Cruise lines are using increasingly sophisticated IT systems throughout every aspect of their business. Andrea Ashfield asks Emilio La Scala, general manager of MSC Cruises' technical department and Bill Martin, vice-president and chief information officer at Royal Caribbean, how the latest technology is transforming the way they do business.
From streamlining the check-in process to managing stock and reducing waste, the latest IT solutions provide operators with greater control over daily running, and the pace of technological development in the cruise industry shows no sign of slowing.
Emilio La Scala, general manager of MSC Cruises' technical department, thinks one of the most significant improvements in recent years has been the reduction of passenger check-in times.
"For high-capacity ships, check-in can be a bottleneck that causes delays, because a lot of processes have to happen at the same time," he explains. "It is also the first impression that passengers get of the company."
In order to improve the experience, MSC has refined the operation, cutting time at the desk to around two minutes.
"In this time, we have eliminated the need for the passenger to validate their cruise card," he says. "As soon as we hand them their card, they are free to board and access every retail outlet or bar without having to queue to charge their card with some form of financial support."
The latest technology has also helped the company monitor and manage the massive inventory of materials throughout its fleet.
"At any given time, the shore-side office can follow the use of every consumable item on every ship," explains La Scala. "This allows us to control waste and to understand if and where we need to focus attention on excessive or inappropriate use of anything we have onboard."
This includes everything from food stores and uniforms to engine parts, cleaning chemicals and medicines.
"It has other obvious benefits, too," he continues. "For example, if we see a spike in the use of laundry chemicals, it could indicate a mechanical failure in a washing machine."
The system also helps individual ships to meet consumption targets. "While the objective is never to compromise on quality, it has reinforced the ability of our shipboard personnel to take great care of equipment and consumables," adds La Scala.
Modern customers are also demanding connectivity onboard. "More than anything else it's about remaining relevant to the guest," says Bill Martin, vice-president and chief information officer at Royal Caribbean. "Consumers today are more connected than they have ever been. Smartphones and other devices have created a new generation of 'always on' consumers. Even the older generation wants connectivity and we provide it."
For ships at sea, this can be a challenge, requiring satellite bandwidth. On the Oasis of the Seas, however, guests can take advantage of Wi-Fi from the top to the bottom of the vessel. The ship has more than 1,000 access points to ensure bow-to-stern connectivity, and the company's Royal Connect software allows passengers to communicate with each other via instant messaging on smartphones.
Parents can also opt to fit children under 12 with an identification wristband which is integrated with a Wi-Fi chip linked to the Royal Connect device, which means they can always be located.
Operators are also working hard to make sure that technology works smoothly behind the scenes.
"Passengers should never have to know or worry about the way our IT systems work – their objective is to enjoy a holiday," says La Scala. "Our aim is to allow that to happen and to deliver the 'dream' without compromise or complaint."
"Our guests don't want to think about technology, they just want it to work," Martin says. "Passengers are aware when something could be made easier if the right system was in place. We try to satisfy this need and then go one better. On Oasis of the Seas, for example, guests appreciated the 300 digital signs around the ship to help them find their way.
"However, they were even more impressed when they realised that the same sign could tell them how to get to the restaurant, what was on the menu and even how full the restaurant was."
Coping with complaints
Nonetheless, things don't always run smoothly and MSC uses its onboard technology to help solve any problems that may arise.
"We are able to resolve complaints in real time, without having to wait for a day or two, or until the end of the cruise when the passenger returns home," says La Scala. "The IT solution in these cases allows our head office and shipboard management to monitor the complaint and follow up every step of the way, and, if necessary, intervene in the best interest of the passenger."
The latest IT systems can also be used in more unusual situations. "We are committed to continually improving everything we do, and it stands to reason that new technology is part of that mission," adds La Scala. "One example of this came as a result of the 'swine flu' outbreak in Mexico. We investigated the use of thermal imaging technology to help detect elevated temperatures of embarking passengers. We have been using this technology for 18 months, and it has proven to be so reliable that our competition has followed us by introducing similar initiatives."
Benefits for passengers, crew and cruise line
New technology is good for the guest, but also good for the business.
"Our newest ships have interactive TV capability which allows us to market to specific guests," says Martin. "This is a win-win situation for everyone. It can help us to fill an empty spot in the spa or promote a beverage that hasn't been selling well that week. It is better than waiting until the cruise has ended to look at reports."
Martin also thinks it is crucial that the industry keeps abreast of new developments. "Social media will continue to change all businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector," he adds. "There are many incredible devices available now, such as the iPad and BlackBerry, which consume huge amounts of information. We have to pay attention and prepare for the impact."
Onboard IT is continually evolving and a number of initiatives are expected to come online in the future.
"Among the many projects in hand, we are investigating technology that would allow passengers to embark with almost no traditional check-in procedure," says La Scala. "It would enable reception personnel to call each guest by name even before they arrive at the information desk, or for waiters and bartenders to do the same before the passenger produces a charge card. This identification technology will have far-reaching implications for the industry, and I am sure it will be adopted as standard."
As La Scala sees it, initiatives like this will help the industry grab a larger share of the leisure market.
"This business is uniquely positioned to win that growing share because of its enthusiasm and ability to search for and adopt new technologies that would make a safer, easier and more enjoyable holiday experience," he says.