My wife Deb and I recently got back from a 10-day Princess Cruise through the Panama Canal, a fabulous experience, but one that could have been greatly enhanced with better technology on the part of the cruise line.

To illustrate this point, on the 2nd day of the cruise we ran into some people who thought it would be great if I could give a talk on the ship. So I sent a message to Susan the cruise director, the lady in charge of all the entertainment on the ship, that I’d be willing to give a talk.

Since there is no cellphone service on the ship (or texting), this involved me writing a note and handing it to someone at the passenger services desk. Two days later I received a phone message that I responded to with a request for a meeting.

Another two days went by and I received another message telling me a couple different times and places where we could meet. I picked the earliest meeting time and managed to catch about 3 minutes of her time. She was very pleasant and cordial and responded favorably to the idea of me giving a talk, and said she’d let me know.

I then followed up with a 3rd handwritten message clarifying that I wasn’t looking for any compensation and suggesting three different titles for my talk.

Keep in mind the main source of information on a ship is a daily bulletin that gets distributed to every cabin in the evening highlighting the next day’s activities. On this cruise line it’s called the Princess Patter.

Finally, on the second to the last day I received a phone message late in the afternoon saying I was approved for giving a talk, but I would have to respond within an hour because the Princess Patter went to press at 5:30 pm.

I didn’t get the message until an hour too late. When I called back I reached Simon, the assistant cruise director, and he apologized for the late notice but since they hadn’t heard back from me my talk was left out of the final day’s agenda.

Whether or not I was given the opportunity to speak on the ship was not important, but the process highlighted some critical fault lines in the industry’s business model. Keep in mind, this exchange involved seven full days of handwritten messages and voice mails, and it all boiled down to a one-hour timeslot that crept up without warning.

Needless to say, person-to-person communications on ships like this has been atrocious, but that is on the verge of changing in a big way. And these changes are opening the door to entirely new business models.

The Great Vacation Debate

Whenever I mention something about lack of cell service or bad Internet on a ship, Deb always responds by telling me that I’m supposed to be on vacation and I shouldn’t be thinking about work.

While I understand the need for “braincations,” and no, being off the grid is not going to kill me, I also know that most of the world is not wired that way.

In fact, the entire cruise industry has been slow to capitalize on the massive market for working vacationers; a market that constitutes the vast majority of today’s leisure crowd.

It’s also an enormous adjustment for hyper-connected families to step onboard and readjust their thinking to work with such primitive communication tools. On ships carrying 2,000+ passengers it’s easy to lose a family member or friend several times a day.

Better communication systems will also shift the market away from the 70-year-old floating-assisted-living model to more active Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds looking to reimagine their lives.

To this end, many cruise lines have already begun the process of equipping their ships with high bandwidth communication systems.

Why is the Internet so Expensive on a Cruise Ship?

Generating a reliable satellite signal to a moving ship is no small task. Not only do cruise lines have to lock on to a constantly moving signal in some of the most remote corners on earth, but they also need sufficient bandwidth to accommodate several thousand passengers at once.

Many already have begun the Wi-Fi upgrade process while others will be installing new equipment later this year. Here are three examples:

  • Royal Caribbean provides high-speed Internet on all of its 25 ships for $20 per day. They also offer a service called VOOM, which allows guests to stream videos and music for an extra $15 a day.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line has also expanded Internet on all 13 of its ships for $29.99 a day, but there’s a catch. The Wi-Fi plan must be purchased for the entire trip, which means Wi-Fi will cost $300 for a 10-day cruise.
  • All of Viking River Cruises’ ships offer complimentary Wi-Fi. Access to a faster service – which is needed for video streaming – is available for $11.95 a day.
What kind of experience would you like to have on your next cruise?
What kind of experience would you like to have on your next cruise?

Fourteen New Dimensions for Tomorrow’s Cruise Experience

Each level of bandwidth improvement comes with a vast new learning curve, one that will require several years to rethink service options.

The lack of Wi-Fi has also created a generational market gap with Gen-X and Millennials less inclined to spend a week or two without Internet.

Yes, cruise ships do offer luxury-class service, food, and entertainment. Some of the newer features like waterslides, robotic bartenders, climbing walls, Jumbotron movies under the stars, and indoor ice arenas all have their appeal, but as with all high dollar experiences, next-generation customers are eager for something new.

Diverse communities create diverse interests and younger people are less interested in old school relaxation and far more interested in being engaged, learning new skills, and adding some new dimension to their lives.

With that in mind, here are fourteen new features, made possible by better connectivity that could easily be added to cruise ships over the coming years:

1.  Makerspaces – Equipped with laser cutters, welders, 3D printers, potters wheels, and jewelry making equipment, a well-furnished makerspace has the potential to radically transform the onboard experience. How-to classes can teach people the fundamentals of using specific pieces of equipment as well as making things they can show to their friends.

2.  Videographer Studios – With smartphones replacing the need for elaborate cameras and editing skills, virtually every passenger has the need to improve their videographer skills. Keep in mind, video posted on social media have the potential to radically amp up the marketing reach of the personal cruise experience.

3.  Video Game Tournament Centers – A 2015 study showed that 42% of Americans play video games at least 3-hours a week with the average age being 35 years old. Not only is it important to have the bandwidth to play online video games, but having a dedicated facility for onboard tournaments will also ensure maximum engagement for a large percentage of today’s young people.

4.  Hacker Spaces and Hacker Classes – Every person connected to the Internet has a different level of proficiency. The online skills needed to be proficient in even rudimentary aspects of the web like word processing, texting, and social media are constantly evolving. Hacker spaces can serve as both training centers and entry points for newbies as well as rich technical environments for more advanced users.

5.  Make Your Own Beer, Wine, and Spirits Distilleries – Micro-breweries, micro-distilleries, and winemaking are quickly becoming part of urban culture and having the facilities to both teach the skills and taste the end product can easily become an engaging feature of every new cruise ship.

6.  “Quantified Self” Center for Personal Analysis – Our ability to accurately measure the inputs and outputs of the human body are increasing exponentially with every new sensor and wearable device added to everyday living. These devices, along with data analytics machines, can be leveraged to provide a hyper-individualized health analysis offering a range of plans for improvement.

7.  New Product Expos – Companies are always seeking new ways to introduce a new line of products. Whether its food products, household gadgets, Internet of Things devices, software, hardware, or something else, people are continually fascinated by cutting edge products. This will open the doors for sponsorship arrangements with companies who otherwise have little connection to the cruise industry.

8.  Floating Garden Centers – Rather than just looking at plants and flowers on a ship, many are interested in learning about the species and how to grow them at home. Ships are well positioned to become working laboratories for aquaponics and hydroponic operations, and a significant percentage of passengers would love to be engaged in this type of experience.

9.  Drone Training Facilities – The emerging field of flying drones has captured the imagination of hobbyists and working professionals alike. Operating without the restrictions of defined airspace and country-to-country restrictions, ship-based drones can be used for entertainment, pilot training, photography, surveillance, remote lighting, drone rescue, and much more.

10. Cannabis Cooking Classes – In much the same way gambling is not legal while ships are docked, the open seas can open the doors to recreational marijuana in much the same ways Colorado and Washington are exploring today. This would open the door to cannabis cooking classes, new types of lounges, alternative health courses, and much more.

11. Escape Rooms – One of the fastest growing team-building exercises and family entertainment are escape rooms and the intricate layers of puzzle pieces and clues teams need to filter through to find a way out. Based on the notion of living through a real life video game experience, participants find themselves challenged in new and exciting ways.

12. Treasure Hunts – The online world provides an entirely new dimension to treasure hunts with physical and virtual clues making the final destination all the more rewarding. Answers or clues can be hidden anywhere on the ship and real-time tracking can provide team members with instant feedback of their progress.

13. Onboard Competitions – With all the new possibilities, a natural extension of these activities will be to stage competitions to uncover the best of the best. Contests can range from drone races, to building makerspace jewelry boxes, wine tasting, beer tasting, best short videos, ship-to-ship video game competitions, and more.

14. Collaborative Work Spaces – For those who don’t have the luxury of being off-grid on their cruise, the quality of workspaces matter. Collaborative environments are natural conversation starters as well as fertile territory for discovering new friends and business contacts.

Much like other cities, cruise ship struggle with managing their waste. But oceans create far more environmental complexities than land-based cities.
Much like other cities, cruise ships struggle with managing their waste, but oceans create far more environmental complexities than land-based cities.

Sustainability as a Competitive Advantage

With mounting pressure from environmental groups, the cruise industry has been working to remedy many of the ecosystem hazards being left in the wake of international waters.

Along with a new generation of highly connected passengers comes a level of transparency and scrutiny the industry may not be prepared for.

With today’s class of cruise ships, a 3,000-passenger ship can generate as much as 210,000 gallons of waste and sewage and 1 million gallons of gray water from showers and drains in a typical week according to the EPA. In addition, there are discharges of bilge water that may contain oil, grease and other contaminants.

The wastes from these “floating cities” pose a threat to fragile ecosystems, to sea life, and even to people enjoying a day at the beach.

While Disney is making the strongest effort to correct these problems, other cruise lines are also making progress. As sensor technology makes pollution issues increasingly transparent, the entire industry will soon be held to new accountability standards as customers continue to “vote with their pocketbooks.”

Final Thoughts

Until now, cruise ships have been operating like upscale third world countries, just now entering Internet age. Their true potential has yet to be discovered in a new digital friendly environment.

From a business standpoint, being on the cutting edge of creating exciting new cruise itineraries is now being counterbalanced with the nuanced opportunities for experiencing the oceans with an increasingly Internet savvy clientele.

In addition to being a floating resort, next generation cruise ships will operate as a working laboratory as companies experiment to unlock the ultimate cruise experience for every one of their passengers.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything