We think this will take some getting used to for cruise passengers and crew alike. But the widespread acceptance of Disney's MagicBand — at least in Florida parks — shows that vacationers can adapt and embrace new forms of technology, especially if it improves their trip.
The Walt Disney Company changed the vacation game with its MagicBand technology that gave visitors control over multiple parts of their trip with one wristband.
Taking a page from that playbook — as well as a key architect of the Disney project — Carnival Corp. on Thursday plans to unveil its own wearable device that executives say will allow for unprecedented customization and service at sea.
CEO Arnold Donald is scheduled to announce the technology — a disc the size of a quarter — during a keynote address at CES, the electronics show. With no screen or menu, the Ocean Medallion syncs to an interface that can be accessed through smartphones and tablets, kiosks in port, interactive portals onboard, devices carried by crew, and stateroom TV sets.
The goal, Donald told Skift, is to make passengers feel like their needs are being anticipated and met at all times.
“Who wouldn’t want to feel like they had a constant personal concierge with them every second, from the time they started planning a trip until they got back from the trip?” he said.
The Ocean Medallion will let passengers navigate embarkation more easily; enter their stateroom just by walking up to it; navigate the ship; make purchases and reservations; take part in interactive gaming outside casinos; and access portals throughout the ship for information.
All the while, the devices will be tracking location and activities to provide real-time information on preferences so that data can be used to provide more customized recommendations, reminders, and offers.
“Our strategy is not to collect intelligence, study you, and then market and sell to you,” said John Padgett, the Disney veteran who is now chief experience and innovation officer for Carnival Corp. “Our strategy is to study you to make the experience great in real time.”
A Slow Introduction
The technology is rolling out slowly, starting with one Princess Cruises ship in November and two more in early 2018. Medallions can be worn as an accessory — on a necklace or wristband, for example — or just carried in a pocket.
Plans call for the devices to be used eventually across the global Carnival Corp. fleet of more than 100 ships across nine brands. Ships must first be outfitted with miles of cable, thousands of sensors, hundreds of readers and more than 100 interactive portals. That will happen as vessels go out of service for regular dry dock maintenance and renovations.
Padgett, who joined Carnival in 2014, said the long-term implementation is a “multi-year plan.”
“Our real focus is listening to the guest, getting their response,” he said. “Then we will adjust either to move quicker or make adjustments or go a little left or right based on what the guest has to say.”
Donald said the company has determined that 3-5 percent of capital expenditures annually will go to research and development projects. Carnival Corp.’s capital spending in fiscal 2016 was $3 billion, up from $2.3 billion the year before.
While Donald wouldn’t say exactly how much the company is spending on the new wearable technology and infrastructure, he said the amount was “considerable” and would reach a few hundred million dollars over time.
“If it takes off with guests, there will be more money involved,” he said. “Some things we do will work, some won’t. Because it’s such a basic platform, I’m confident [it will] return many times over what we invested.”
The Medallion Experience
Passengers will receive a disc at home after they book a trip. Before boarding, they can log onto a portal called OceanCompass to fill out forms, choose activities, and make other preparations for the trip.
The medallion is meant to help passengers as early in their journey as the airport, where Carnival employees can identify them and route them to the right transportation to a cruise terminal. Those who have the devices and have filled out paperwork in advance will be allowed to breeze through the check-in process at the port. The technology will also work in some destinations on land.
Onboard, the devices communicate with readers and sensors on the ship — an Internet of Things network. The discs are built with two tiny antennas, one using Near Field Communication and the other Bluetooth low energy.
Padgett said the self-contained nature of a cruise ship — with food, drinks, retail, entertainment, and recreation all operating in a closed ecosystem — makes it “particularly amenable to the concept of the Internet of Things and the notion of real-time intelligence and sensors and things that allow the experience to change in real time.”
Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, said cruise lines get to know guest behavior better than many other businesses because passengers spend so much time on board.
“I think the idea of using that time together to deepen our understanding of each guest so that we can serve them better is really unlike almost any other application in the world,” she said. “Amazon.com knows me, but they know me only in the setting of purchasing things — one small sliver. On a vacation, it’s almost every dimension of your existence.”
Swartz said she immediately wanted Princess, which has 18 ships, to be an early adopter when she heard Padgett’s idea about two years ago. The premium cruise line carries about 2 million passengers a year.
“I think part of the tremendous opportunity in these ideas is that you can execute personalization at scale,” she said.
Carnival Corp. is not, of course, the only vacation or even cruise company using wearable technology. Disney’s MagicBand, which launched in 2013, is coming out with a new version this year, though the wristbands are not used in parks outside of Florida.
And Royal Caribbean International introduced its WOWbands with the new Quantum of the Seas in 2014, which gives access to staterooms, purchases, and information on board. Room key cards are still given out and must be used to get on the ship.
But Carnival says its new tech goes beyond.
“Unlike other cruise smart bands, the Medallion is the only medium a guest will need throughout their trip — meaning that because it contains the person’s sailing information, they will not need to switch back and forth between printed bar codes, smart bands, and key cards to check in, embark/disembark the ship, enter their room, or make a purchase,” the company noted in a fact sheet.
“It’s very different than the wristband,” Donald said. “The wristband will be like a Neanderthal compared to what this will be.”
Padgett said Disney’s MagicBand set a baseline by providing access to all dimensions of the vacation experience: “It gave you this universal access in this really magical way.” Carnival’s Ocean Medallion will also provide that kind of access.
“But what the Medallion does is it allows for personalization and customization of the vacation across the entire spectrum as well,” Padgett said. “It’s the next step up.”
And unlike the MagicBand or Royal Caribbean’s wristband, the new device doesn’t need to make contact with anything.
“Because it’s not like any ‘wearable’ that’s ever been created before, the guest doesn’t hae to do anything with it,” Padgett said. “They don’t have to touch it, they don’t have to tap it, they don’t have to swipe it. There’s like this aura around the guest.”
Safety and Reliability
Personal and payment information connected to the discs is encrypted, and the devices do not have room numbers on them. If someone loses their medallion, it can be disabled and a new one can be issued.
Padgett said multiple levels of redundancy and uninterruptible power supplies will ensure that the medallions function even if a ship experiences mechanical problems.
Once ships have started using the devices, Carnival will character them as an “Ocean Medallion Class” vessels. Passengers on those ships must use the medallion to get on and off the ship and to get into their rooms, but are not required to use it for anything else.
Donald said that while he expects guests to want to take advantage of the device’s features, the company won’t try to push it on passengers.
“People are going to come up to you and help with what you need without even [you] asking,” he said. “If you don’t want it, no big deal. You’re not going to be hassled or harassed.”
Photo credit: This promotional photo shows cruise passengers wearing Carnival Corp.'s new Ocean Medallion and using a portal to get information during their trip. The cruise company is rolling out the wearable technology on Princess Cruises to improve the guest experience. Carnival Corp. / Carnival Corp.