upgrade software on ships sailing outside Europe. It is very difficult to send out an IT specialist when necessary, because most of our suppliers are based in Europe.

"The most overriding challenge, however, is to control the maintenance cycle, so that our 11 ships have up-to-date software throughout the year."

The team at MSC manages each upgrade as a specific project with a clear action plan, and always carries out a testing phase before the implementation. The most recent project at MSC was to roll out new material management system software across the fleet, in partnership with Fidelio Cruise.

"One of the biggest demands is to avoid any operation disturbance while carrying out the upgrade."

The team is also implementing the onboard Chip & PIN system to comply with new European regulations. MSC's team of IT specialists works onshore, in Sorrento, Italy, and manages all the software implementations there, through satellite connection.

"The challenge for us is to implement this new system for European passengers, while still being able to use the former signature-based credit card system for our American passengers," says Flammia.

For Holland America, this year's upgrades focus on its learning, crew and property management systems across the fleet. Brent Davidson, vice-president, IS technology and services, explains that, depending on the type of upgrade, the overriding challenges were remotely upgrading over a satellite connection and minimising the impact on the 24-hour operation of the ship.

"The process of planning upgrades starts with cabin availability and logistics," he says. "Depending on availability, timing may shift to wet docks or dry docks when the ship is out of operation for an extended period. Upgrades have to be planned around onboard operation, and to minimise the impact on guests and crew they are sometimes scheduled for the end of a voyage. Likewise, on longer cruises, we may choose to upgrade at a point in the itinerary when there are fewer port calls."

Depending on the type of upgrade, Holland America may decide to opt for a remote installation over satellite, or via the guidance of the IT office.

"With the IT officer position onboard, many upgrades and proactive maintenance tasks are done during off-peak hours," adds Davidson.

Enhanced communication

The role of IT teams has changed enormously in recent years, according to Davidson, as ships have witnessed an exponential increase in demand on technology onboard, from engine room monitoring applications to administering satellite communication equipment and entertainment technology. But the benefits of successful upgrades are clear, and felt at every level of the cruise experience.

For MSC, recent innovations have resulted in more reliable communication services between the ships and the rest of the world, easy-to-use interactive services and faster check-in and mobile communications, all of which guarantee a more personal service for passengers.

A recent MSC upgrade to implement ResOnline allows the same passenger reservation information to be held onboard vessels as in the reservation department at head office ashore.

"Any information, such as special requirements, excursions or name changes, which were previously transmitted manually by email and subject to human error, are now automatically transferred," Flammia explains. "This enables us to avoid potential mistakes which could threaten guest satisfaction."

"MSC's innovations have resulted in more reliable communication services between the ships and the rest of the world."

Another element Flammia regards as adding significantly to the customer experience is the further exploration of wireless technology. Guests' expectations regarding more reliable and faster communication onboard are driving the IT teams to expand and explore new satellite technologies. MSC uses the newest iDirect Evolution infrastructure combined with satellite Ku-band antennas.

"Our satellite technology satisfies our guests' needs by making our service stable and faster," says Flammia. "This ensures successful communication onboard, even with bad weather conditions."

"The trend in satellite technology is in the increasing demand, both operationally and as a guest service, to offer high-speed internet at sea," Davidson adds. "Because of this, satellite providers continue to focus on compression and optimisation of current technology."

He says, however, that for ship operators, the focus is shifting to alternative means of high-speed data access, depending on the itinerary.

He adds: "For example, in the Mediterranean or major ports, the shift is to focus on land-based WiMax or 4G technologies, and to have the ability to use different types of connections or least-cost routing."

One thing is clear, with technology advancing at its current rate, in parallel with the increasing guest expectations, there are a few more challenges in store for IT teams across the cruise industry.