In travel, technological advances have manifested in myriad ways -- from shopping for airfares and hotels without the help of a travel agent to wayfinding in a foreign city using a handheld device. But does technology always enhance the experience of travel, of a place? How do we make sure that the unexpected or unplanned diversions that add special memories to our vacation can still unfold unimpeded? Does technological innovation require that we find a new paradigm for serendipity?
Carnival Corporation is betting, and betting big, on the travel innovations consumers will benefit from most in the future. The company believes the key is rethinking how experiences are staged with technology systems that operate behind the scenes. Starting in November 2017, Princess Cruises, one of Carnival Corporation's nine cruise lines, will introduce Ocean Medallion™ Vacations that leverages a guest experience platform that streamlines the vacation experience, in both tangible and imperceptible ways. The platform uses a quarter-sized medallion to not only access your experiences but ensure the experiences are delivered in a more personal way, such as menus that accommodate food allergies, or a waiter wishing you a happy birthday.
To hear about the vacation of the future, I spoke with Carnival Corporation's chief experience and innovation officer, John Padgett. Before joining Carnival Corporation, Padgett was the principal visionary, strategist and developer of The Walt Disney Co.'s virtual ride queuing system, FastPass+, along with MagicBand, a platform that connects attendees with information about rides, restaurants and park photographers.
What are some big technological innovations that impact the way we vacation today?
I still believe one of the world's best vacation innovations at-scale is Disney's Magical Express, an integrated arrival experience. You walk right past baggage claim, and themed transportation is sequenced to your arrival at the airport curb, you're entertained while en route to your resort, luggage automatically shows up in your resort room and on your return home, you leave your luggage at the hotel and pick it up at your home airport. That was not a technology innovation. It was an experience innovation. Tremendous technology goes into aligning guests, flights, transportation, luggage and resort rooms, but that is not the point. An experience innovation is enabled by technology, but the technology is not the innovation.
So, broadly, the overall arrival experience from home all the way to your ultimate destination -- without any lines, hassles or frustrations -- is amazingly important. Until the friction is removed from the physical world, you run the risk of people balking at vacations because of the sheer logistics and complications associated with travel.
Disney's MagicBand was also game changing; it still is. People think it's about the band, but it's not about the band. It's about creating a holistic vacation experience that doesn't require guests to have tickets, key cards, credit cards and vouchers to get through a vacation. It was about making all the complication go away to allow the guest to remain focused on enjoying their experience.
Many "digital innovations" like mobile check-in are not really innovations. It is just the transition of a process to a different time or place, but it is still a check-in. An innovation would be elimination of the check-in altogether. In the Magical Express example, baggage claim was eliminated from the guest experience, which is the innovation.
At Carnival Corporation, our focus is "guest centricity" and experience innovation. If technology exists to innovate the experience, we will use it. If it doesn't, we will invent it. The mission is to maximize the guest experience, not to get excited about technology.
What smart technology can travelers look forward to?
I suspect it's largely what you will experience on Medallion Class ships. Experience innovations will increasingly eliminate transactions and increase experience delivery personalization. Concierge level service will be democratized. In my view, the future vacation will be increasingly personalized, increasingly customized, increasingly simplified allowing guests to remain more immersed and engaged in the experience itself whether that is dining, entertainment, recreation or a shore excursion. Innovation enabled by technology will expose broader audiences to richer experiences at higher service levels at lower price points everywhere in the world in digital, physical and fused experience dimensions.
One of the ironies of the travel industry is that everyone talks tech. If any industry should understand that creating experiences is what creates value for guests, shareholders and stakeholder, it would be the travel industry. However, all too often, travel industry players emphasize tech as a point of differentiation and then compare "product features." A true experience is individual, emotionally engaging, and alters your perspective on life and how you use your time and how you interact with people. So creating a personalized, customized and simplified experience for each and every guest is our ultimate quest to create value for our guests by making the most of their vacation time.
Most travel guidebooks are available online or in an app, eliminating the need to carry a hard copy or even a map. What's the next frontier for travel guidance on vacation?
Travel guidance is all about having better information to make decisions that allow you to maximize your experience with your limited vacation time. Ocean Medallion Vacations are based on a concept we call "experience intelligence." What that is, is using contextual information from the guest, whether it is sourced from digital, physical or human interactions, to empower the creation of the guest's current experience in real time. Some people call that "artificial intelligence," some people call it "big data." We call it "experience intelligence" because information is used to maximize your experience in real-time, and not necessarily to sell you something in the future.
As it relates specifically to maps and wayfinding, we're integrating navigational wayfinding with any experience you may select. If you selected that experience, integrated in that is the contextual information to navigate to that experience. This is an example of maintaining a guest-centric view. Historically there's been a functional view -- book a reservation, purchase an excursion, get a map, read instructions. Now, when we're manifesting an experience around a guest, everything the guest needs to ultimately experience is wrapped around them. What I think you'll see is well beyond anything that is on the market today as it relates to travel guides.
In Skagway, Alaska, there are many shore excursions you can take, including a wonderful hike from the port up to a beautiful lake on a public trail -- at no charge. Is that going to be part of the Medallion experience?
I'm glad you hit on that. I actually know that specific hike, and if that's what you want, absolutely. Carnival Corporation is a portfolio of vacation experiences with ships, trains, lodges, islands and ports all being key components in staging authentic and immersive guest experiences. We take you to Skagway because there is a purpose for it to be there in your overall experience. Skagway is about the intersection of nature, adventure and commerce, and the Medallion Class experience will enable and amplify the Skagway experience.
So, Medallion is not limited to experiences that are money-generators?
We are absolutely guest-centric and focused on creating experiences that maximize your guest experience. We are not about offering something we want to sell you. Ocean Medallion Vacations are all about giving you access to any experience you want to have. We believe that if we maximize your experience, we will maximize value for guests and shareholders.
Are you creating content, and by content we mean it could be a map, a phone number for a restaurant, a story in a newspaper, guidebook, YouTube video or magazine, for all the destinations reached by your ships?
Absolutely ... our strategy engages guests in original content that authentically represents an actual experience - whether a guest is at their home, on a plane or on our ships. Our media model, when you step back, is all about encouraging the world to go on vacation, and expand the market for cruising. We're going to do that by increasing the awareness of the incredible diversity of experiences at incredible values associated with cruising to the world. Our original content media portfolio continues to grow in breadth and diversity with broadcast and digital distribution.
How can a proprietary platform be pulled further into third-party application -- such as easing my trip through the airport en route to start of the vacation, or at the pottery shop in Tuscany where I want to buy something but it's miles from a cruise ship or a hotel where I'm staying post cruise? Or will these innovations create "islands" of convenience amid "oceans" of friction?
I feel cruise lines and land-based destinations are approaching limits to experience capabilities until there is a macro move to platform-based experience enablement. When you switch the paradigm to enabling all experiences via a unified platform, one that sits above the traditional reservation and property management systems, you can take complexity out of the experience. This is what I call horizontal experience innovation that seamlessly cuts across all conventional "lines of business" such as lodging, food and beverage, retail, entertainment and recreation. The horizontal experience innovation helps eliminates the guest learning curve and experience gaps associated with guests engaging -- in different components of the overall experience -- ultimately creating a holistic experience that feels more cohesive and valuable.
A vacation experience should not be a continuous series of highs and lows: logistics-transaction-experience, logistics-transaction-experience. Everything should be accretive to the overall guest experience with an experience that has the feel of a story arch.
Let's use Apple and BlackBerry. A BlackBerry was the ultimate -- amazingly functional, high market penetration – the apex of texting efficiency – people were seemingly addicted to their "CrackBerry"-- and no one thought they could leave it behind. But as soon as we touched our first iPhone and saw how our overall experience was improved across everything we do in our daily lives and the user interaction was no longer defined by texting speed but an overall experience, the BlackBerry immediately felt like "old" and inferior. An experience platform-based vacation that facilitates continuous engagement in a manner that is more personalized, customized and friction-free should make a transaction-based experience feel "last generation."
When we focus on a holistic guest experience, that's the guest in their home, in their transportation, on the airplane, through the airport, onto the motor coach, onto the ship, into their destination, etc. From a guest experience standpoint, they are on a "cruise vacation," so we need to be agnostic to the business operating model. A guest does not care, they just want to consume amazing experiences.
For example, on the ships, virtually all spas are operated by third parties across. But from a guest standpoint, the fact that there's a third-party operator on the ship shouldn't make any difference as it relates to the guest's ability to engage in that experience. There shouldn't be a separate reservation, scheduling or sign-up sheets that introduce complication in a guest's mind. The complications exist due to an operation-centric orientation versus guest-centric orientation. We want to make sure all our operations wrap around the guest.
Aren't there times when we want less technology incorporated into our vacations? For instance, when staying at a historic castle in Ireland, the antiquated skeleton room key is part of the experience, not necessarily an impediment.
That's about recognizing what business you're in, which is the guest experience business. Everything should be accretive to the overall guest experience. In the event that a skeleton key is a component of adding value to your authentic castle experience, then it should be there. In the event that it is heavy and hard to carry and not something you value as a guest entering a hotel room, then it shouldn't be there.
A broader answer is that we believe in and are committed to delivering authentic experiences. So we embrace Arthur C. Clarke's third law, which is, "any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." We believe that technology should be infused and invisible, and that's the reason we're choosing to wrap our overall guest experience with an experience platform that is largely invisible.
When you speak of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, would a simplified analogy to today's concept of platforms be the humble electrical outlet, when it was introduced into our homes more than a century ago?
Yes, an electrical outlet is a good example. Something that takes an enormous amount of technology, engineering and physics for a service to be delivered, yet is ubiquitously present and fairly universally available to enable all our daily life experiences.
When I come home from a trip, misadventures are often part of the story I tell to friends. I'm talking about getting lost in a back alley in Venice. To me, that's an essential part of the Venice experience -- getting lost and finding yourself someplace that's not in the guidebook, but discovering a church that has a 15th-century masterwork you never knew you were going to encounter. How do we preserve these kinds of special experiences?
It's all about being focused on the guest. If you're the type of guest that wants to get lost on a back road, then great, we should be enabling that. If you're a guest that got lost on a back road, but didn't really want to be lost, we would help you get back on track. Everyone's an individual and, as an industry, you can no longer design and create experiences for averages. There is no average person. You have to treat everyone as an individual and make sure that you create mechanisms to maximize the individual's needs, wants and desires across that overall vacation.
Which goes back to the Ocean Medallion. We are not introducing the Medallion because we want to have the coolest tech or because we want a wearable like others. We're introducing it because we want connectivity with our guests, to enable them to have a greater experience and to make the whole experience seamless, end-to-end. The Medallion is just the mechanism for doing that.
Is the potential of the Ocean Medallion to create more of a first-class experience for the coach passenger? The personalized attention one gets in first class on an airplane could be exported to the coach class to some degree, at minimal cost to the provider, thereby increasing the value of the coach experience.
Let me use Uber for an example. Town car service used to be limited to elite travelers or business travelers. Never in your wildest dreams just a few years ago could you summon town car service, anytime, anyplace at an affordable price. Now you can, because Uber created a new platform that allows everyone to participate, on demand, and at a lowered price. Uber democratizes a high service level of service to everyone, via a platform model.
Our strategy is to bring experiencing the world to more people which is best experienced through cruising. Cruising represents only 2 percent of global hotel rooms because the industry has not collectively done an effective job of communicating why cruising is a superior vacation model from and experience and a price-value standpoint. By focusing on maximizing the guest experience, we can ensure a cruise vacation delivers even more bang for the buck, which should be great for everyone.
Are customization programs like Medallion replacing traditional loyalty (mileage, points) programs? Is this where travel marketing is headed?
I think that to a large degree, speaking generally across the loyalty programs category, that loyalty programs are defined by structural entitlements and discounts programs. Loyalty programs are not going anywhere, but I think a new category of programs will ultimately emerge that facilitates people getting more out of their overall vacation experience versus discounts. The more I engage in a particular experience or a brand, the better that experience and brand is to me, because it's adjusting, adapting and becoming more personalized, customized and simplified for me.
Going forward will all smart tech advances continue to require us to share personal information and privacy? Is there a way around this, and if so, if we opt out what travel experiences will we miss out on?
The travel industry has always revolved around experience. Now more than ever before there are opportunities for tourism in general and cruises in particular to think about each individual's and each family's aspiration for what they really want to achieve on their vacation and how we can help them make that happen.
And while that revolves around the sharing of information, consumers continue to show their receptivity and willingness to share information when those insights are reinvested to specifically benefit them as individuals and to create better experiences they can enjoy.
The key is to be relentlessly guest-centric and ensure that each guest has the ability to choose their level of participation.
Why has consumer data for marketing purposes become such a valuable commodity?
While personalization is frequently talked about in marketing, true experience personalization is seldom done. Our focus is relentlessly on the experience. Targeted ads, web banners, email campaigns are not personalization. And using consumer data to coerce someone into buying a product or service they're not really interested in is not guest-centric and can have the potential to not only aggravate, but also lose a guest's trust in your experience.
In the future, will some of us still crave the digital detox vacation, and where will we find it?
The nature of the Ocean Medallion Vacation is your mobile device becomes optional. In travel, innovations seem to be synonymous with, if you have a mobile device, you'll be able to do this. Which then makes your entire experience dependent on whether you have a mobile device or not, whether you are comfortable activating it in international locations, what operating system you have, what device configurations you are using -- is it charged, is it over-heated in the sun, worries about dropping it in water and in sand. All of these things add stress and push you to see the world through a 3x5 screen. We don't want our guests experiencing the world through a 3x5 screen. We want them interacting and immersed in amazing locations and with incredible cultures.
The Medallion allows the benefits of mobile connectivity without the encumbrances and fears of using the mobile device. A Medallion works anywhere – in sand, salt and wherever you choose to be.
David Swanson has been a freelance travel writer-photographer since 1995. His award-winning stories and photos have appeared in more than 50 North American newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Miami Herald, and Dallas Morning News, and in many consumer magazines. He has been a regular contributor to National Geographic Traveler since 1998, and he has also written about technology, including covering CES convention news and trends 2014-2016. In addition to visiting more than 90 countries, his travels have included more than 40 cruises on all the major cruise lines.