Spurred by developments in the hotel sector, cruise lines are paying ever greater attention to in-cabin entertainment. Seabourn's Christopher Prelog and MSC Cruises' Tim Skinner talk to Rod James about the influence of consumer electronics on passenger expectations, and how an interactive approach to technology can prove an effective marketing tool.
Cruise liners have come a long way since the days of deckchairs and shuffleboard: think Freedom of the Seas, with its onboard surf park and ice-skating rink, and Disney Dream, with its 765ft-long AquaDuck 'water coaster'. Passengers enjoy such an array of onboard entertainment that ports of call become almost secondary in importance.
With so many opportunities to socialise and the breadth of available dining and leisure experiences, one factor is often overlooked: in-cabin entertainment. Seen by many as background noise by which to dress for dinner or as an undemanding way to spend afternoon down time, in-cabin entertainment has not been a high priority for either cruise lines or their passengers; however, this is slowly beginning to change.
High-tech entertainment at sea
The increased portability and sophistication of consumer electronics and the greater affordability of high-tech entertainment systems have upped customer expectations. Passengers are demanding better technology than they have at home, making items such as a plasma television set almost a given. Cruise lines are responding accordingly.
Audio and video devices on today's ships have become as comprehensive as their land-based equivalents. The cruise industry has long been subject to a syndication window on film and television releases, receiving broadcasts at least a few months after they are shown on land.
Cruise lines such as MSC now have agreements with regional satellite providers in various parts of the world, allowing them to stream programmes in real time. Certain rooms, such as their Yacht Club Suites, are equipped with Nintendo Wii consoles and at the top end of the market, Seabourn's all-suite vessels benefit from extensive music selections and top-of-the-range hi-fi systems.
"For example, Pride, Spirit and Legend have eight channels of in-suite closed-circuit radio featuring a variety of programming," says Christopher Prelog, corporate manager, hotel operations for Seabourn.
"Each suite also has a Bose Wave CD stereo system and a library of CDs, which can be borrowed on request from the purser. All also have a flatscreen TV showing movies, broadcast news, sports and onboard programming such as expert lectures and interviews."
As has been the case with hotels for the past decade or so, cruise lines are also learning the value of taking a more interactive approach. Rather than being viewed as an alternative to more sociable forms of entertainment, in-cabin entertainment is being touted as a supplementary way of engaging with life on the ship. Interactive televisions allow passengers to book excursions, buy tickets for shows and order room service, opening up new avenues of participation.
"All cabins onboard MSC Fantasia, Splendida, Poesia, Orchestra and Musica are equipped with a digital interactive TV system that allows guests to connect to the internet, order wine and other delicacies, or order tickets for a range of events," says Tim Skinner, corporate hotel manager for MSC. "Cruises are offering increasingly more sophisticated and interactive in-room entertainment, on top of an impressive array of other choices."
Norwegian Epic, which embarked on its maiden voyage in June 2010, boasts DigiHD interactive televisions in all of its rooms, developed by Allin Interactive. They offer on-demand movies and even allow passengers to play slots and poker through DigiCasino video gaming software. An interactive cashier enables guests to buy and spend gaming credits on additional play or various onboard services. As well as being an immediate revenue generator, this approach brings with it new marketing opportunities.
Customised cruise services
A customer's purchases, their chosen excursions, and even restaurant reservations can be registered to an onboard account. This allows stewards to personalise their service, either by making tailored recommendations of where to go and what to see, or through providing small extras, such as a passenger's preferred pillow firmness.
An example of this customised approach is the Youfinder recognition system, which is in operation on Norwegian Epic. A photo is taken of the guest on embarkation, matched with their personal details and stored as a complete profile in a proprietary indexing system. Any photo taken of the passenger is then automatically linked with this profile, allowing them to access and print their holiday snaps from a single point of contact.
There are areas in which technology at sea still lags behind its land-based counterpart, such as internet provision, particularly wi-fi. Satellite signals take a long time to travel between the ship and transmitters on land, and can be further impeded by high bandwidth usage and rough weather. Many cruise lines have taken to using wide area network technology, which caches web pages after they have been visited once, making them easily accessible. But it seems that for all the advances made by technology at sea, it still can't quite keep up.
"We have Wi-Fi on all ships and in nearly all areas," Prelog says. "The main disconnection from land-based venues is the speed of satellite services. Guests are used to 3G and 4G speeds and we don't have that on ships. It's amazing how quickly expectations grow."
The pressure to stay ahead of the game certainly exists when it comes to in-cabin entertainment, but seems stronger for some lines. In Prelog's view, it is not imperative that the cruise industry exactly match the hotel sector. Possibly due to the more up-market, adult-oriented nature of Seabourn's operations, it is less of a concern for its passengers than many other aspects.
"It's not nearly as important as it is in, say, hotels," he says. "Our ships attract a sociable audience who like to be out together rather than in their suites. They watch while they dress for dinner or take a nap. Guests have expectations, but in general they are not as adamant about that aspect of the ship."
Quality in the cabin
Skinner, conversely, sees providing top in-room entertainment as part of a broad approach to quality. "We believe it is important to pamper our guests at every occasion, including the existing downtown of a floating palace, with sport venues, bars, lounges, shops and live shows, to a more private, relaxing and intimate kind of entertainment," he says. "Passengers rely on us to realise their dreams before the cruise and to create their memories afterward."
Although not a priority for all in the industry, in-cabin entertainment seems to be more important to cruise lines now than it was only five years ago. Operators are realising that interactive TV is not only an effective revenue generator, but also one that can enhance the way that passengers engage with life onboard.