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Technology on the High Seas

Having just returned from a Carnival cruise ( of the Caribbean islands with several students, I have a newly minted appreciation for the level of technology onboard these sea-bound behemoths. The purpose of the trip was to study cruise management while actually cruising the water, and the trip proved to be truly educational for both my students and for me. Through it, I came to discover that cruise ships use advanced technology to manage 3,000+ passengers and 1,000+ crew members. From the research through the booking phase, from check-in through way-finding display boards, cruise lines are tapping sophisticated technology to manage the guest experience and increase revenue.
Web savvy selling
Cruise lines still depend heavily on travel agents as their main distribution channel. In my personal experience, unlike hotels, booking directly with the cruise line did not provide any direct benefit. However, I believe that cruise line websites have the ability to offer additional information, such as past passengers’ first-hand recommendations and stories, which can be especially useful to future passengers and first-time cruisers. Using social networking tools, cruise lines may even bring together passengers who have similar interests, or can even target-market their cruises more effectively to singles or groups.
Once making the reservation, the website helped us prepare for the cruise. We printed out luggage tags at home pre-trip. On the day of check-in, everything went smoothly; 3,200 people were checked in with just a bit of waiting. Once on board, we were given electronic keycards with our photos, taken when we boarded the ship (a great security feature, especially at the ports-of-call).

Some cruise lines are bringing even more sophistication to this process with RFID (radio frequency identification). Royal Caribbean ( rents out iPhones and wristbands with Wi-Fi RFID tags to passengers on its Oasis of the Seas to help families and groups locate their members.
I expect to see biometrics added to this process in the future. Disney Cruise Line ( is already using facial recognition, a form of biometrics, on its new ship Disney Dream to sort out the vast number of photos that Disney takes and sells to vacationers. Facial recognition is also used in the ship’s interactive, moving picture exhibits that “play” when a passenger is standing in front of them. The technology is used to ensure that a display doesn’t play the same sequence to the same passenger twice.
On our ship, food order accuracy was impressive. Most cruise ships offer a variety of selections for À la carte lunch and dinner. The kitchen must therefore estimate the number of dishes that will be ordered to prepare for demand and manage wait times. Cruise line management uses data mining techniques to predict food orders. The kitchen manager reported that these estimates are accurate to within a +/- 4% margin for error. Any excess food is used in creative ways through a sophisticated recycling program.
Room for improvement
I approached the cruise with the preconception that passengers would not use the Internet much due to the expensive business model required to bring HSIA on board: the cost to the passenger on my cruise was .75 cents per minute. Despite this, I saw many people on laptops and Wi-Fi enabled devices. In fact, due to the high number of passengers using the Internet and the limited number of Internet Protocol addresses available, I was unable to obtain an IP address on more than one occasion. Many passengers used the connection to download e-mails to their devices, and then disconnected and wrote replies while offline.

With the emerging trend of conference cruising, improving the availability of IP addresses on cruise ships will be attractive to meeting planners (if not required). I predict cruise lines will look for ways to overcome the HSIA challenge in order to become more appealing to conferences.
In all, there’s one thing I learned that cruise lines do best: sell. It’s no wonder why the retired president of Carnival Cruise lines Bob Dickinson called his book, “Selling the Sea.” Cruise lines use every single opportunity for selling and up-selling. Here’s an area where hoteliers would learn well from cruise lines.

For more insights from Cihan, click here.
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