How Carnival's Princess Cruises takes personalized travel to the rest of us, with OceanMedallions - a Couchbase use case

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 1, 2019
When it comes to personalization, it takes a lot to get beyond my skepticism. But my talk with Princess Cruises about how they use their award-winning OceanMedallions made me rethink.

Carnival Cruise OceanMedallion

I'll be darned; it finally happened. I got confronted with a personalization story that really made me think. I've poked fun at personalization many times on diginomica - mostly because the use cases strike me as rudimentary.

But after I got off the phone with John Padgett, Chief Experience and Innovation Officer at Carnival Corporation, I couldn't do justice to the article.

What Princess Cruises, a Carnival cruise line, is doing with their OceanMedallion (pictured right), is so comprehensive, I needed to research it further, or risk screwing up the story.

I think what threw me is Padgett's intent to hide the technology. I'm used to fussing with app configuration to get the personalization I need. That's the exact opposite of the Ocean Medallion approach.

"This is not a digital transformation"

When you board a Princess Cruise ship equipped with this service, you're probably already wearing the OceanMedallion to speed your entry process. We write a boatload about digital transformation on diginomica. But as Padgett sees it, that's not what this is. As he said to me emphatically, during our second phone call:

What is completely unique about what we're doing is: this is not a "digital transformation." This is a connected experience transformation.

Because whether the guest is engaging with a crew member, whether they're engaging with a digital portal, be it their stateroom TV or their mobile device or in a physical space itself, all of it is enabled ubiquitously and uniformly around the guest, because the OceanMedallion has given that persistent connectivity, and we've infused all the sensors and connectivity across all the ships in ways that it doesn't spike out. It doesn't feel like a technology experience.

An example of my initial confusion: I assumed that to get a "MedallionClass Experience" going, you'd have to download Carnival's apps on your phone. I can easily imagine some cruise passengers who would not easily install and configure apps. But while the apps are useful for some things, they are not at the core of the experience at all. As Padgett told me:

The only thing you need to experience MedallionClass personalization and simplicity is the OceanMedallion itself. And the OceanMedallion itself has no on/off button. It has no configurations; it has no settings; it has nothing you as an individual guest need to do with it.

A personalized cruise experience is one thing, scaling it is another

I've seen my share of ambitious projects since we launched diginomica. But get a load of this from Padgett:

Our strategy from the very beginning was to create the most personalized, simplified vacation experience at scale that has ever been done.

In the past, luxury travelers got that personal touch - and paid handsomely for it. But can that be extended to all customers? As of now, Padgett can say: absolutely yes.

Personalization on a vacation experience has been done for hundreds of years. That was the real basis for the creation of the OceanMedallion, and the creation of the "xIoT" as I call it, the experiential IoT. The key issue is the scale.

The biggest ships are now a little bit over 5,000 guests. And so I have a passion for delivering personalized experiences to the individual, so the innovation was how to deliver a personalized experience on a floating city that would have been previously reserved for the most elite vacations on the smallest venues, whether land or sea.

I like to say it's like going to your grandmother's house where there's someone that just knows how to anticipate all your needs, wants and desires without you even asking.

MedallionClass by the numbers

By now, I suspect readers who haven't tried out an OceanMedallion cruise are probably getting that cynical, raised eyebrow feeling. So did I - but consider the scope of this project. During a ten to twelve-day drydock, 137,000+ ton ships from Princess Cruises are outfitted with the following infrastructure to enable the MedallionClass Experience for guests:

  • 72 miles of cable
  • 4,000 sensors
  • 650 readers
  • 500 edge computing devices
  • More than 4,000 interactive portals (screens the OceanMedallion can interact with throughout the ship)

Wireless Internet adds to the mix - a 20 megabits per second downstream/76 megabits per second upstream connection via MediallionNet, which connects via low-earth orbit and mid-earth orbit satellites - satellites with 0.2-second latency. The ship uses multiple constellations of satellites, with redundancy built-in for inclement weather. One reporter who gave it a spin said: "We were able to get that kind of speed in the middle of the ship."

The first ship equipped for OceanMedallions left port in November 2017. The experiment worked. Since that time, Princess Cruise lines has been outfitting more and more ships. Twelve ships now have the MedallionClass Guest Experience installed, with six more Princess Cruise ships to be equipped in 2020, and the entire line to be completed by the end of 2021. Carnival Corporation and plc, currently with a combined fleet of over a hundred vessels across ten cruise line brands, will eventually install MedallionClass on all of its ships.

How does the OceanMedallion experience work?

As for the Experience itself, that's not easy to describe; the OceanMedallion seems to impact pretty much everything you might do on the ship. Just a few examples include:

  • If you choose to activate the OceanMedallion from home, your entry onto the ship is expedited.
  • Once on the ship, when you're near your cabin door, it automatically unlocks.
  • You can order refreshments from anywhere on the ship, and the staff will bring it to your exact location.
  • All food/beverage purchases are automatically put on your master account. The quarter-size OceanMedallion doesn't have to touch anything to process this payment information.
  • You can easily locate family members, with navigational directions to get to them (considering most of these ships cover the equivalent of four city blocks, it's not hard to lose track of your peeps, including your kids).
  • In case of emergencies, the staff can quickly locate every passenger.
  • Interactive game play and on-demand entertainment is enabled through the portal screens located throughout the ship.

And here's a big one that stood out:

  • Guests receive a new OceanMedallion for each cruise, but their online profiles and preferences are retained, and carry forward to all future bookings.

I've been waiting for hotels to get this one right. Still waiting, but anyhow... To me, the biggest potential challenge/opportunity here is not the "seamless" transactions or reducing friction, like opening doors. It's about how employees serve guests. As Carnival says: "By knowing who a guest is, where they are and what they want, the crew is able to create a personalized experience in an efficient way."

That's something I'd like to see in action. The problem, of course, is that even with "real-time" personalization systems like this one, if I'm a service worker, I can't be scrolling through my device to get an update on a customer's preferences. But Padgett gave me some good examples of how this can work. Example: a piano player can look at an iPad to see the musical preferences of the assembled guests, and surprise them with favorite songs. Or: a room service gift can be spontaneously presented, based on your wedding anniversary.

The role of Couchbase on the xIoT platform

You could write an entire piece on the "xIoT" platform that makes all of this possible. But for now, how does Couchbase fit into the picture? Padgett:

What we were looking for in storage and database support is: high performance and scalability. And, at the end of the day, that's what's so key. Because right now, we produce more information on a single MedallionClass cruise than would have been created in the whole history of that cruise line. And all that intelligence has to be processed on the edge, to be invested back into the guest experience in real-time.

As Princess Cruises rolled out the MedallionClass platform in the last two years on more and more ships, they put their infrastructure, including Couchbase, to the test: So far, so good: "We've been in operation now at full-scale for over a year."

So how would Padgett describe the role of Couchbase in all this? 

I would say Couchbase is a primary database in our overall ecosystem in enabling the real-time information processing, on the edge to experience.

When I hear "edge" and "real-time", one thing is certain: you cannot compromise on performance. You cannot be sluggish - and you cannot tolerate downtime. So has Couchbase delivered?

Very much so. Couchbase has honestly been a great tool in our tool chest to create this.

Even a successful project inflicts lessons. Looking back, Padgett points to two that other "experiential IoT" projects should keep firmly in mind. One involves Couchbase directly: when it comes to technology, worry less about sexy innovation. Focus on getting that back-end plumbing ready for digital scale.  Padgett:

So often that in the innovation side, people spend a lot of time focused on the innovative elements such as the OceanMedallion itself, and no doubt we did as well... But the things that are a little less sexy, like your core infrastructure, you've got to pay tremendous attention to making sure that all the compute, all the communication and connectivity is lined up appropriately and handled.

The other lesson is that old classic: change management.

I think this is missed by 95 percent of the innovation projects going on today in business. Everyone loves to talk tech, but at the end of the day it's human, and it's people... I like to call it change leadership, and it affects all aspects of your training and service delivery. Those are very, very important.

The wrap

I'm always one for personalization results. And while Padgett didn't offer up hard numbers like cruise revenue increases, it's clear the MedallionClass project is considered a resounding success. Padgett: 

Our guests absolutely love the experience. It's so natural and makes sense because it's everything a guest wants.

Customer satisfaction numbers are strong; 99.7 percent of passengers choose to use their OceanMedallions. Princess Cruises has won a slew of awards for the OceanMedallion, including the 2019 Red Dot Award for Product Design, and the 2019 Stevie Gold Award for Consumer Electronics. Carnival holds several patents for MedallionClass technology as well.

You might think having all this data moving across the ship is a security risk, but Princess Cruises says the data privacy risks are actually lower than in the days where they maintained paper information on guests. The passenger data is encrypted and abstracted. As per Princess Cruises:

OceanMedallions do not actually carry any data on them. They are conduits to information stored (and encrypted) somewhere else; your information is actually parsed and stored in multiple places so that no one data center has all your info... Were anyone to actually hack the Medallion, all they'd get is a number, with no meaning and no information attached to it.

For Padgett, who also created Disney's MagicBand and Disney's FastPass+ during his years there, this is just the beginning. The OceanMedallion is just one use case for what could be possible, via the "experience platform" Padgett and team have built with Carnival:

Everyone likes to say that they have the experience platform. What they really have is their mobile device with the application on it. We have this horizontal xIoT that enables every single interaction, digital, physical, human. The medallion itself is simply synonymous with the human. That's all it is, the medallion is the human in the equation, and everything else is embedded.

I can see how some old-time tourists might be nostalgic for the unplugged vacation experience of old; the "get away from it all" vibe can be a challenge on connected vacations. But it can literally take you a half-hour to locate a friend if you take a wrong turn on a cruise ship. "Unplugged" can quickly turn into a vacation-time-waster.

Princess Cruises says the OceanMedallions open up their cruises to new demographics. They might have a point there. I've never been remotely interested in cruises, but now my curiosity is peaked. As a personalization crank someone who is notoriously difficult to personalize for, I'd like to put this to the test.

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