AI on the high seas: Royal Caribbean sets a course for 'frictionless and immersive' vacations

The CIO of Royal Caribbean explains how artificial intelligence (AI) and new technologies are a crucial part of the cruise line's effort to rethink customer experience. Read this fascinating story for keen insights into digital transformation.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Royal Caribbean, the world's second largest cruise line, operates in 47 different countries with over 50 ships, each of which is a floating city transporting and entertaining between 2,500 to 7,000 guests at a time. Running a cruise line at this scale presents massive logistical challenges.

I caught up with Royal Caribbean's Chief Information Officer Mike Giresi at the Digital Workforce Summit, held in New York City by software company IPsoft. The event's theme was using AI and cognitive learning to automate and improve customer service -- thus the idea of digital workforce.

This video is part of the CXOTalk series of conversations with the world's top innovators. You can watch it embedded above and see the complete transcript on the CXOTalk video page.

Royal Caribbean is undertaking a large digital transformation initiative to rethink the guest experience. According to CIO Giresi, Royal Caribbean's goal is providing guests with a personalized experience that is also easy to understand. In his words, to create a "frictionless and immersive vacation experience for our guests:"

Our intent is to make it as simple as possible for you to understand the product, to be able to select what the product represents to you and experience the product once you're on the actual, physical ship.

Customer value comes first. Digital transformation starts with the question, "What do our customers want?" In the case of Royal Caribbean, there are two crucial points.

First, the company wants to help customers visualize and understand, at a visceral, emotional level, the positive life experience of being on a Royal Caribbean cruise. Because customers have different goals, communicating this message meaningfully is hard. For example, one cruise shopper may want a peaceful getaway on the sea while another desires hot nightlife: Two buyers, each seeking their own unique experience.

Second, Royal Caribbean believes its primary job is making the cruise experience fast, easy, and fun. Mike spoke about creating "frictionless and immersive vacations." To do this, the company uses technology to make life simple and engaging for guests.

The term frictionless also implies operational efficiency. Consider the practical challenges associated with boarding and un-boarding thousands of passengers quickly and without incident from a cruise liner. Or, the difficulty in offering computing and data services while in the middle of an ocean, thousands of miles from land. Customer experience demands that Royal Caribbean solve these issues every single day.

The foundation issue is rethinking the entire cruise experience by answering the question, "What do customers care about most?"

Technology enables customer experience. Having set priorities based on what matters to customers, the business can use technology to enable outcomes that customers desire.

Giresi explains:

Technology provides the entire guest experience. We're modernizing our technology to enable the guest to have much more control and direct selection of what they want to do with the product itself; moving from reservation being the center of our universe, to the guest being the center of our universe, and then building capability services integration points.

[We are] enabling technology to move with the guests versus the guests having to traverse different monolithic and antiquated systems and ultimately feel like nothing is purposely put together.

With customer experience as the reference point, determining priorities for making technology investment decisions becomes easier. Defining customer priorities as the reference also aligns IT activities with business strategy, which obviously is of huge value to the company.


Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What are your customer goals?

The more we can do with the product, enabling both guest and customer experiences, if you will, but doing so in a way that broadens the ship. Like, how do we expand the vacation experience beyond the ship, so that you're not constrained by the physical limitations of the ship? That's the design around the technology strategy.

We want people to feel like coming to a cruise is not an overwhelming or intimidating experience. We want people to feel confident that as soon as they get on the ship, their vacation begins. In fact, we'd love their vacation to begin before they arrive. Once you enter the port to walk onto the ship, we want it to be as seamless as humanly possible. We want you to enjoy it, feel relaxed, be excited; you have your itinerary, you have your agenda if you will; you know all the things you're going to do. If you learn of new things, how easy is it to change that, and can swiftly and agilely adapt to whatever is available to you, to maximize that experience.

Can you give us an example?

So, using augmented reality, or virtual reality, to bring experiences onto the ship that you would not be able to see; where you would not be able to experience because the ship has physical limitations, so people can understand what's happening with the ship, doing interesting things with social. Enabling people to self-select opportunities to go on excursions that may not have been available to them in personalizing that information, so they can get to the things that are of most interest to them.

We believe we are in the business of making tremendous memories. The better we can provide that information to you, the more successful we're going to be in providing the product.

When are rolling out this technology?

We're in early days. We've gone through a lot of the heavy lifting from a foundational capability perspective.

When you think about a ship, you have a bunch of people, obviously guests on the ship, but there's a lot of crew on the ship, and there are a lot of supply chain processes. What it takes to run one of these floating cities is no different than what it takes to run a city. You're just running it at sea.

Each time that ship comes into a port, each time it does something, there's an opportunity to change and/or impact the experience. So, how do we make sure we maximize our processes and people in support of this program so that people feel like it's something of value?

What are you doing with AI?

We are looking at two aspects of AI. One is our actual workforce. How we can offer better information, and help them ensure that they are making every guest interaction -- whether in our call center or our crew interacting with our guests -- that those interactions are high quality and driving a great experience.

We believe there's an opportunity to provide guests with more personalized information, with more options that are relevant to their interests, and the more authentic it feels to someone, people will be friendlier to it and feel less intimidated by the overall process.

AI enables us to quickly move those issues to the point of solution much faster and proactively resolve issues before they become issues.

When we turn a ship, it's much like a plane. It's just a lot more complicate. Our ability to disembark people off that ship, invite the new guests onto the ship, and do that in a successful and high-quality manner, is critical to the success of the journey.

Where we're looking at AI, it is around the consumer experience. When you come to a cruise site, the amount of data that's available to you is voluminous, I mean, there's so much information.

If we know a little bit about you, and we understand what you're interested in, we can deliver that information in a much more personalized manner, to call center, crew.

How do we get better information to people so they can service the guests and help guests maximize their interaction with the business?

Obviously, we think we can help convert and acquire people more effectively by understanding behavioral trends and historical activities.

And, for our crew, it's about giving them the right information when they most need it to provide the right level of service to our guests.

CXOTalk brings you the world's most innovative business leaders, authors, and analysts for in-depth discussion unavailable anywhere else. Thank you to IPsoft for being a CXOTalk underwriter.

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