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Tablets at sea: iPads are transforming the cruise industry one ship at a time

by John Gaudiosi

March 10 2012

The cruise industry is embracing tablets in a variety of ways, incorporating the devices into restaurants, virtual tours of the ship and even selling them at sea.

With all cruises now featuring satellite Wi-Fi throughout sailings, passengers are opting to check in with home or work more often with iPads and other  tablets.

“The emerging tablet market has opened the door to a great deal of flexibility with how we are able to interact with our show control systems,” said Eric Merz, director of guest technology at Carnival Cruise Line.

“Tablets are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and very versatile with respect to the features that they can provide. The app market continues to grow, and often times we find that available tablet applications will satisfy our needs without the need for costly custom software development.”

Merz has overseen tablet development on two cruise lines, having worked with Disney Cruise Line before coming to Carnival.

At Carnival, iPads play crucial roles in the new EA Sports Bar aboard the cruise ship Carnival Liberty. The videogame and sports bar boasts Xbox 360s and a full catalog of EA Sports games. Carnival is adding the bars to additional ships over the coming years.

iPads as control panels

“The iPads integrate directly with the control systems of the EA Sports Bar and can operate nearly every feature of the space,” explained Merz. “These controls enable the content changes for each of the 16 displays that make up the large display wall, including changing the overall configuration if we want to stretch featured sports feeds across multiple displays for larger viewing. 

"The iPads also allow us to trigger some exciting sound effects in the room such as buzzers, crowd cheers, stadium organs, and dozens more so our venue can bring more energy to the live broadcasts in real time.”

The entire venue is run using an AMX control system. AMX created a companion application for the iPad that makes integration with the sport bar system possible.

Apple’s tablets also bring to life the bar’s custom high-tech jersey memorabilia frames. Each frame has a pair of iPads embedded into the care to showcase a video loop of the cover athlete in-game for Madden, NBA live and NCAA Football.

“We’ve also programmed other iPads for our entertainment crew members who run our trivia and game tournaments,” said Merz. “I like the opportunity to provide information and entertainment content directly to the guests in a way that is personalized to them.

"This takes quite a bit of work on our side to create an architecture to support the right content distribution. But in a way, our job is easier knowing that the display device will be one that we don’t have to provide, nor is it something we’ll need to instruct the guests on how to use.”

Also good for organizing activities

Activities are a popular way for cruise employees to take advantage of the portable devices, which are quickly replacing laptops at sea.

“Tablets have helped to streamline the Youth Programs registration and check-in processes on Norwegian Epic, making it a much smoother and faster process for parents to get registration done so they can start enjoying their family vacation,” said Janet Kim, Fleet Youth Program Supervisor, Norwegian Cruise Lines.

“Also on the Epic, Pearl and Gem, cruise programs utilize tablets in capturing the Sport Court waivers when guest choose to use the Rock Wall.”

Other cruise lines are taking different approaches to tablets. Celebrity Cruises actually sells iPads aboard their Solstice and Millennium class ships in the iLounge. The program launched with iPads and was upgraded to iPad 2s. And, with next week's launch of the new iPad, passengers will be able to not only purchase the new tablets but also learn how to use them.

“One of the great things about Apple is that it is cross-generational,” said Dominique Bonavita, director of Product Development at Celebrity Cruises. “Our guests have a love of Apple products and software because of its ease of use, quality and innovation. We’re able to build upon the products and enrich our guests' lives with the classes we offer.

"We see a lot of guests who are completely adept at using these products, and then we see parents and grandparents participating in our classes in an effort to keep up with their children and grandchildren. They learn skills that can take home with them and utilize throughout their daily life such as sharing their vacation experience through photo books, or a movie they’ve edited on their own.”  

Although there are now plenty of land-based restaurants that have upgraded to tablets for menus, that concept actually debuted at sea aboard the Celebrity Eclipse with the specialty restaurant, Qsine.

At the restaurant, each table is handed an iPad which has an app that features a full menu from drinks to desserts. Guests are able to mail recipes and wine labels to themselves or friends through this app while dining.

“We’re seeing more and more guests come onboard with their own devices, so we’re looking at this as another channel for communicating with guests and providing information the way they want to receive it,” said Bonavita. “It’s rare to work on a new concept now where the iPad or an app isn’t part of the consideration process for the concept.”

The cruise industry has a record number of new ships launching over the next few years, each trying to top the competition with new technology.

Tablets are now at the center of these advancements, as the cruise industry has seen how tablets have helped revolutionize the hotel and resort industry and is eager to push things forward at sea.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the videogame industry for 20 years for outlets like Reuters, The Washington Post, Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter
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