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Travel & Hospitality

Digital Innovation at Royal Caribbean

Margo Bulka
Principle Product Strategist

After a tumultuous couple of years, we're observing in early 2022 the sheer resilience of the cruise industry as major players like Royal Caribbean continue their return to service. This is incredibly important not only to the success of the cruise lines themselves but also to the vitality of the many ports and communities that rely on the cruise industry and on passenger spending. We had the opportunity to talk with Major Highfield from Royal Caribbean about how digital has created an enhanced on-ship experience through digital innovation.

Margo Bulka, travel enthusiast and strategic partner to many Fortune 500 clients across WillowTree’s portfolio, had the pleasure of getting to speak with Major Highfield, Director of Digital Product at Royal Caribbean Cruises. Major has led award-winning mobile and web teams in the travel, financial, and media industries. He specializes in building best-in-class product development teams and delivering user-friendly CX.

Bridging the Digital and Physical Experience

Margo: Let's talk about digital. That's obviously a space that WillowTree knows well. The experience of cruising is a very physical experience. But how are you bridging that divide between digital and physical? And how are those things supporting each other?

Major: We’re doing a lot of cool things. The first thing that comes to mind is how we reduce the “buts.” And what I mean by that is: “I went on a vacation. I had a great time, BUT I had to stand in line at this one place. I had to deal with customer service or guest services, and it was painful.” We don't want there to be any buts. We just want people to stop at, “I had a great vacation.” So, looking at bridging the gap between the physical and the digital, that's really one of the key things that we're trying to solve.

The other thing that comes to mind: how do we decrease wait times? Waiting in line at guest services, that's a lot like being on hold. It's painful. It takes a while. So we want a digital solution. Why can't we let you pull out your phone and interact with a crew member instead of having to wait in line? Why can't we have a virtual queuing solution that lets you know when to come back and wait in line? These are things that we’re actively looking into. One thing that you can actually do on or through our app is make reservations for shore. Excursions for dining, activities, or shows… instead of having to go to guest services and talk to someone, you can do all of that on the app. We want to provide self-service solutions for a guest so that they can avoid having to interact with anyone if they don't want to do that.

Those are two of the big things that we try to do from a technology standpoint.

Using Digital to Modernize On-Ship Procedures

Margo: How are you guys using digital to enhance the passenger's journey/on-ship experience?

Major: I'm not sure if you're familiar with the muster drill …

Margo: I am. Yeah, I've taken many cruises. I know that moment on the journey.

Major: I didn’t even know about it until I joined Royal. A muster drill is basically a safety drill that everyone on board the ship has to participate in. It is mandated. It doesn't matter which cruise line you're on. You're going to have to do this on your own the first day of your cruise, and normally it takes about forty-five minutes. Basically, you sit down in a big room, and the crew walks through how you put on your life vest, where your muster station is, which is where you would go if there's an emergency. A shipwide emergency. Think like an abandoned ship scenario. Something bad. Fortunately, those don't happen very often. But it's mandated that we do it. So the downside is that even though it's for safety, it eats up about forty-five minutes of the first day of your vacation. That kind of sucks, right? So we were able to modernize this old tradition. What if our digital team built a digital muster experience? And it actually combines the digital with the physical, so it's a three-step process.

The first step is to watch a safety video in our app that teaches you how to put on your life vest.

The second step is to listen to an audio file that mimics the sound of the horn that you would hear in case of an emergency, And then the third step is to physically go to your muster station, which we tell you how to get to in the app.

And then you have to check in as proof that yes, you’ve completed your muster drill. You know where to go.

It's a three-step process and on average it takes about five minutes. Guests can actually do step one and step two in the app before they even step foot onboard the ship. So we've gone from forty-five minutes to five minutes. That's forty extra minutes that you can spend on vacation on the first day of your cruise.

The Unique Challenges While at Sea

Margo: Interesting. Some thoughts there as we think about this moment in Royal Caribbean's history. It seems like this is a significant point of just restarting. Turning engines back on. And I'm curious if that might have given you fresh eyes to reevaluate your plans and your goals for the app. And to reevaluate and audit the on-board tech stack and think that maybe there's some improvement that's needed here. I'm curious if you felt that sense of reconsideration of the goals.

Major: Yeah, definitely. I would say that we're a lot more knowledgeable now about how our back end works, and you know how our services work. I can quote you on our different commerce services and exactly which service it corresponds with, which feature, and I couldn't do that a year ago. A lot of us have really gotten into the weeds with how things work, which isn't a bad thing. I think. Unfortunately, sometimes people on the product side get too caught up in the experience and do not really understand how things work behind the scenes. So you've got people to do both in order to build the best product. You've got to know how it works end to end. That makes you a better product person.

So, fortunately, by doing that, we have been able to take a step back and realize, okay, things can be improved. We need to figure out an alternative to how things have been done in the past. I mentioned that we spent a lot of time having to redeploy our microservices to our ships. We had to do that because our ships are basically floating cities, and our technology stacks are all on-prem. You think, well, no one does on-prem anymore if it's cloud-based. Well, yeah, we're cloud-based too when it comes to pre-cruise and our shoreside functionality. That said, when you go onboard that ship in the middle of the ocean, we have to be on-prem, because we can't be completely dependent upon satellite technology. It's just not that reliable. To the point of being able to guarantee a great guest experience when they're using our app and our internal networks onboard the ship. So that's why we have our technology stack on each in every ship on-prem. That said, though, we're slowly moving, toward a new solution by replacing our on-prem technology with an edge-cashing solution so that we can take advantage of more cloud technologies but also have that resiliency we need when we’re in the middle of the ocean.

The Four Key Parts of the Customer Journey

Margo: In terms of this notion of expanding the customer experience within the app, it sounds like you have some interesting ideas for that planning stage. I'm curious. Is it the case now that you're going to try to appeal to prospects, earlier in the customer journey of downloading the app? Using the app to imagine the types of of trips they could go on and then post-booking, making reservations?

Major: It's a great question. I would say that our current state right now is primarily a shipboard experience and that's what we've been focused on. That's really kind of the most important aspect of how you can leverage the app as a guest. Now that said, if you look at the customer journey from a digital standpoint, there are really four key parts.

Part one is, “I just need to book a sailing, I want to book a cruise, or I may be interested in going on a cruise.” Today, this is totally web-based. You have to do this through our website or you call in or you work with a travel agent.

Part two is, “Okay. I booked my cruise. Now I have to plan for it.” By planning I mean that there's a hell of a lot that you can do onboard our ship. We don't plan it all for you. You have to figure out what shore excursions you want to go on at our ports. What do you want to do at our “Perfect Day Island” at Coco Key? What restaurants do you want to go to? What shows you may want to go see. What activities do you want to do onboard? You need to figure that out, and today we have an awesome website that lets you do that, but you can't do that in the app pre-cruise today.

Part three is, “It's time for my cruise. Let's get the party started. Let's get my vacation started.” That's where we're focused today. We want to make sure that we help you and we're supporting you in having the best vacation you can possibly have. We're going to help you keep track of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis. We're going to let you make those reservations while you're on board the ship, make bookings and so forth for what you want to do. We'll also help you navigate and understand where to go and what to do.

And then part four is, “My vacation is over. Blah. Okay, well, here is a reminder of the awesome time that you've just had. And by the way, if you want to do it again, then we can help you do that and we start back with part one. So the whole thing is the cyclical customer journey, right? And we need to make sure we're building experiences that allow for that perpetual growth and rotation of that cycle. You know, just keep spinning and spinning.

Like I said, we're focused on part three. Today, the onboard experience. We're going to start doing more when it comes to part two, and that pre-cruise planning experience. We'll see more and more of that next year and then hopefully with parts one and parts four. I think over the next few years we'll start filling the gaps there, too.

Driving Digital Revenue

Margo: Yeah, it's really interesting. I love that as we've been talking about this moment when you hit “book” and now you get a couple of months to sit and dream about it. There is a substantial joy just to be had in thinking about your options. But it's interesting as a custom experience. It's wonderful and I can feel more organized and excited about the various activities that I might do. But at the end of the day, the bottom line, as I understand it, is that shore excursions are a big source of revenue. You know, reducing wait times at the restaurant, there's just a fundamental business value in serving that moment too.

Major: Yeah, definitely. We look at digital to help drive revenue. Today, as we've mentioned, it's primarily shipboard revenue from an app standpoint. But it’s not just shipboard. It's also pre-cruise. Today, our apps are primarily focused on that shipboard experience, letting guests make those reservations for short excursions. They can make reservations at our specialty dining restaurants. They can find activities to do at “Perfect Day Island” on Coco Key. We also have a standalone iPad app that functions as a kiosk; our shore excursions desk, so if guests don't want to use the app, they can actually walk up to the shore excursions desk and pick different shore excursions, actually book those short excursions there, and also get help from someone if they have questions.

But as I said, we are focusing more and more on pre-cruise. Really, all the money is pre-cruise. That's where the vast majority of our revenue comes from. The cool thing is that over the last year we launched a redesign of our cruise planning website called “My Royal Cruise,” as well as “My Celebrity Cruise,” where guests are able to do all of what I just described — making those reservations and planning their cruise. They can also book spa appointments. They can look at drink packages and internet packages, and so forth. It's been incredibly successful and we've seen a ton of increased conversions of revenue per booking compared to our old Cruise Planning website, so we're really excited about that. What we want to do as we go forward is to bring them the goodness of this redesigned corresponding website into the app. So we're not there just yet. But we're hoping to bring some of that functionality that we have in those experiences into the app so that we can also start doing that from a shoreside standpoint and from a pre-cruise crew standpoint.

Brighter Days Ahead

Margo: Well, Major, it was a joy to chat with you today. I think that it's just inspiring for so many of us of looking at the cruise industry and everything that you know. We've all gone through lots of hardships, but it really has demonstrated the resiliency of the cruise industry. You're doing some really fascinating work and I’m so excited to see the future in what unfolds. Excited to be a passenger any day. Just call me up — I’ll come join! But I loved chatting with you. I hope to chat again very soon.

Major: Thank you so much for having me. This has been great. There are a lot of awesome things going on at Royal Caribbean. We've found an awesome team. So if you're interested in driving amazing digital products, if you're interested in the travel industry or I would say any type of industry, because we encompass pretty much everything. You don't even have to be a cruiser. Come work for us! It's a great place to be. We’re excited about the future and we're moving forward.

Margo Bulka
Principle Product Strategist

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