While some passengers still see cruises as a chance to switch off from the outside world, others – a fast-growing proportion – have come to expect almost the same level of connectivity at sea as they do on land. And over the past couple of years, cruise operators have started responding by investing in high-speed networks, which allow customers to access everything from Skype to Netflix, developing purpose-designed mobile apps and putting together increasingly affordable internet plans. Yet it’s still early days for an industry that faces more challenges than most achieving constant connectivity, meaning operators that aren’t agile and ready to adapt to the field’s evolution will be left behind.

Just like an excellent shore excursion programme, a wide range of restaurants, bars and cafes, and top-notch on-board entertainment, connectivity has become a must for today’s cruise passengers.

"Obviously, there will always be a certain amount of people that go on cruise vacations to be completely disconnected, but year over year, we see a continuous increase in the demand for guests to be connected, even while on vacation," says Reza Rasoulian, vice-president of global connectivity and shipboard technology operations at Carnival Corporation.

"Carnival has been working hard to ensure its internet plans meet the needs of today’s passengers."

Carnival is already one of the industry’s two frontrunners when it comes to connectivity; its WiFi@Sea network offers ten times faster speeds than those previously available on its ships. This is thanks to a hybrid connectivity system that works by integrating a combination of advanced satellite systems, onboard software, networking equipment, land-based antennas and Wi-Fi from port connections, and as of late 2015, had been deployed on 30 of its 100 ships. The system also allows bandwidth to be shared across satellites and to dynamically shift from ship to ship or brand to brand, improving connectivity and reliability. Deployment across more of the fleet will continue over the coming months and years.

Meanwhile, guests on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Quantum-class ships can make use of VOOM, a high-speed internet service that, the company says, is "six times faster than any other internet at sea".

"Whether it’s posting photos on Instagram, updating your status on Facebook, having face-to-face conversations with loved ones back home via Skype, or streaming music or movies, Royal Caribbean guests will never miss a beat, thanks to having the fastest internet at sea on board our ships," a company spokesperson commented about the service, which uses satellites launched by technology partner O3B Networks and costs $15 per device a day.

Planning ahead

Carnival has also been working hard to ensure its internet plans meet the needs of today’s passengers. For example, the company now offers a ‘social’ plan for guests that just want to use social media, which costs only $5 a day and allows access to the most popular social-media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

While Carnival has seen excellent take up of the new social-media plan, it isn’t suitable for everyone, so the brand also offers a ‘value’ option for $16 a day, which includes email, news, sport, weather, banking and finance, but not Skype or music streaming, and a ‘premium’ plan for $25 a day that is up to three times faster than the value plan and supports Skype video calling. On Carnival’s old per-minute pricing structure, staying connected all day would have cost hundreds of pounds.

Since the introduction of different pricing structures, which are currently available only on certain ships in the company’s fleet, not only have performance and guest satisfaction improved, the brand also has a new way to market itself. "It’s been very positive," says Rasoulian. "It’s a very challenging environment but guests that have sailed with us before comment that year over year they actually see performance improvements.

"Especially on the portions of the fleet where we’ve updated our pricing and plans, we see increasing guest satisfaction and we see more posts from those ships. It happens organically, and for the entire industry it’s a fantastic pure type of marketing that occurs. We’re offering these phenomenal experiences and that ability to go to far-off islands and destinations, but historically it may have been difficult or expensive to post about it. With our revised approach, it really gives people the opportunity to share their experiences almost in real time."

Seamless experiences with mobile apps

With mobile applications such an important part of consumers’ day-to-day lives on land, whether they’re using them to research their next holiday or order drinks at a bar, it’s little surprise that cruisers are increasingly demanding them at sea, too. And again, many operators are responding.

For example, Royal Caribbean offers a ‘personal vacation management app’, Royal iQ, on its Quantum-class ships, through which passengers can see their plans via a calendar, make dining reservations and text or call other passengers for a nominal fee, while Carnival’s HUB app includes a day-by-day schedule of on-board events; the option to purchase drinks; searchable deck plans; a chat function; and real time information on guests’ on-board account balance.

"Guests want to understand what’s going on so a lot of our brands are investing in mobile applications and technology to help give them a really seamless experience on board," Rasoulian notes.

Celebrity Cruises also offers several apps including Cruise Lingo, which allows guests to learn the language of their destinations, and Celebrity’s Fortunes, a free mobile casino gaming app that lets passengers play popular casino games anywhere on the ship – as long as it’s in international waters. Apps by other operators include NCL’s iConcierge app and Princess’s Sea Messenger.

An evolving field

It really is early days for the field of on-board connectivity, meaning the next 12 months are likely to be characterised by more evolution – in the technology behind connectivity, and how operators sell internet plans and other related solutions to their passengers.

At Carnival, the team is constantly reviewing which plans resonate with each brand’s different demographics, as well as trying not to bombard their passengers with options. "One of the benefits of having such scale in the Carnival brands is that we’re able to try different things and make sure [we can find out] which method or approach resonates better with our guests," Rasoulian says. "We’re also cognisant that we don’t want to create decision fatigue on which plan to purchase and it does vary from brand to brand. So each brand or brand group has an on-board revenue team that focuses specifically on that; we really try to cater the experience to the people sailing with us."

"It really is early days for the field of on-board connectivity, meaning the next 12 months are likely to be characterised by more evolution."

The technology behind the plans is also constantly being reviewed, optimised and updated, so it can be deployed on as many brands across the group as possible, as quickly as possible. "The approach we take [at the all-brands group] is that we provide the solutions and the brands get to evaluate and determine how slowly or quickly they deploy," Rasoulian explains.

"And generally what I see is a key interest in continuing to invest and improve connectivity. For example, we have new antenna technology that we’re proliferating across our fleet, and we have optimisation technology that we’re reproducing across the fleet. Our approach is that at every opportunity, whether it’s at a dry-dock or even when the ship is underway, if we’re able to implement these features and solutions we absolutely do."

Today, thanks to carefully designed procedures and strong partnerships with vendors, a new antenna can be installed on a ship while it waits in port in a matter of a just a few hours.

Operators industry-wide will continue to experiment with connectivity technology and how to harness the better connected guest on board as 2016 continues, and, according to Rasoulian, it won’t be an easy balance for any line to strike. "The space is evolving and it’s a challenging one, so it will be interesting to see what other brands do as the field developes," he concludes.

"[For us] all elements of the performance are looked at, financial and technical, so our on-board revenue teams work very hard to strike a balance between what our spend is for the service and what we’re able to recover from an on-board revenue perspective. But the demand continues to increase, so we’re all going to have to continue to be on our toes and really improve the guest experience as much as possible."