Buying Technology For Cruise Ships – Lessons Learned
Custom software and hardware systems are driving the cruise industry forward at a remarkable pace. However, over the last six years of specializing in cruise software, I’ve noticed a huge amount of pain in implementing these innovative solutions. This is a brief overview of some of the lessons that Sourcetoad has learned, both from watching other cruise vendors and from making mistakes ourselves!
At Sourcetoad, we’ve built and integrated applications that fit in almost every guest- or operations-facing paradigm. To name a few, we’ve built:
- Large-scale middleware systems
- Shoreside syncing platforms
- Guest portal Wi-Fi systems
- Streaming entertainment platforms
- Smart TV interfaces
- Mobile passenger apps
- Signage systems
- Interactive digital kiosks
- Hotel operations tools
- In-cabin ordering apps
- Butler order-receiving apps
- Housekeeping systems
And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head! In the process, we’ve learned a lot about the dynamic that exists between new-build and operational IT departments. Here are a few lessons we’ve picked up along the way to help your cruise line build better, more maintainable technology systems.
Why Is Cruise Tech So Hard?
The cruise industry is highly competitive these days. There are brands to appeal to every demographic, and new ships are constantly looking for an edge to attract passengers. Technological conveniences, entertainment, and toys are now an established part of the arms race to appeal to the experienced and novice cruiser alike.
The complexities of launching a billion dollar floating hotel are non-trivial. Cruise lines have to balance both the new-build aspirations for the latest technology, as well as operations requirements for keeping the lights on. This tug-of-war is completely understandable, but problematic.
New Build vs Operational IT
The goal of a new-build team is to create the most comfortable, innovative ship on the market for their intended target. Your typical new-build managers are forward-thinking, technologically inclined engineers. They go to the Vegas trade shows and see the latest in 3D signage devices, augmented-reality headsets, and voice-activated, artificial-intelligence helpers. This plethora of cutting-edge technology always seems to be made up of “next big thing” in hospitality. Who could blame a project manager for wanting the coolest tech to entice and entertain their future guests?
On the other hand, you have the operations team. These are the folks who have to run, maintain, upgrade, and support the latest onboard technological marvels. Whatever the newest onboard toy is, it’s just another potential problem for an IT officer who is mainly concerned with the property management system, TV network, and the Wi-Fi access not falling over.
In some ways, operational IT and new-build teams are naturally at odds with each other. New-build looks at IT as overly conservative, risk-adverse, and grumpy. IT sees new-build as those crazies with giant budgets and no concern for how all this stuff is going to be maintained when they leave for the next build. In many cruise lines, these teams are purposefully separated to allow new-build departments to drive innovation and then to hope that operational IT will be able to keep up. But there is a better way.
Do You Really Need This?
The first thing in any technology purchasing decision is working out if the new shiny tool is worth it. Door locks that can be opened with your smart phone might be super cool to a young, tech-savvy crowd, but are they going to be more trouble than they’re worth if your passengers are mostly retirees? A good technology company won’t push you to buy a solution if it doesn’t fit your passengers. Be weary of vendors who don’t ask about your target market.
A great software developer’s trick for suitability is “hallway testing.” You just grab someone out of the hallway and ask them to give their opinion on it. It’s that simple! One of the things I love to do is go to a ship in the middle of a cruise and set up a demo of new ideas and interfaces. Passengers will jump at the chance to give their feedback on future technologies, regardless of their age. Not only does it give them a sense of ownership in their next cruise, it builds excitement, and brand loyalty. You’re saying, “We care enough about our passengers to ask for their opinions.”
The complexities of launching a billion dollar floating hotel are non-trivial. Cruise lines have to balance both the new-build aspirations for the latest technology, as well as operations requirements for keeping the lights on.
Creating Buy In
As hard as it can be for new-build teams to face, operations will be running the day-to-day after that final shakedown cruise. Once all the vendors have slipped back to their prospective offices, the IT officer is the one left holding the bag. A good new-build team will work with their prospective vendors to “sell” the IT team on any new technology before it’s purchased. A good tech vendor will understand this. They’ll produce excellent documentation, get operations’ feedback early, and facilitate the creation of buy-in. Unilateral decisions about tech buys will only lead to future problems down the road.
Clearly someone has to make a decision at some point, and often times IT isn’t going to like it. But they will like it a whole lot better if they have met the vendor’s support staff, sales people, and any other humans who they might deal with when the cool new thing inevitably breaks for the first time.
Buying hospitality technology off the shelf doesn’t always work for the cruise world. Hotels are simple creatures compared to ships. Many tech vendors will not take into account the sheer scale of a modern cruise ship. More problematic will be vendors who don’t understand that they won’t have a constant internet connection to their systems. Systems built for cruise ships need to be able to demonstrate a powerful caching functionality. Caching is a technology that allows for systems to keep working while not connected to a network or to the Internet as a whole. This is a hard barrier to overcome in the mind of the modern programmer, who takes the connectivity for granted.
Learn more about Sourcetoad’s cruise industry expertise.
The last key point to look out for is upgradability. Even six years ago, it was understandably too much to ask for remote maintenance on a ship that isn’t constantly connected to an expensive VSat connection. But the days of having vendors ship hard drives to ports for pick up is over. Maintenance windows, while connected to shoreside internet connections (or even over slower satellite connections), are completely manageable in this day and age. Your vendors should be able to demonstrate their ability to upgrade their software for years to come. Hardware vendors should be able to prove that all they need is to switch out a physical box every now and again without ripping through fire walls.
Buying tech for cruise ships isn’t easy. Vendors who are not used to the unique complexities of a ship should be treated with extreme caution. Keep in mind the following three key facts, and your next tech purchase will be significantly smoother!
- Find vendors who understand your clientele. Designing interfaces for younger cruisers is easy, but if your demographic is over 65, there are many specialized considerations to keep in mind. (Think font sizes, contrast, ease of use, etc.)
- Managing the relationship between the new-build and operational IT teams is something that your vendors should be able to help you with. If not, they’re the wrong team for your industry.
- The Internet is not available in a fjord! Caching and remote management are must haves, so make sure you get your providers to prove this to you before buying anything.