On today’s cruises, no one, it seems, wants to get away from it all. From millennials to baby boomers, almost everyone uses interactive technology – be that smartphones, tablets or laptops – in their everyday life, and being on a cruise is no different.

"The idea of a cruise vacation as an ‘escapist’ holiday is dated; everyone wants to be connected," says Vincent Cirel, chief information officer for Norwegian Cruise Line. "The past few years have seen a rapid adoption of mobile technology, and everyone on our ships has cell phones."

Although millennials – those born after 1981 – are credited as being responsible for leading this uptake in connectivity, Cirel is quick to disagree.

"There’s been a general perception that it is the millennials who are more connected than the older generation of passengers, but, in reality, the technology-adoption rate among the baby boomers is equal to, if not greater than, the millennials," he explains.

This has translated into an across-the-board increase in guest expectations – one that is growing at a rapid rate. But, the cruise industry has been accused of being slow on the uptake and only now starting to make amends.

"We wanted to understand what it is and why we are doing it," Cirel counters. "Generally, we’ve been fast; it’s been part of our corporate dialogue for two years, and it’s generating about 50% of our guest-facing strategy, whether that’s for consumer or business uses."

After a sluggish start, operators are realising they need to keep up with the fast pace of technology and have been redefining their customer-facing strategies, creating dedicated technology teams and working with external partners to find out what technologies are available and how they can adapt them for on-board use, not least to meet their guests’ connectivity requirements.

And, as technology advances onshore, so do passenger expectations of what they can access when on the ship. On land, they have 24/7 Wi-Fi availability and unlimited mobile plans that enable them to surf the web, talk, text, blog, tweet, share photos, listen to music and watch videos, as and when they want, at affordable rates. But step on board and it’s a different story. As well as the high costs of using technology, the time it takes to get connected – never mind send emails or download videos – is frustratingly slow.

"One of the most significant challenges for us is satellite latency," says Ramon Millan, senior vice-president and global chief information officer for Carnival. "In the port, we can access terrestrial technology; out at sea, we rely on satellite. The signal has to travel from the ship to the satellite then back down to Earth, but how good this connection is depends on where the ship is. Solving this problem involves increasing bandwidth and improving our infrastructure."

A common gripe for passengers has been the high costs they have to pay to use mobile and internet technology on board, whether it’s their own or the ship’s. Charges vary by cruise line, although some offer packages with a lower per-minute rate.

"The cost of internet and cell phone usage will come down eventually, but not on a par with terrestrial-based use," says Cirel. "A big challenge is communicating that effectively to our guests. If the passenger has high-speed internet at home, then they have about ten to 20 times the bandwidth of what we have across the whole ship, and we pay 200 times what passengers pay for that bandwidth. Satellite technologies are expensive and complicated, and we have to consider that while managing our guests’ expectations."

But it looks like limited bandwidth and latency problems will eventually become a thing of the past. In June 2013, O3b Networks launched four satellites and have another eight planned for 2014, promising the delivery of wider bandwidth data with reduced latency compared with current satellite technology. Royal Caribbean has already signed a deal with O3b to supply high-speed internet to its ships.

Bridging the app

With bandwidth improvement imminent, mobile apps are providing what seems to be an effective bridging gap; cruise lines get an effective direct-marketing tool and passengers have instant access to information about services before, during and after the cruise.

Building on the traditional in-cabin television system, products like Norwegian’s iConcierge and Carnival’s MyCostaMobile apps allow operators to stay in real-time contact with customers who have smartphones to promote services and amenities, as well as to get on-the-spot reactions from passengers about their experiences on the ship.

Guests, meanwhile, are no longer restricted to their cabins to view the services available. Through the app, they can interact with the ship’s information system anywhere on board, allowing them to make dining reservations, book shows and arrange onshore excursions.

"After a sluggish start, operators are realising they need to keep up with the fast pace of technology and have been redefining their strategies."

A key use is enabling passengers to communicate with each other via voice or text while on board – not to anyone onshore – without incurring high costs (MyCosta is free to users throughout their trip, while iConcierge has a one-off fee of $7.95).

"For example, if a passenger is in one part of the ship having, say, a spa treatment, and their partner is in the cabin and wants to go to the bar, previously they would have to walk through the ship to find each other, which is incredibly time-consuming," explains Millan. "With MyCosta, there is an immediate connection, and they can make their arrangements immediately."

In a flash

The potential of apps, it seems, is endless. Several lines, including Carnival and Celebrity, are launching products that allow passengers to take part in gaming activities outside of the casino – so they can have a bet while at the pool, in the bar or having breakfast – and developing games such as Norwegian’s ‘Puzzles’ collection and Royal Caribbean’s ‘Penguin Ahoy!’ that allow passengers to familiarise themselves with the layout of the ship and their destinations.

Another lucrative channel is flash deals, which are based on the success of daily deal sites such as Groupon. The ‘Norwegian Flash Deals’ app was launched in 2013, and is part of the line’s on-board revenue-generating strategy to customise offers such as special events or food and beverage packages to passengers.

"But it’s not just a discount platform," explains Cirel. "We can deploy the information we have about our guests to offer them deals aligned to their preferences. The cruise booking system has been considered complicated when compared with, say, reserving a hire car or booking a hotel room; the app is basically a condensed transaction system on a mobile platform."

Flash deals are also used to offer exclusive, limited deals on selected sailings. Rarely publicised, these are targeted at specific audiences and geographical regions. Often only available close to departure dates, these offers can be used to boost difficult-to-sell cruises and offload less-popular cabin types.

"As we deem appropriate, we can push this out to the online retail platform – in app form – and to our travel partners, so they can, in turn, sell it to their constituencies," says Cirel. "We also have a white-label version for larger travel agency entities that may put it out under their umbrella."

With apps now becoming a part of cruise culture, operators are looking to increase their functionality by extending the connectivity to children, so while they do their own thing, their parents know where they are; enabling passengers to initiate the embarkation process to reduce queuing and to monitor their luggage; and enhancing communication between passengers and crew, such as cabin attendants and butlers.

Technological aftercare

While the first wave of apps is being rolled out, cruise lines are also harnessing social-listening tools such as SalesForce’s Radian6 to identify and analyse online conversations about their services and activities.

"Lots of people use social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to tell their friends and family about what they are doing," says Cirel. "So, for the past 18 months, we have deployed the Radian6 dashboard to monitor social media and industry site blogs, so that we will know about it almost immediately if there is a groundswell of positive or negative commentary, which will then allow us to improve our services or drop them as need be."

While the cruise industry makes headway into catering for the constantly connected, how can they ensure that technology does not infringe on those who want to be left alone?

"Yes, there are passengers that don’t want cell phones ringing while they are enjoying a meal or relaxing by the pool, so there need to be some rules, like there are for smoking," says Millan. "But some people get stressed when they are not connected, particularly if they need to keep in touch with their businesses or in case of emergencies. It’s not for the cruise line to decide what people need from a holiday; we offer a portfolio of technologies, and it’s up to the guest whether they want to use them or not."