From booking holidays to doing the weekly food shop, our mobile phones have infiltrated every aspect of our lives. And it’s no different when we’re on a cruise: a day or two off social media is a thought that today fills a growing number of passengers and crew members with dread.

Fortunately, it’s not a scenario many have to endure anymore, thanks to the great strides in connectivity and related technologies the cruise industry has taken over the past year. Looking forward to the next year, too, progress is set to be even faster: before we know it, we’ll be living in a world in which passengers and crew members alike can expect a seamless mobile journey before, during and after their cruise. 

The whole package

The world’s largest cruise operator, Carnival Corporation, which has a combined fleet of over 100 vessels across ten brands, is one of two operators leading the way in this field. 52 of the company’s 101 vessels are taking advantage of a hybrid connectivity system that offers significant improvements on internet speeds: it works by integrating a combination of advanced satellite systems, on-board software, networking equipment, land-based antennae and Wi-Fi from port connections.

On many of its brands’ vessels – most notably on Carnival Cruise Line’s ships – passengers can access the company’s WiFi@Sea network affordably and without the stress of counting minutes or MBs, thanks to a new selection of plans designed for the modern cruiser.

“We had growing numbers of guests wanting to use the internet and we wanted to make sure we could create a more affordable option for a broader range of guests,” explains Gabriela Gonzalez, Carnival Cruise Line’s vice-president of guest technology. “Is it super, super high speed? Absolutely not. That’s not how it’s designed. But it’s a solution that works for all guests across all our ships, and it’s fast, affordable and reliable.”

There are three different tiers of plans available on Carnival’s ships, which can be purchased for a 24-hour period or for the length of a cruise. The ‘social’ plan costs $5.00 a day and offers access to popular social media sites; the ‘value’ plan is $16.00 a day and allows you to surf news, sports, weather and banking sites; and the ‘premium’ plan is $25.00 a day, and offers connection speeds three times faster than the standard as well as video calls.

"The main areas we’re currently focusing on are personalising the experience – turning a cruise of 4,000 passengers into a cruise of one – and reducing lines and wait times, as well as making buying and transacting easier for our guests."

In the wider Carnival Corporation group, all 12 AIDA ships offer a social-media package starting at $4.50 a day or $21.00 a week; nine of Costa’s 15 ships offer a similar plan; Cunard UK is planning to deploy social and unlimited plans with prices starting at $10.00 a day; and P&O Cruises Australia offers a ‘bronze social unlimited’ package starting at $10.00 a day that includes access to various social media channels.

’Appy days

With its HUB app – currently available on ten ships and set to be deployed across ten more by the end of the year – Carnival Cruise Line is well on its way to offering a seamless mobile experience for passengers. Features of the app include a day-by-day schedule of on-board events, a comprehensive list of dining options and events, deck plans, a function for checking your account balance, and on-board chat access.

“We want to be where our guests are, and our guests are going mobile,” Gonzalez explains. “The whole journey of booking, planning and experiencing a cruise is a series of micro moments and, especially on board, your go-to screen is your phone. So we started creating a seamless experience on board with the HUB app, with the idea of then integrating this with a seamless experience pre and post-cruise.

“The main areas we’re currently focusing on are personalising the experience – turning a cruise of 4,000 passengers into a cruise of one – and reducing lines and wait times, as well as making buying and transacting easier for our guests. We’re at the beginning of our journey but there’s a plan to expand this beyond just the on-board experience, combining the app with the responsive web experience so that it’s seamless across all channels.”

The brand also has big plans for improvements to the on-board app over the coming months. On the Carnival Vista, guests can already access their photos using the app’s visual recognition technology – a feature that is set to be expanded to other ships in the fleet – and the team plans to add the option to buy excursions on the app and make dining reservations in the future.

“We want to add more functionality to the account management, to remove lines from guest services, and we’re also experimenting with adding a more comprehensive chat function so guests can be better assisted on board,” Gonzalez says. “There are a lot of systems to integrate and, in some cases, operations will have to change, but we’re working hard to make sure we can bring this to the fleet as soon as we can.”

Other apps available across Carnival’s brands include: Princess@Sea, which allows guests to plan their days’ events and activities, review the ship’s itineraries and port guides, browse restaurant menus, access their stateroom account and send text messages to other guests on board; and MyCosta Mobile, which offers 360° tours of cabins, suites, restaurants, lounges and the pool deck before the cruise, and calls to restaurants, the spa desk and the shore excursions office once on board.

Crew members on Carnival Cruise Line are also benefitting from the brand’s growing focus on connectivity, according to Gonzalez. “We’re really happy to be able to provide connectivity for our crew members so they can talk to their friends and family back home, and our next step is to offer a different set of plans so we can make sure we’re fast, affordable and reliable for the crew, too,” she says, adding that when designing the content-management system (CMS) for the HUB app, care was also taken to make sure the crew-member user interface was just as user-friendly as the guests’.

Connectivity: a critical function

This rapid innovation has also brought challenges for Carnival Cruise Line, such as ensuring that the system consistently works across the fleet.

“It’s been about designing an experience that does not work on just one ship, but that can also be quickly scaled up for a fleet of ships, of varying ages and with different systems,” Gonzalez explains. “We’ve also had to make sure that the app and CMS are not negatively impacting the operation but rather helping it and making everyone’s lives easier.”

"It’s been about designing an experience that does not work on just one ship, but that can also be quickly scaled up for a fleet of ships, of varying ages and with different systems."

As guest expectations rise and the whole cruise operation grows more reliant on connectivity, these factors are only going to become more important. “We’re opening the door to having more operations, processes and experiences rely on connectivity. It’s become a critical function, but that means the burden of it always being on and working is also higher,” she notes.

Overcoming these challenges has involved extensive monitoring and collaboration between internal teams and with external partners.

“With our satellite providers, for example, we work closely together to make sure all the ships are receiving the right bandwidth and that everything is working as designed,” says Gonzalez. “There’s a whole series of things that need to go right – and if things fail, you need to be able to recover quickly.”

There’s also the issue of justifying the technology’s huge expense for the operator. “It’s definitely expensive and it’s not a one-time investment. This is why we wanted to design a technology and setup that would make sense across the whole fleet. So far, we’ve seen a growing adoption of the offering as it improves, and we believe that as we keep providing a better experience for guests and crew members, we’re going to see the results.

It will be a continuous effort for us to make sure we can meet customer expectations at sea, but there’s a lot of energy around it. It’s an exciting time for technology at Carnival.”