The Cruise Industry’s Problem with Technology ROI

A significant concern in the cruise industry at the moment is the seemingly decreasing ROI on guest-facing software. The reason for this perception is the rapid pace of technological development. For example, an app that allows a guest to preview a shore excursion in virtual reality might be very cool today, but could look so dated in three years that it needs to be pulled.

An app that was expected to be depreciated over five years now requires a replacement in three. Even something as simple as maintaining the existing features in an onboard passenger app can be challenging. Operating system updates, user interface fashions, and security updates alone can keep a full-time team busy without ever adding a new feature.

This relentless development cost center can be even more disheartening when viewed under the light of competition. Onboard technology has become an expected convenience for guests, and novel technology is rapidly becoming a competitive advantage for cruise lines. So not only is it “keeping up with the Jones,” but it is also “we must have a better augmented reality experience than the Jones.”

The Real Problem

The actual issue is not the technology, the pace of development, or the competitive environment. The root cause of the perception of diminishing ROI is the approach to innovation and development in the first place.

Cruise lines are in the business of delighting their passengers. This means that most technological investment is focused on entertaining guests and making life onboard more convenient for them. Interface design and experience design have become paramount. Delivering really good-looking interfaces and digital experiences is expensive and time-consuming. And what compounds the problem is these age the worst and the fastest.

Because these flashy, guest-wowing systems don’t need large data infrastructures behind them, they usually are run by a folder of text, audio, and video assets created for just one specific use.

Contributing Factors

This approach to technology development comes from a well-meaning place that fosters rapid iteration and deployment. The concepts of LEAN and Agile development have seeped into every corner of the development world and have made this problem worse. These methodologies (in very brief summary) push the idea that technology teams should make small and rapid iterations of software and get it out in front of people as quickly as possible. This is the thinking which drives most of the tech startups in the world, and it works great! The problem is it can clash with the reality of enterprise expectations and cruise ship realities.

Smart phone on ship

The Solution

What cruise lines really should invest in for the long-term is a mix of 70% on reusable software-as-infrastructure and 30% on shiny ways of delivering that guest experience. To do this, keep these three simple principles in mind:

  1. Identify the goals
  2. Create a three-point plan for reusability
  3. Deliver the goals fleet-wide

Let’s say you want to deliver an educational, augmented reality (AR) experience for younger cruisers. This hypothetical app would teach kids about dolphins when they look through a porthole enhanced by augmented reality. This experience will also be a great publicity tool, adults will love it, and the marketing team will seem like champions.

Typically this would be built with all the focus on the content and effects — 3D graphics, great voice-overs, etc. The problem is all that data would be stored in a simple, purpose-built system put together very quickly as a necessary evil to drive the front-end application delivery. All the development effort would go toward making this one guest experience amazing.

But instead of spending the entire budget on the initial application, the longevity of the system could be designed into it from the start.

1. Identify the goals

The primary goal of the system is to provide educational content to younger passengers. The secondary goals are great marketing PR and adult passenger delight.

2. Have a three-point plan for reusability

Once the goals are clear, they should be applied to at least two more hypothetical implementations. When there are at least three distinct ideas to develop, rather than just one “educational dolphin AR experience,” your team can step back and start to see the bigger picture. You might  add these as ideas to repurpose assets:

  • Reuse the voice-over pieces of the kids’ experience in a “Swim with the Dolphins” shore excursion
  • Play videos produced for the educational project on screens in public areas and tenders as  promotions for purchasing cruise photos
  • Start with the dolphin content to build an online learning center with marine life experts to promote greater awareness of the brand and its efforts supporting sustainability of the ocean ecosystem

Now you and your team are creating possibilities for substantially increasing the ROI of one small project, and you haven’t spent an extra dime.

3. Deliver the goals fleet-wide

What you focus on here is creating an educational experience and learning system that can store all types of video, AR, voice-over, and text data, that can be associated by port, shore excursion, guest preferences, etc. You might consider having this data centrally managed and enabling updates from anywhere. You will also want to store this information in a myriad of various formats for future usages.

Once this reusable foundation is built, your team can step back in and easily deliver that shiny educational AR application, and multi-purpose the same content with interactive TVs, mobile apps, digital kiosks, and even the web.  

Cruise lines are probably never going to get away from the new reality of a three-year depreciation of that shiny 30%, but there is no reason why the 70% as reusable underlying software infrastructure can’t make up for it by having a life span of ten years or more.