The Future of Cruises

For some, the idea of taking to the seas for a cruise holiday sums up visions of being trapped in a tin can with uncontrollable families, sickness bugs and hidden costs. For others, it’s an opulent escape, replete with silver service, spa treatments and exotic ports of call. Personally, I think it’s the best sleep you’ll ever have, gently rocked to slumber by 141,000 tons of endless-buffet carrying, sea-faring super-hotel. And did I mention the endless buffet?

Feasting and sleeping aside, cruises are becoming an ever popular way of seeing snapshots of the world from the comfort of a floating home away from home.

The idea of backpacking through Asia doesn’t always appeal to everyone (quote often physical conditions or life-altering illnesses can rule it out entirely), so for some being able to experience a diverse and wide array of different cultures without the complications and health concerns of living out of a backpack is a massive incentive to try it out.

But with such a variety of different destinations to choose from, cruise operators and ships, it can be a dizzying task to even understand where to start. Coupled with the various myths about cruises that have circulated over the years, it can mean it tends to get overlooked by the very people that would benefit and enjoy a break on board ship.

It’s fair to say cruise holidays have grown up in the past 20 years, with more operators becoming aware of the different needs presented by untapped audiences, especially young families who have begun to appreciate what the lifestyle has to offer.

There are cruise companies who target everyone from the superannuated traditional crowd looking to pass away at sea (this is a thing apparently), all the way to the young and restless with their disposable trust funds and weekend Bentleys. Cruise operators now offer a variety of different experiences that appeal to this incredibly broad spectrum of audiences, some of them at the same time.

Certain cruise operators tend to also adopt a modus operandi with their brands, which under the surface can give you a rough idea of who each brand and their ships are suitable for if you know where to look. But even so, this is just a small sample of the cruise companies out there, with each of these now diversifying its product offering to try and appeal to wider audiences at various price ranges.

As a family, we’ve continued to cruise as a way of seeing as much of the world as possible while enjoying consistently high standards of accommodation and cuisine. There’s nothing easier than throwing the cases in the car, driving to Southampton and parking up right next to the ship, giving your cases to one steward while another takes your car keys, to then pretty much being checked in and on board within the next hour. We even took our son on his first cruise at the age of 2 as it was just so easy (although most of the luggage was filled with nappies), but as he’s grown up and discovered his own freedom we’ve found the quality of facilities geared towards him are second to none, giving him his space and us time to ourselves while having piece of mind that he’s in the best of care.

While I could talk about the benefits of cruise holidays and why we go on them for hours, how is any of this relevant to product design and technical innovation?

Photo: Royal Caribbean

Photo: Royal Caribbean

In the last decade, cruise ships have tried to modernise their experiences and offer more ’technologically focused’ features, which has led to things like robot barmen, virtual video balconies for inside cabins, sky-diving simulators, mega flumes, and a 300ft high observation pod.

While these are a feat of technology and engineering, it still feels like genuine utility driven by technology has remained relatively stagnant and fairly gimmicky up until now, at least compared to the wider travel industry.

I don’t believe the future of the cruise industry lies with gimmicks but rather focused on the convenience of finding the right break for ‘you’ and providing a ‘carefree life onboard’. So to understand the kinds of solutions and products that are positively useful in this area, let’s take a look at some of the advancements in the last decade or so in the wider travel industry, most notably one of my favourite case studies of all time…

Disney Magic Band

Photo: Matt Stroshane/Disney

This is both a feat of technical brilliance and surprising political survival, with a staggeringly large infrastructure developed alongside some fairly destructive boardroom and organisational challenges. It’s fair to say few of the original team responsible for the inception of this product are still at Disney, but still, it stands as a game changer for the way people interact with their holiday environment and can gain greater freedom from some of the classical barriers to resort-based holidays.

Creating a cashless society is no small feat, but Disney took it to the next level by pairing their RFID bracelets with clever personalisation and the high standard of chipper hospitality American resorts are known for. By pairing your band with the MyDisneyExperience app, you’re not just able to gain access to the parks, book early access to rides and access your reservations, but you can also unlock your room (if staying on-resort), pay for purchases, access your official photos and even track down your favourite characters relative to your current location. Even more surprisingly, if you’ve gone to the effort to pre-list any dietary requirements and make a restaurant reservation via the app, you are greeted at the door by name as you arrive, your hosts already aware of your own personal needs and exactly how to tailor your experience. In the vastness of a Disney-scale super-restaurant, your root beer float will always find its way to you.

Wired provides a great rundown on the product and more about its capabilities in detail on their site. Arguably though, the virtual wallet and room access functions rank as significant utility for cruise operators to take note of, with ships a captive environment where your cruise card is an essential part of your day to day life onboard. The problem with these is that they’re easy to lose, demagnetise or simply just forget completely, as it takes a few days to build up the natural habits surrounding their use. What Disney has done with their wearable is ensure that our mobile devices are a key part of the process and interaction, building usage around the familiarity of a thing we carry with us everywhere.

There is a clear parity and usefulness in accessing shipboard services too, from specialty restaurant reservations, to spa appointments and even dynamic room service, not to mention things like being able to keep in touch with other passengers and even just knowing where you are (these are big ships, with maze-like internal layouts).

While technological innovation is on the rise in the cruise industry, is it focused on genuine utility and improving the customer experience versus interesting gimmicks?

In fact, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, MSC and Celebrity all have new digital access products currently in development, some requiring a wearable component, others just app-based utilising onboard RFID technology. Between all of these there’s also varying levels of other services that you can access and control like reservations, location, and itineraries, but the industry still feels a step behind where technological capabilities have been for some time, with some cruise providers having two or three legacy apps still in circulation, each providing a significant overlap of functionality and confusing users desperate for additional utility and a simple, unified approach.

Even basic systems and controls, like in-room entertainment and user account access, services which hoteliers like Hilton and Marriott are already rolling out across their significant number of properties, are still fairly makeshift in their development, with vanilla white-label products rolled out across parent companies like Royal Caribbean and its various cruise brands but yet to impact the customer experience significantly.

Personalisation and smart control are indeed the focus of brands like Hilton and Marriott, playing a key role in their future guest experiences. By placing the guest at the centre of their product development, both brands have focused on building a digital ecosystem around its guests and their needs across the entire customer journey, including things like detailed destination guides, bookable experiences, a personalised & simplified booking journey as well as in-room entertainment systems that let the user bring their subscription services with them, dynamic environmental and room controls and simply being able to use loyalty points to purchase things on resort.

With 90% of cruises still booked via a travel agent, it’s clear cruise providers have a lot of work to do in providing consistent and personalised functionality across the entirety of the customer journey, with agents like Bolsover still providing an incredibly personal and tailored experience compared to booking direct.

Ultimately though, for an integrated customer experience at this scale, it will come down to improving and perfecting the idea that each user is unique, that their individual needs and their ability to filter through all of the options can be easily dealt with. For most people, the experience of going on a cruise begins far before you step onboard, so consistency, richness of content and usability is important throughout the planning and booking stages, understanding how each of the journey stages is inextricably linked together and can be simplified.

The parts of the journey that technology can better assist with are also invariably where the technology and interaction also require as much simplicity as possible, where things, like purchasing things on board and managing your itinerary, should be driving digital utility and a personalised view of each guest’s experience. But by using design and physical devices already part of people’s lives, we should be able to use familiarity and existing technology habits to drive and augment the experience, without creating too many barriers to entry or a steep learning curve. Simply being able to buy a drink on board without having to fill in a receipt for instance, or even access your stateroom, book tours, manage your excursion tickets or keep tabs on what your kids are doing are all key activities that can be both augmented but also simplified through the use of technology. These are all surface-level but essential tasks you have to perform on board, able to be performed the way they have for years without any effect to the experience, but by using everyday technology presenting the user with the option to go deeper and truly add convenience to their break.

We recently ran a Friction Mapping and Ideation exercise at 383, to get a better view of where the challenges lie in the industry but also the potential for solutions.

As well as providing the functionality and services that drive this level of convenience, there is also the required understanding of what barriers exist that will make it harder for some people to access these unique and convenient benefits. As with all things that utilise technology to access a service, there has to be an essential level of graceful failure that means that these services are still accessible, with things like digital banking and smart home providers now offering dedicated concierge services, aimed at demystifying the technology and steps necessary to get to grips with modern technology for people who struggle with it. It’s therefore important to realise that while cruise lines are attempting to slowly diversify its audiences, it’s still got a long way to go to integrate truly useful technology at the same time, but that it should also be aware that not everyone is ready or even inclined to have their cruises modernised.

At 383 we always try to tackle customer challenges through how technology and everyday digital utility can help, but with a lens on what the experience needs to look like when you strip away the layer of technology on top, or parts of the process are reduced. Designing for failure is a critical step in our design process, and so any journey or friction mapping we undertake also strives to understand the most basic interactions the audience can make to achieve a goal.

There’s a high potential for human error when it comes to innovative interactions and especially booking services. It’s fair to say if something is going to break it’s most likely us, whether it’s because of accessibility issues and our inability to interact with something, or that people hate filling in forms, especially on mobile devices. Accessibility, complexity, time restrictions and information overload all stack up to trip us over, so in understanding a solution for an industry that has traditionally remained overly complex, we clearly need to tread carefully and consider what happens when we’re not trying to be too clever.

We’ve taken the time to put some of our thoughts in to practice, and have created a series of design experiments and a report based on our insights from customers with a multitude of different experiences, defining and exploring the areas of opportunity for the Future of the Cruise Customer Experience. Our report is an introduction into deeper research, and a primer to the potential solutions we’ve started to validate against the real world problems cruise customers face. If you’re interested in knowing more and getting hold of it, email tom@383project.com and we would be happy to talk through it.