Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), recently remarked that the emphasis in the cruise industry was shifting from making ships larger to adding ever more features to them. Unique entertainment and dining options are being introduced everywhere and cabins are becoming increasingly personalised, enabling passengers to customise their experience in ways that were not possible before.

"The ‘bells and whistles’ in this industry are unparalleled in any other area of travel and are among the major factors in driving interest in cruising worldwide," explains Duffy. "In-cabin customised services are becoming more popular, as they afford a touch of luxury and a personalised experience that enhance any holiday."

Dining and entertainment are undoubtedly reaching new heights. Bumper cars, skydiving simulators, Celebrity Cruise’s Top Chef at Sea experiences (where passengers can sail and dine with contestants from Bravo’s Emmy-winning series) and Royal Caribbean’s London Eye-style capsule, North Star (which offers 360° views of the sea), are just a few examples of the range and level of the innovative offerings available.

"Cruise lines are putting an emphasis on offering more on board, rather than just building larger ships."

"Cabins come in all shape and sizes, including suites, duplexes, lofts and cabins with wraparound decks, outdoor dining tables and hot tubs or plunge pools," says Duffy. "Some new trends include increased technology, walk-in closets, whirlpool bathtubs, spa cabins, studio accommodation for solo travellers and family berths."

"Cruise lines are putting an emphasis on offering more on board, rather than just building larger ships," says Adam Coulter, UK editor for leading review and information site Cruise Critic. "New builds typically have some kind of never-seen-before-at-sea feature and examples of these can be found on upcoming launches such as Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, which are the line’s first two next-generation ships."

Virtual balcony breakthrough

One of the most talked-about in-cabin innovations is Royal Caribbean’s virtual balcony: an 80in, high-definition screen offering real-time views and sounds of the ocean. First introduced on Navigator of the Seas, they will be available in 373 cabins on Quantum of the Seas, which is planned for delivery in November 2014. The balconies enable passengers to experience sunrises and sunsets, and, in every stateroom, ports and destinations.

"The idea for the virtual balcony came from Richard Fain, our chairman and a small team of dreamers at Royal on the entertainment technology and IT teams," says Miami-based Ronnie Farzad, manager of entertainment technology for Royal Caribbean.

"We developed the concept internally, but I was able to use the services of Control Group (an agency based in New York) for the programming. I demonstrated the technology to several groups of journalists; the sounds and visuals of the ocean transformed the staterooms on Navigator of the Seas."

On Avalon Waterways, passengers can now experience open-air balconies in the majority of rooms – a 7ft wall of floor-to- ceiling windows that open up, making the room one big balcony – and many lines now offer spa cabins that are positioned close to the ship’s wellness area.

Celebrity’s Reflection’s AquaClass suites have spacious, 79ft2 verandas, as well as exclusive amenities, unlimited access to the AquaSpa and complimentary access to its speciality Blu restaurant.

Cabin technology equals choice

Kevin Bubolz, director for business and marketing in Europe at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), says that offering passengers a choice of options is important for the company, given that variety is inherent in its Freestyle Cruising product. Options range from 24-hour room service and, for suite guests, white tablecloth in-suite dining, as well as varied television programming that includes recordings of on-board entertainment.

"The TV now does so much – you can use it to book dinner, check your on-board account and so on," says Coulter. "Passengers have been able to use it for things like making reservations for dining and excursions before, but it’s a better process now."

Norwegian’s iConcierge app can be used on guests’ mobile devices on several ships, such as Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Breakaway. It enables passengers to access on-demand information and services including excursions, restaurant menus and bookings, on-board and spa services and to make phonecalls. "With iConcierge guests can connect while on board, and our websites can be accessed free of charge through Wi-Fi and in internet cafés on all our ships," says Bubolz.

"The number of ‘free’ sites accessible to passengers while sailing is growing," says Coulter, adding that MSC, Costa and Disney also have apps. "While on board a ship, passengers can usually access, for free, the cruise line website and all its properties. The higher grade suites on many lines include iPads, and you can use these in the same way you use the TV for booking tables in restaurants and so forth."

Farzad says cabin technology provides entertainment and self-service – both of which enrich the guest experience on board – and explains that Royal Caribbean has experimented with company-owned mobile hardware. "We realised that while this technology had many benefits, growth in the tablet and mobile markets has meant that guests prefer to use their own devices," he says, adding that, in addition to self-service, tablet and mobile devices make passengers feel connected and gives them a sense of home. Interactive TV services provide guests with room service and on-demand movies.

Wi-Fi woes answered

"The cruise industry is unrolling amazing new technology," says a CLIA spokesperson. "Most new ships offer internet cafes, along with bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and phone connectivity. With sophisticated networks and innovative platforms on the horizon, travellers will soon find that their smartphones and mobile devices provide communications services at sea that are comparable to those they expect on land."

"The cruise industry is unrolling amazing new technology. Most ships offer internet cafes, along with bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and phone connectivity."

While most liners charge for Wi-Fi, the industry has responded to complaints about roaming costs and high connection fees.

"Examples include Connect at Sea by Wireless Maritime Services for iPhone and Android users, which is expected to enhance wireless communications and reduce costs significantly, as well as direct innovation by individual lines," says CLIA’s representative. "Royal Caribbean has also introduced 3G data services by WMS on its Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, enabling guests to use their mobile devices to access email, use apps and surf the web at increased connection speeds, while Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers up to 500 minutes of free Wi-Fi internet access to guests in concierge-level suites and higher."

Connecting with passengers

While spectacular customised entertainment options on board continue to dazzle, in-cabin options also provide innovative choices. According to CLIA, "Cruisers can expect to see exciting new games, shows and activities on board ships through partnerships that many of the lines are forming with big name brands."

Examples include Crystal Cruises’ partnership with the USC School of Cinematic Arts, which offers film-making classes in which guests can create movies on their iPads and all events produced in Princess Cruises’ TV studio, from culinary demos to art lectures and late-night comedy, as they are beamed to stateroom TVs.

Overall, personalising the cruise experience for passengers improves the holiday experience on board and ultimately increases profit margins.

"As with internet shopping, if the overall user experience is improved, it makes you more likely to buy," says Coulter, who adds that the technological advances allow cruise lines to build up a profile of their guests enabling an experience to be tailored to the individual. "When on the big ships, some people are concerned that the personal sense is lost, but having these extra touches helps to make them feel more personalised. It helps them to create the sort of intimate experience that is delivered by smaller luxury lines."

Duffy concludes: "Travellers want to feel special and the constant improvements to services and amenities would surprise many who haven’t cruised before. The high guest satisfaction rate in the industry is a reflection of passengers being ‘wowed’ by every aspect of their journey."