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High Seas High Tech: How the Cruise Industry Is Personalizing Your Vacation

Why leave your lounger to go order a drink when you can just tap your wrist to get a Daiquiri at your deck chair?
Image: File photo of cruise ship Crown Princess travelling into Port Canaveral, Florida
The cruise ship Crown Princess travels into Port Canaveral, Florida in this July 18, 2006.JOE SKIPPER / Reuters

Why leave your lounger to go order a drink when you can just tap your wrist to get a Daiquiri delivered to your deck chair?

The cruise industry is undergoing a sea change in the way passengers experience their vacation.

First limited to pockets of niche tech advancements (think robotic bartender arms mixing drinks), there's been a shift in the mindset.

"It's gone from 'We're going to gouge people for internet access,' like technology not being something we want on the ship, to it being an integral part [of the experience],” said Mark McSpadden, head of travel and technology innovation lab Sabre Labs.

Royal Caribbean kicked things off in 2014 when they debuted RFID-enabled wristbands – WOWbands – that allowed passengers on board Quantum of the Seas to unlock their stateroom doors or pay for on-board purchases.

Carnival's OCEAN Medallion wearable will not just help passengers locate friends and family on the massive ships, but will also act as a room key and enable passengers to have drinks brought to their exact location.Carnival Corporation

And earlier this month at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, Carnival unveiled a wearable device dubbed OCEAN Medallion that will, among other things, provide passengers with Netflix-style activity recommendations, give on-the-go directions, allow hands-free payment — and also serve as a key card.

Additionally, the medallion lets travelers order drinks, locate friends and family aboard the gigantic ships, and identifies cruisers — along with their profile and preferences — to crew members.

“This replaces everything,” Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises and P&O Australia (which is owned by Carnival), told NBC News. "It's about guests making the absolute most of their vacation time and money."

And, while not all guests will be 'on board' with the new technology, “I suspect … some will see folks enjoying the features and say 'OK, maybe I'll experiment with it,'” she added.

Debuting this November on Regal Princess, the technology should be available on all Princess ships by 2020.

The Key to Efficiency

“It's interesting to see this rolled out as a broader effort,” McSpadden told NBC News. “It's a big step forward for the industry.” He's not surprised to see it come from Carnival. “The folks behind the Medallion have a lot of experience with Disney's Magic Band, with one of lead people coming over from Disney,” he said.

John Padgett, one of the creators of Disney's colorful RF wristband used to open resort room doors, gain admittance to attractions, and make purchases at Disney parks, assembled the team and gave his vision for Medallion, Swartz said.

These advancements fit into the #1 megatrend in Sabre Lab's 2017 Emerging Technology in Travel Report, McSpadden said. “Connected intelligence is bridging together systems that know things about you and about how cruise lines operate for a seamless experience.”

The wins aren't just on the consumer side, he said. “It improves operational efficiency. Less time to purchase, fewer lost room keys, not as many lines to wait in.”

There are longer term implications for the cruise lines as well, McSpadden said. Using location awareness, they can discern patterns in how people move through ships – and these analytics can inform future ship building. “But even in real time it lets them see bottlenecks,” he added, and get staff where they're needed.

Creepy or Cool?

Of course this all depends on passengers opting in. But Scott Lara, manager of Air Sea Travel in Jacksonville, and an avid cruiser himself, doesn't see many balking. “I've only heard a couple of clients raise concerns,” he told NBC News. “They think it might be intrusive, the cruise knowing everything.”

But their fears are allayed, he said, when they learn it can be turned off. (While the Medallion itself has no on/off button, passengers can change their account settings on their own device or on screens throughout the ship.) “I think there's a huge upside where it's going to make things so much easier,” said Lara. “People can enjoy more time on their cruise. I wish it was like this in real life. Can you imagine pulling up to your McDonald's and boop-boop-boop, it's good to go?”

McSpadden expects vigorous adaptation, acknowledging, "At first it sounds scary when I say 'I can track your every move on the boat.' But we find over and over consumers are willing to give up personal information if they receive better service. That's what these are all about. 'Let me see where you are on the boat so I can bring you a drink.' At the end of the day people are enamored enough with the cool to get over the creepy.”