This month, the 141,000-ton Regal Princess will push out to sea after a nine-figure revamp of mind-boggling scale. Passengers won’t be greeted by new restaurants, swimming pools, or onboard activities, but will instead step into a future augured by the likes of Netflix and Uber, where nearly everything is on demand and personally tailored. An ambitious new customization platform has been woven into the ship’s 19 passenger decks: some 7,000 onboard sensors and 4,000 “guest portals” (door-access panels and touch-screen TVs), all of them connected by 75 miles of internal cabling. As the Carnival-owned ship cruises to Nassau, Bahamas, and Grand Turk, its 3,500 passengers will have the option of carrying a quarter-size device, called the Ocean Medallion, which can be slipped into a pocket or worn on the wrist and is synced with a companion app.
The platform will provide a new level of service for passengers; the onboard sensors record their tastes and respond to their movements, and the app guides them around the ship and toward activities aligned with their preferences. Carnival plans to roll out the platform to another seven ships by January 2019. Eventually, the Ocean Medallion could be opening doors, ordering drinks, and scheduling activities for passengers on all 102 of Carnival’s vessels across 10 cruise lines, from the mass-market Princess ships to the legendary ocean liners of Cunard.
The Ocean Medallion is Carnival’s attempt to address a problem that’s become increasingly vexing to the $35.5 billion cruise industry. Driven by economics, ships have exploded in size: In 1996, Carnival Destiny was the world’s largest cruise ship, carrying 2,600 passengers. Today, Royal Caribbean’s MS Harmony of the Seas carries up to 6,780 passengers and 2,300 crew. Larger ships expend less fuel per passenger; the money saved can then go to adding more amenities—which, in turn, are geared to attracting as many types of people as possible. Today on a typical ship you can do practically anything—from attending violin concertos to bungee jumping. And that’s just onboard. Most of a cruise is spent in port, where each day there are dozens of experiences available. This avalanche of choice can bury a passenger. It has also made personalized service harder to deliver. “People might be so overwhelmed that they don’t want to take a cruise, or they might not understand what a cruise is,” says Jan Swartz, group president of Princess Cruises, the first Carnival brand to adopt the Ocean Medallion platform.
For John Padgett, Carnival’s chief experience and innovation officer, the project is the culmination of a decade spent thinking about the divide between mass appeal and exclusivity in travel. “It galled me that in the vacation industry, people call it innovation when they do something special for one tiny group,” he says. “Our goal is to democratize the elite vacation.” Before landing at Carnival, Padgett spent 20 years at Disney, where his last big project was the Disney MagicBand and MyMagic+, a six-year, $1 billion innovation that replaced tickets, money, and lines for rides at Walt Disney World with a wearable wristband and an app.
The Regal Princess intends to do all that and more: Thanks to the ship’s sensors, anything a passenger wants can be delivered on demand. If she opens up her app and orders suntan lotion and a mai tai, a server will find her. What’s more, each interaction with the app will be crunched three times a second by a bundle of 100 algorithms, designed to predict what she might want next. (All Ocean Medallion data is encrypted and isn’t stored in the Medallion. Guests can opt out, but will not receive the new tailored services.) By bringing the kind of anticipatory intelligence that Netflix and Amazon offer customers to a real-world environment, Padgett and his experience team are attempting to transform the cruise industry.
Padgett, who has an aw-shucks grin, neatly parted hair, and a hard-charging confidence, grew up in Seaford, Virginia, near the naval shipyards. Most of his neighbors built aircraft carriers and submarines. “Early on, I learned that building big things wasn’t scary,” he says.
Padgett’s work with Carnival began with a mandate from CEO Arnold Donald, who wanted to find a way to tailor his company’s cruises to offer travelers more authentic and personalized experiences. When Padgett started, he promised Donald a presentation that would change the company. He soon delivered a full-blown simulacrum of a cruise ship, jammed into a nondescript building once occupied by the Miami Herald, where the platform is being built and tested. This “experience center” includes a full-size guest room, a casino, a bar, even a mundane, suburban living room—a nod to the passenger’s home—where the cruise-booking process begins. Just behind the walls, cheek by jowl, sit hundreds of coders and designers.
During a tour of the space last summer, I walked around a rigged-up sundeck with the app in hand, watching as the options for nearby entertainment shifted in real time, based on where I stood. Other experiences were still being refined: responsive way-finding screens offering personalized directions as I passed; customized drink tastings; even poker tables that would sense when I bellied up.
Once the technology is deployed on the ship, hundreds of data points (including what time of day it is, whom passengers hang out with, and how much time they’ve spent in each area) will help the app serve up recommendations. (Guests can adjust location-sharing settings within the app.) “Social engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,” says Michael Jungen, the company’s SVP of experience design. Each of the ship’s stewards will also get their own data-driven devices, providing real-time intel on the guests they’re serving. They’ll be able to see a guest’s plans for the day or if it’s his birthday later that week, and be able to act like concierges.
Swartz views the new, highly personalized service as crucial to both keeping passengers happy on a ship of this size and tempting them aboard as more and more vessels set sail. Industry analysts are watching. “Investors worry about the increased supply in the industry,” says David Beckel, an equities analyst at Bernstein Research who follows Carnival. “A better experience should increase the probability of repeat visits.” If the Medallion boosts return bookings by just 10%, that’s a windfall that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue for Carnival. And if having a credit-card-connected wearable entices passengers into spending more while onboard the ship, all the better.
Some industry experts also believe the new technology could help Carnival reel in younger audiences at a time when the average cruiser is 46, according to the Cruise Line International Association. “Younger travelers want to feel unique,” says Chris Gray Faust, senior editor at Cruise Critic, a site focused on cruise industry information and reviews. “The Ocean Medallion is going to guide people to things [that are] important to them.”
Yet the technology can only do so much. “We’re spending countless hours in training the ship staff,” says Swartz. Crew members will have to make people feel the high-tech personalization as a luxury—and not as a creeping incursion. “If I want to share a glass of wine at sunset with my husband, I won’t have to interrupt the moment to make eye contact with a waiter. The app will tell her my order, and she’ll find me,” says Swartz. “But [she] has to be trained to let me have that [private] moment as well.” Such subtleties offer a test bed for the future, as smart devices and sensors more deeply weave themselves into cities, homes, shopping malls, and airports. As the gadgets around us get more powerful, they’ll also need to be more socially aware. They’ll need to know not just when to step in, but when to keep quiet.