This week on Avid Travel With Britton Frost I am joined by Ingo Soerensen, the area vice president of global cruise sales for Oracle Hospitality.
A few weeks ago, Soerensen wrote an op-ed on how operators in the cruise industry are using technology to keep up with the needs of guests. This week, we take that conversation a bit further. Soerensen explains how technology allows passengers to customize their experiences while also making their vacations easier.
Join us as we talk about technology that is currently offered on many cruise ships, how cruisers are reacting to this technology, and where cruise technology is headed.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Britton: Hi everyone. Today I am joined by Ingo Soerensen, the area vice president of global cruise sales for Oracle Hospitality. I’m so excited to have you here. You did write a piece that we ran on Avid Cruiser, so some of our listeners might be familiar with your name already. But how are you doing today?
Ingo Soerensen: Good, thanks. Thanks for having me and for this opportunity. I’m sure it will be a useful session.
Britton: I think that technology is something that we see so much happening in the industry and these technological advances, but maybe something that a lot of people aren’t aware of or how these things come into place or, you know, we’ll look, we’ll look at what’s happening now and in the future. So I think that this is going to be an educational experience for all of us. So to start, can you just kind of tell us about what technologies we’re seeing on board now, what we’ve seen in the past couple of years and what’s kind of come up?
Ingo Soerensen: Sure. Well in the past, the cruising experience was a lot about the destination. It is still, but the focus shifted a little bit that the destination is the ship actually. So customers or passengers expect a very customized experience. The vacation days are the most valuable time of the year basically. So they want..we want to have a great experience and technology, of course, can help there. With what we have nowadays from pre-cruising to post-cruising. So the cruise or the interaction with the customer starts far before they actually step on board the ship and this is where technology comes in and passengers are able to reserve their preferred dining experience before they go on board. They can look at the available shore excursion, they can make a spa appointment all this is pre-cruise. So the customer once they go on board they have the whole itinerary, more or less sketched it already. And this is where technology is of course it’s an important piece because via the websites of the cruise operator enabled those pre-bookings. And also the mobile apps, most cruise operators already provide before the customers actually go on board.
Britton: Yeah. And I was just, I recently, well I guess it was about a year ago now, was on Celebrity Edge and I hadn’t cruised in a while because I just kind of got back into the world of cruising and you know, doing all of my documentation beforehand and having this app to be able to, it was still in a demo, but having this app to be able to talk with other cruise passengers and possibly open the doors, it’s like, it’s something that it seems like a lot of people are doing now.
Ingo Soerensen: Yes. This is over all generations. In the past the older demographics, they were not so much into technology but this is changing so everybody is more or less used to having their cell phone with them all the time. And they expect kind of to be able to customize their upcoming vacation to a certain degree and that they can prepare accordingly, that they’re looking forward to all the excitement on board and, and this is where those pre-cruise interactions come in. So it’s a very important piece and customers say they are used to customize anything and no cellphone in the world is like any other, so everything is customized. People customize their cars, their phones their…how they interact with their TV and all this or the same applies now when they go on vacation, they want to have a customized experience.
Britton: Yeah. And when we look at..you mentioned kind of like making reservations or booking excursions, it’s so nice to be able to do that from your room or anywhere on the ship and not have to go wait in lines. And so it’s about customization and personalization, but it also seems like it’s about ease as well. So how has, you know, this technology kind of made the cruise experience easier for passengers and also enhanced it at a customizable level?
Ingo Soerensen: Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean it’s, it’s time-saving. So as you said they are not, they don’t have to go down to the reception desk to ask for an extra pillow or something. On some cruise lines they can now use voice assistant which is in their room, which they can use to order stuff like this. They can ask what kind of seats are left in on certain shore excursions or they don’t have to go down to the shore excursion desk. So that saves time. And of course it’s also for the cruise operators. They have less crew, they can operate with less crew because the technology is kind of filling the gap a little bit. It’s great for the customer. And of course it’s also good to increase onboard revenue for the ship operator.
Britton: And then I also want to talk about, because this is something that we kind of corresponded about, is that like how technology is used in terms of like the special perks on the cruise lines. So, can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Ingo Soerensen: It is very important to realize that the vacation experience is still about also interactions with humans. It’s hospitality so it’s very important that IT is only playing a supporting role and, and it’s not going into main focus that people fear that they’re just talking with some digital features, that there is still crew on board. But perks and advantages…Like for example, the RFID technology, this chip technology, where the people have RFID chips in the bracelets or wristband which enables them to open the door, which enables them to charge something to their room account or cabin account when they are in the retail area of the ship. And technology takes it even further. You know, you’re being recognized by RFID chip, which you carry with you when you, for example, go shopping and the technology can detect what you’re looking at or in which restaurants you are dining. And based on this technology can then make, for example, smart recommendations if there’s a special wine on sale, something based on your post ordering behavior. So this is where technology becomes smart and helps, you know, better cruise experience and more onboard revenue for the cruise operator.
Britton: So in your opinion, when we’re looking at these technologies, and you mentioned the bracelets and I know that I mentioned Celebrity’s app, what do you think are the most important technological factors like for enhancing the guest experience? So whether we talk about that, you know, we mentioned customization, we mentioned ease in either of those two categories or maybe another category that we haven’t touched on, which technologies are the best or the most important?
Ingo Soerensen: I think a lot of focus is on mobile apps that people can sit in the, in the pool by, by the pool and just use their regular device via the app from the cruise operator and order drinks, for example. So this is also something lots of cruise operators already do. So um that helps streamline the food and beverage operation. And again, it’s a great experience and it’s a very convenient experience for the passenger.
Britton: And do you know what, like the guests attitudes toward these technologies are, I know that that’s not something that we talked about, but I mean, what kind of feedback have you heard?
Ingo Soerensen: I recently joined the conference and they presented a percentage because people can opt-out of this, for example, RFID chips so that they are being recognized by the system all over the ship. And they presented this percentage and that was that 97% of all passengers are using it. So they’re not against it. They really in for it and like it as a convenient thing during the cruise to utilize.
Britton: And I think that too, when we speak about technology, we need to look a little bit at the demographics. And I know that with cruising it’s really hard because it ranges in age so much. But when I think about my grandmother, she’s 75 and I don’t know, you know, it seems like a lot of technology she has problems with, but when you look at something as simple as wearing something on your wrist and tapping it up to something and maybe the mobile apps are a little bit harder, but something that’s really integrated into the experience and something that you don’t really have to mess around with very much. I mean that seems like the best solution. And then kind of implementing these other technologies through apps and through voice control and things like that because younger passengers can kind of take those and run with it. And when I say younger passengers, I mean my dad is in his sixties and would also be able to use an app and he is very technologically advanced and I think that most people that age are and know how to use those things. So I think, I think that maybe we’re seeing the last of that generation who’s kind of maybe opposed to technology or just simply doesn’t understand it phasing out a little bit. Would you agree?
Ingo Soerensen: Correct. I think the best technology is the technology you don’t see it when you actually use it. And to the best example is this RFID technology, which where you just carry it with you and you don’t realize that this thing enables you to open the door because you just opened the door, you don’t have to do anything. It shows the door is recognizing that you are close to it and you’ve just opened the door and maybe even the picture and your name is showing on the display of your door. So this is, especially when you are not so much into technology, quite fascinating. And people then ask, “Wow, that’s great. How do they do that?” And I think that’s the best technology which you don’t fear. And if there is a younger crowd who’s more into mobile everything and they can then extend it, the usage and do even more with it. But you don’t have to in order to have a great experience, you can, but you should not have to.
Britton: And I mean kind of taking that experience and looking at the technologies that we have now, what do you think we’re going to see in the future? And I know that that’s kind of what you wrote a little bit about on Avid Cruiser when we brand your article a couple of weeks ago. But can you elaborate on that a little bit? What are your predictions?
Ingo Soerensen: In the past, the focus when talking about cruises was a lot about the destinations, then it shifted toward the destination is the ship and not the actual port. So obviously another ship that there’s a bigger focus on making those ships smart. Some operators call their ships already smart ships. We will see voice assistants in the cabin and we will see technology which enables a better experience for the customer and more on board revenue for the operator. For example when the system is recording that the point of say, indicating that the third passenger has all this having the special French red wine. Based on that knowledge, the technology can then suggest a wine package for the passenger for example when he’s switching on the TV in the cabin the next time. So this is a wow effect for the passengers, because we see it that the cruise operator really cares and is keen to satisfy the needs and the wishes of the passenger. Plus it helps generating onboard revenue by selling such a package.
Britton: And that’s really, I mean, having those recommendations, I think that that’s something that people really are receptive to because it feels like maybe even if you’re using a technology and not getting that directly from a person, you’re still there’s something to say, well you did this and we’re paying attention to what you’re doing. And because of this, take a look at this. And as you mentioned, it’s also good for the operator because they’re able to use those recommendations to create the revenue back. But I mean, do you think that, do you think that that kind of, it seems like technology always just goes along with the human experience and it maybe tells us what we want before we know it or kind of picks up on certain things that we may not even realize. For example, when we look at not wanting to stand in a line and we talked about ordering a drink and things like that and just creating this ease. And then also, you know, just maybe not having to think about it like we talked about and just kind of bringing this all back together where these technologies are just enhancing what’s already on board and what services are already offered. And I that as, as that continues, you’re seeing maybe more implementation of certain technologies like voice commands, but that’s really not that much different from what’s already happening on board. It’s just happening in a different way.
Ingo Soerensen: Yes. In a smarter way. It should not be configured in the way that it scares the customer. Of course. It should always be set up in a way that the customer likes it. Like mobile check-in. We all know this from traveling on planes…nobody goes to the counter and checks in. You do this before from home and this is a great benefit because you save time and since vacation or the vacation dates are so limited we all have nowadays that time is so precious and if technology can help, I think it was all this be appreciated and as I said at the beginning it should never be too digital. So vacation is still the hospitality industry, so it should still be about the human interaction and the IT should just play a supporting role.
Britton: And I mean that’s a really good point. How do you think that the cruise lines should do that? How do you think that they should transition into using different technologies and making things easier and giving passengers these different devices and keep that hospitality part of it integrated into the experience as well?
Ingo Soerensen: I think every operator or every kind of cruise will handle it a little different. If you’re a five star plus ship, you will always have to focus on providing a great service via the crew you have on board and the IT is supporting this. On other ships which are the biggest ships for the mass market, they will utilize the digitalization in a more obvious way, I would say. So it’s really depends what kind of passengers you have, where you position yourself by having this huge choice of different cruises, destination-oriented expedition ships, which are then more you know, for the onboard learning as well, so that the people learn about where they’re going or if it’s a party boat where people just go and have a great time on board and don’t care so much about the destination. So it’s really different how the individual operators will transform into this new technology.
Britton: Yeah, and I mean it’s, it’s exactly like you said when you’re looking at maybe a five-star ship, you’re looking at still having that service on board. It’s not like, you know one of these luxury cruise lines is going to take away their butlers and replace them with voice-activated speakers. I mean that’s just not how it is.
Ingo Soerensen: And it’s all about choice.
Britton: Yeah, exactly. Speaking to voice-activated technology, I know that I did an interview with MSC a couple of months ago and they talked about some of the voice activation that they have on their ships. How do you think that those voice-activated technologies are changing the cruise industry or are going to change the cruise industry?
Ingo Soerensen: I think there are a lot of people already who have voice assistants at home, so people come to on board a cruise ship and they know that, you know, internet is just by a satellite and that it might be a little slower than at home. But they still expect nowadays to be online all the time. They expect to stream via their Netflix account or something. So the expectations are very high. And I think those voice assistants, they to a certain extent, they can satisfy those expectations because it’s, again, it’s a convenience for the passenger. It’s time-saving. It’s, it’s, yeah, it’s kind of expected that things they know from home are also available when they are on vacation.
Britton: And one of the first things that I do every morning I know is I ask my voice assistant what the temperature is outside so that I know how to dress for the day. And why is that not something…That seems almost more important when you’re on a ship and you’re going to a new destination every day to wake up and know what time it is and know where you are and just be able to do that so easily.
Ingo Soerensen: Yes. And you can take it even further. They can ask for the morning report for example. So they would get the weather, they would also get remaining seats which are available on certain shore excursions. So that brings them to ideas, what to do during the day and it helps the operator to sell them more and to fill the remaining shore excursion seats for example. So I think this is where a voice assistant comes in very handy.
Britton: So shifting away from maybe technology, well not from technology but from what’s on board and the future and what’s happening. Now I want to talk about Oracle a little bit because that’s where you’re from and who you’re representing, obviously. So we can talk about MSC and Oracle first if you want. Since we were just talking about MSC, how do MSC and Oracle work together to enhance this guest experience that we’ve been talking about the whole time?
Ingo Soerensen: Oh yeah, we’ve worked with MSC for many, many years and a great company, unbelievable growth, recently. Many ships on order, big ships. So you know, we cover all areas with our IT solution, which belong to the hospitality area. So everything…when you interact with the reception, for example, we do the whole folio handling. We also do the gangway control, you know, when you go on board and you know, you’ll swipe your card or you scan your card that the system registers that you are now on boards. The same when you leave or when you go on a shore excursion, the whole check-in, check-out procedures. We are handling the massive print out of invoices on the day of disembarkation. We are handling working with MSC in all their restaurants, the food and beverage outlets, the retail areas. In the last 10, 15 years it grew a lot on board the ships and plays a very important role. So we have customized a retail solution for the point of sale. We do have a meal count system where the kitchen is always being informed how many meals from what kind have been ordered during the course of dining in the evening. So all those areas we cover, we have a system, which is called material management, would help the ship to, you know, to stock all the consumables so that they have enough wine, beer or food and beverage items. So all those areas, wherever it’s connected to hospitality business, the solution Oracle’s covering with our cruise solutions, we don’t touch like navigation or deck and engine area, you know, this is really for others.
Britton: Well and I think that that’s actually a really interesting point that you made because you kind of don’t, when we talk about technology, we do think about maybe like the voice assistant or whatever. But you, yeah, there’s so much more to it. There’s the point of sale, there’s all of these different things that have to work together as well and work with the technologies that we’re seeing and we are utilizing onboard. So there’s more to it.
Ingo Soerensen: Yes, definitely. The crew was in touch with our solutions, but now it’s recently changing that the passenger via the mobile app now they are becoming more and more in touch with the solutions which run in the background but mobile apps are all connected to our onboard systems so that those pre-cruise bookings and reservations can all be handled. And then once the customer’s actually on board are available.
Britton: And lastly, we’ve talked a lot about, you know, technologies on board and what people are using, but again, being Oracle-specific, what are the Oracle cruise customers using on board? What kind of technology are they utilizing? I know you mentioned some of it in the last question talking about MSC.
Ingo Soerensen: Well they use most of them our entire portfolio of different modules. Not every cruise operator has the full portfolio of our solutions. MSC has most of our solutions. And so yeah, they use it all. And just recently we equipped their first private island called Ocean Cay with all our systems. So they’re now able, when the passengers are coming from the ship and to going onto this island, they can go to a bar there and have a beverage or food and the charges for that will appear on their cabin account and back on board the ship. So this was just recently we implemented that our solution on board that island in The Bahamas.
Britton: Yes. And I will be visiting that island in March, so I will report back on how everything is doing as well. Is there anything else that you want to mention?
Ingo Soerensen: Well, the cruise industry is growing. Oracle will be a part of it. We are currently working on our next generation of products to stay innovative, to satisfy the enhanced needs of the cruise operators, to deliver great experiences for the travelers because it’s simply what’s expected and Oracle is it’s helping the operators to do that.
Britton: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it and I feel like I learned so much and I hope that everyone else does as well.
Ingo Soerensen: That’s great. My pleasure.