What the year ahead holds for the industry

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Next Gen. Cruise ship for MSC.

Until recently, expedition cruising was a quiet corner of the ocean cruise business, with occasional new tonnage added to a small fleet of spartan ships sailing to wild and majestic places.

The ships are still small, but some are not so spartan anymore, and the expedition niche in 2018 is trending bigger.

By one estimate, at least 18 new expedition vessels are ready to debut over the next 24 months.

Setting the tone was the transfer in 2017 of the original Silversea Cruises ship, the Silver Cloud, to the line’s expedition fleet after conversion to an ice-hardened vessel capable of visiting both polar regions.

In 2018, the parade of new expedition builds begins in June with Le Laperouse, the start of a new class for the luxury expedition brand Ponant, which will add three more of the 180-passenger vessels by mid-2019.

The French brand will be joined this year by Norway’s Hurtigruten, which is expecting a new prototype, the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen, in August. Soon after, Scenic Cruises will take delivery of the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse, another expedition-style vessel.

And by year’s end, Quark Expeditions plans to take delivery of a 176-passenger ship, currently under construction in Portugal, capable of polar sailing.

The boom is underway in part because small ships for expedition cruising are easier to finance than the $1 billion behemoths now being ordered by contemporary ocean cruise brands. And there is a greater variety of shipyards able to take on the projects.

Companies like Lindblad Expeditions have gone public and are tapping into public equity to finance expansion.
Expedition cruise lines expect that many consumers who have been introduced to cruise vacations by the larger lines in recent years are now familiar with the concept and will be receptive to trying a different kind of cruising.

New technologies

In addition to a bumper crop of expedition ships, 2018 will also see the advancement of technology on larger ships designed to save time and smooth out the points of friction to make cruising more enjoyable.

The technologies go by disparate names: Royal Caribbean International calls its package Excalibur, MSC Cruises has MSC for Me and Carnival has its Ocean platform, which includes the Ocean Medallion and Ocean Compass app. Luca Pronzati, MSC’s chief business innovation officer, said MSC’s technology will provide wayfinding onboard the ships, a reservations function and a more convenient way to access and personalize an activities agenda.

“You can schedule your day in an easy way,” Pronzati said. “It’s really changing the paradigm.”

Passengers can access the information through smartphones, on their in-cabin TVs or at screens in public areas of the ship. Pronzati said that the current functionality of MSC for Me, which is available on the MSC Meraviglia and the MSC Seaside, is a foundation and that the line is working on expanded capabilities, such as a digital concierge service.

Carnival’s Ocean platform, although it debuted for a limited number of passengers on Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess in November, will be rolled out onboard five more ships by the end of 2018.

Carnival expects its phased activation of the Ocean Medallion and Ocean Compass app onboard the Regal Princess to be finished by the first quarter of 2018, with all passengers being able to use it simultaneously thereafter. The two technologies are designed to give each cruise customer a more personalized vacation. It will, for example, provide suggestions for activities, drinks and meals based on stored preferences and proximity to venues on the ship.

Royal Caribbean’s package of onboard technologies, Excalibur, is expected to be on 15% of its fleet, starting with its most-recently delivered ships, within the first few months of 2018. It will be on a majority of Royal’s 25 ships by the end of the year.

One focus of Excalibur is expedited embarkation, which Royal calls “frictionless arrival.” It will allow passengers who input information before arrival come aboard without stopping at a check-in counter. Other applications include using it to order room service, open cabin doors and connect with friends and family onboard.

One of the ships that will benefit from Excalibur is Celebrity’s new Celebrity Edge, the first in a class of four ships ordered so far that will be a prototype for the design of Celebrity’s fleet.

The innovations already announced for the ship include “infinite verandas” in which balcony space is incorporated into a cabin and the Magic Carpet, a 90-ton platform that hangs off one side of the ship and will move between four decks, including the embarkation deck, where it will serve as a shore excursion platform.

Following a December 2018 christening in Fort Lauderdale by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, the Edge will make its first seven-day Caribbean cruise.

Celebrity plans to spend $400 million over the next six years to make the rest of its fleet look more like the Edge class.

The Cuba connection

Some of the oldest ships in the cruise industry will also be part of its newest trend in 2018: expanded cruises to Cuba. Norwegian Cruise Line has tapped the Norwegian Sun for four-day cruises to Cuba from Port Canaveral next summer. The Sun is joining Norwegian’s oldest ship, the Norwegian Sky, which does the itinerary from Miami.

Royal Caribbean is also expanding its capacity to Cuba, putting the 28-year-old Empress of the Seas in Miami for five-, seven- and eight-day trips that for the first time include Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, while its second-oldest ship, the Majesty of the Seas, will provide four- and five-night Cuba itineraries from Tampa.

Carnival Corp. to proceed cautiously with Ocean Medallion

Arnold Donald, left, with Travel Weekly’s Arnie Weissmann at CruiseWorld. Photo Credit: Creative FocusFORT LAUDERDALE — Carnival Corp. is taking a slow approach to introducing Ocean Medallion technology, making sure it works right and is delivering the services that customers really want, CEO Arnold Donald said Friday at Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld.

Speaking to travel agents at the conference, Donald said the technology is so transformational that Carnival Corp. doesn’t want to create a future shock for past passengers.

The Ocean Medallion is a wearable disc that can be worn as a pendant, wristband or clip. Besides functioning as a stateroom key and streamlining the boarding process, the device is billed as a “personal concierge.” When used in tandem with the Ocean Compass app, the Ocean Medallion will enable passengers to make dinner reservations, order drinks to be delivered where they are located, receive excursion invitations based on interests, and play casino games anywhere on the ship.

“We’ve got to be really intelligent about how we introduce this because it’s different,” Donald said.

Carnival Corp. did a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the Regal Princess’ terminal at Port Everglades to create a new embarkation experience. “When guests walk through that terminal, it doesn’t feel like what they’re used to, so we want to manage all the unintended reactions,” Donald said.The first ship to have the Ocean Medallion, Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess, was to offer it on the entire 3,560-passenger ship starting Nov. 13, but the rollout has been scaled back to select guests and groups.

The MedallionNet rapid Internet service, which is in use on the whole ship, is drawing rave reviews, Donald said.

Carnival Corp. is targeting the 2018 first quarter for a wider introduction of the Ocean Medallion. “The guests will decide what they want, how they want it when they want it. That’s why we’re introducing it slowly to make sure we get it right because it’s truly transformational,” Donald said.

Carnival is also moving deliberately on developing a new $200 million beach destination in Grand Bahama. Donald said Carnival signed a deal to build the destination just before a change in government in the Bahamas.

“We’re working closely with the new government to make sure we’ve got the right location, the right development concepts and that it will work for the locals,” Donald said. “It’s not just a matter of building a destination, but building a destination that’s woven through the local community. We hope to have that destination completed in the next few years, but it is a process.”

Donald was also asked why Carnival sells through warehouse club Costco, which uses gift cards convertible to cash as a rebate when club members buy cruises

“I don’t have an easy answer for any of these big-scale folks that go low-cost,” Donald responded. “You have to match up your business where it really will compete effectively.”

He said agents that provide personal service and client understanding will not suffer from bottom-feeder competition, but he said Carnival will look at the issue. “We would prefer to see strong pricing,” he said. “There’s no big reason to be discounting today.”

Princess Cruises’ Ocean Medallion launch on schedule

“It’s all about enabling the crew to give the guests what they want, when they want it, how they want it.” — Arnold DonaldSAN DIEGO — Carnival Corp. is on track to launch its Ocean Medallion on the Regal Princess this November, CEO Arnold Donald said at the ASTA Global Convention this week.

Donald spoke about the medallion and other topics at a general session.

“We’re marching full-steam ahead, and the beautiful thing about it is while it is technology for the guests, they won’t notice any of that,” Donald said after his address during the general session, calling the technology “effortless” and “comprehensive” for cruisers.

The Medallion is a small disc-shaped device that cruisers can choose to wear as a wristband or pendant or carried in a pocket, purse or wallet. Carnival plans to use it to offer personalized experiences, among other functions. The Medallion will function as a room key.

For instance, Donald said, a guest could walk into a bar and the bartender will know his or her name and the last drink they ordered. If, for some reason, they leave the bar before their drink is ready (his example was to see a whale appearing off the side of the ship during an Alaska cruise), the crew will bring their drink to them.

“It’s all about enabling the crew to give the guests what they want, when they want it, how they want it,” Donald said. “It’s a personalized, customized service for the guest, and that’s what the technology enables.”

Currently, employees are undergoing “very extensive” training to use the technology effectively. Donald said key staff members are working with Medallion’s development team, and “their jobs are going to completely be redefined” when they start using the technology.

To outfit a ship so it’s Medallion-ready, the entire vessel has to get sensors put in place. The Medallion itself works like a beacon, Donald said, and the sensors connect the Medallion with an intelligence system. Ships have to be outfitted with portals throughout the vessel, both inside and outside of cabins, where guests can interact with the Medallion if they wish (they can also set preferences via a smartphone).

From a physical standpoint, sensors need to be placed and wiring needs to be installed in dry dock, the CEO said.

The first Medallion sailing will be aboard Regal Princess this November, and other Princess ships are scheduled to follow. A rollout to Princess’ entire fleet could take a few years.

Donald said other brands could opt to install the technology once they “decide to push the go button.”