How Royal Caribbean is Deploying New Technologies

By Kaitlin Milliken |  October 7, 2019

In mid-August, tourists hustle through PortMiami’s Terminal A, dressed in Bermuda shorts and floral print dresses. They eagerly hand their baggage to crew members, then ascend the escalator to Royal Caribbean’s security checkpoint. 

Joey Hasty, Head of Innovation and Transformation at Royal Caribbean. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.)

Nicknamed the “Crown of Miami,” Royal Caribbean’s new terminal opened to the public in November 2018. When guests turn to the shore as their boat departs, the 170,000-square-foot structure resembles a crown. When viewed from the east or west, the building looks like an “M,” for Miami.

Navigating a crowded terminal has often been something of a pre-departure headache for cruise passengers — the last series of logistical hurdles before vacation begins. And in Terminal A, many guests do queue up to check-in with crew members. However, some families have already uploaded their photos to an online database — a step that allows them to board their ship even more quickly.

“We use [a] selfie…to bring you through our facial recognition boarding process, which is — we like to say — from the car to the bar in under three minutes,” says Joey Hasty, Head of Innovation and Transformation at Royal Caribbean. “Or if it’s our Celebrity brand, maybe from motorcoach to martini. They’re a little classier.” 

The system can identify multiple members of a family at once while they are in motion. No need to stop and smile for the camera. If the device encounters an error during its scan, a nearby crewmember with an iPad provides assistance. Hasty says the new system is a big improvement from the traditional, 45-minute security process. But it wasn’t without wrinkles.

“We were getting people on the ship so quickly that our bar staff was actually overwhelmed with people. They’re wanting drinks and wanting to start their vacation,” says Josh Nakaya, Creative Director and Lead Designer at Royal Caribbean’s Innovation Lab. “You end up with…sometimes unintended consequences. In this case, it was a good one, right? But what that means for our crew [is] having to respond to more guests on the ship sooner.”

The new onboarding process is one of several digital advancements pioneered by the company’s innovation team. 

Miami-based Royal Caribbean International operates four global cruise brands, including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, and Silversea Cruises. It’s the second-largest cruise company in the world, after Carnival, with revenue of $9.5 billion in 2018. Last year, the company’s brands served more than six million passengers, an 18 percent increase since 2014. 

But to keep that growth going, Hasty and his team know they need to continually improve guests’ experience, delivering both memorable “wow” moments but also reducing some of the hassles — as with the boarding process. Smartphones and newer waves of technology will play a central part.

InnoLead visited the innovation lab at Royal Caribbean’s headquarters in Miami and toured their ship, Navigator of the Seas, to see the company’s digital developments in action. Throughout the conversation, Hasty and Nakaya discussed how they cultivate, test, and launch ideas to upgrade the guest experience.

The Mission 

“What we mean when we say innovation,” Hasty says, “is just the relentless pursuit of new product development for our crew and our guests.”

According to Hasty, the company pursues new ideas via three strategies. They can make investments in companies, especially those that have strategic technology. The innovation team can partner with technology companies to create new guest experiences. And lastly, in-house innovators can build something new. 

“Build is…my favorite, truth be known,” Hasty says. “When we can’t find a company out there doing it to buy or to partner with, we build it ourselves.”

When innovating internally, Hasty says ideas move through a cycle that takes four weeks, on average. The team starts with a “hunch” inspired by guest needs and research. They then brainstorm with the relevant business unit and guests. Prototyping follows. Then, the team tests with end-users who can provide feedback. 

“We believe…not doing [slide] decks, not doing presentations…is the solution to what we do,” Nakaya says. “We actually build things. We make experiences for people.”

Josh Nakaya, Creative Director and Lead Designer at Royal Caribbean’s Innovation Lab. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.)

Codename: Excalibur 

A journey on the Seven Seas combines aspects of several different industries — from hospitality, to food and beverage, to security, to supply chain. According to Hasty, there are opportunities to innovate at the intersection of these different elements of the business.

Many of these innovations are digital. Technological advancements from Hasty and his team fall under Excalibur — the codename for Royal Caribbean’s digital transformation efforts. Facial recognition at port is just one of many projects already rolled out to Royal Caribbean guests. But the digital experience begins long before passengers arrive at the cruise terminal. 

“We learned that lots of the joy of vacationing comes in the planning part of the vacation. So we make that a lot of fun,” Hasty says. “Our Royal Caribbean app…allows planning in a super simple way, from the things you’ll do on board the ship to your shore excursions that you’ll do at the destinations.” 

When on board, guests have the option to purchase WOW Bands. These water-resistant wristbands allow guests to unlock their stateroom doors, make purchases on the ship, and access special lounges.

Augmented reality provides another digital layer to the vacation experience. Today, VIP guests can opt to take a tour of their ship, getting a behind-the-scenes look from real, live crew members.  “But you don’t really get that if you’re just the general cruise guest,” Nakaya says. “[With an AR tour, using their smartphone, guests] can understand the amazing engineering marvel that’s going to be their home for a few days.” 

On the company’s recently launched Celebrity Edge, guests can use their phones to learn more about how the ship works and what’s behind the scenes, narrated by the company’s CEO, Richard Fain. 

Hasty also highlights digital elements that may not be obvious to the customer. One example is cameras coupled with artificial intelligence software.

Together, they’re used to monitor the density, movement, and numbers of people in particular areas of the ship, Hasty says. “We’re using that data to understand how to design ships better in the future. [And] we use that data in real time…to see if we can improve [the guest experience].” 

According to Hasty, the crew uses the AI-powered cameras to make sure food is served at the perfect temperature and that popular buffet items remain in stock. Traffic patterns on the ship’s shopping level can help determine which stores should be swapped out for new retail.  

The team is halfway through a five-year-long, digital transformation mission. Concurrently, Royal Caribbean continues to expand its fleet. The company plans to launch 12 new ships — about one a year for the next decade.

“Each [new ship] is a platform of new and never-before-seen things,” Hasty says. “Another advantage we have that maybe some innovation teams don’t have is [that] the build cycle for new ships is five years. So that’s a lot of runway to get [new initiatives] right…”

Chalking Up Early Wins 

Hasty joined Royal Caribbean in 2017 as the third member of the company’s digital team, and the first member of the innovation team. Prior to assuming his current role, he worked on Disney’s Magic Bands — RFID enabled bracelets that guests can use to unlock their hotel room, buy things in the park, and get fast passes to attractions. After he moved to Royal Caribbean, he built the innovation program from scratch, which included assembling the right team to pursue digital innovation. 

“Part of my success was just hiring really talented people to help us get where we need to go,” Hasty said. The other element? Building confidence in the burgeoning innovation unit. 

“Part of my success was just hiring really talented people to help us get where we need to go.”

“This organization had some false starts…with technology. So there was a big sense of, ‘technology doesn’t make anything better’ with the company when we got here,” Hasty says. “We worked hard to get a really great relationship with our business owners, to let them know we’re here to help solve big business problems.” 

Hasty also recognized the role that early wins play in the survival of an innovation teams. As a result, Hasty says, the team has launched over 90 percent of its concepts.

The goal, he says, was “showing that technology is a democratizing force. Those early wins helped a ton in just building credibility, having people come and ask us for help directly.” 

While the innovation team remains small, with a staff of 24, Hasty says the team can pull additional resources and manpower when pursuing different projects. According to Hasty, hundreds of people across the organization get involved with many of the innovation projects.  

Inside the Innovation Lab

A short sidewalk connects Royal Caribbean’s Miami headquarters with the building that houses the innovation team. 

The whir of power tools can be heard upon entering the prototyping area, as teams construct full-scale replicas of spaces that exist on a ship. A large wooden box sits in the center of the room. When visitors step inside, they find themselves in a model of a cruise ship hallway — exact in both dimensions, lighting, and build material. 

“I wanted to see the way the technology would react to the actual space…because we have…our new door locks in here,” Hasty explains. “So these use RFID, you can open it with your phone, and I wanted to see it work in a real environment.” 

A series of doors line the walkway, leading to full-scale staterooms. While some mockups in the lab use foam-core as a placeholder for furniture in the space, these models are complete with neatly-made beds and rolled towels.

However, rougher mock-ups can also be found in the lab. During a tour of the space, Hasty points out a podium made from cardboard, an early prototype of what later became the company’s facial recognition security system.  

“What you’re looking at here is a cardboard mock-up…but [we were] still able to slide an iPad in here and use it right away. And so we’re just testing shape and function,” Hasty says. “There were hundreds of these sorts of prototypes before we landed on the sort of shapes that we were interested in. And then, we were able to add more and more fidelity.” 

To build trust and organizational support, Hasty brings leaders from the business units into the lab “so they’re never surprised,” he says. According to Hasty, his team also invites crew members and customers into the space to get their feedback as well. Soon after, the team seeks to get the prototype on board for further testing.

Innovation on Deck

Prototype systems don’t have to travel far; when Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships dock in Miami, they’re only about two miles away from the lab. Testing on board helps the team bridge the gap “between how innovators imagine a guest to perceive something, and then how it’s really perceived,” Hasty says. 

According to Hasty, observing guests interact with prototypes helps designers get a better grip on vacationers’ behaviors and needs. The technology can then be refined as needed. 

The second thing they learn from testing is more about change management — how crew members will respond to something new. 

“Everything we do is delivered by humans at the end of the day, and their acceptance…really drives the success or failure of a project,” Hasty says. “In fact, the little bit we do fail at really ends up being an operational failure, more than a technology failure.”

“Everything we do is delivered by humans at the end of the day, and their acceptance…really drives the success or failure of a project…” 

After running experiments with crew members, Hasty says his team collects additional feedback and notes on operational issues. According to Hasty, the innovation team then works with the digital manager for each vessel, who helps integrate the technology. They also train employees — a process that can range from a few days to a few weeks.

Even when a digital innovation works, not every cruise ship has the infrastructure for new technology. “We’ve got around 60 ships in our fleet, and so not everything that we do ends up…on all of them at the same time,” Nakaya says. “The ships are at different levels of technological ability.”

While some of the new experiences they create — like AR tours — place technology in users’ hands, other digital elements are invisible.  

“Most things are ambient, and…[it’s] just part of the experience. So there’s nothing to opt in to,” Hasty says. 

Bring Me a Drink allows guests to order their beverage of choice on their phone and have it delivered to their location. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.)

“Bring Me a Drink” serves as one example. Guests can press a button on their cell phone when on the ship or the company’s private island, Hasty says, and have their drink of choice quickly delivered to their location from the closest bar. 

When asked to share advice for other innovators, Hasty says, “Work to make the technology invisible. What I mean by that is, no one wants to use facial recognition — everyone just wants to get on board the ship… So whenever you can, really work to hide the technology so it just blends into your experience.” 

What’s on the Horizon 

Nakaya is standing in the Navigator of the Seas‘ Royal Theater amidst the seats. Later, the rows will be filled with guests enjoying singers, dancers, and live music. But now, at 11 a.m., the room is empty. A projector plays a video featuring a highlight reel of families on vacation — riding the ship’s water slides, clinking cocktail glasses, and dancing. 

According to Nakaya, unused spaces like this one offer opportunities for the innovation team. One prototype in the pipeline: a “mixed reality” game to entertain vacationers. 

“Real estate is at a premium on a cruise ship. How do we use it as best we can?” Nakaya says. “We’ve started experimenting with using this as one of the spaces within a mixed reality game that could take place all over the ship.”

Nakaya describes the game as a “play experience that mixes [the] physical and digital.” In the story, guests work to solve a mystery and unlock a physical puzzle box located somewhere on the ship. According to Nakaya, smartphones would act as a digital tool to investigate physical puzzle elements—allowing participants to unlock clues along their journey. 

Hasty says that the innovation team continues to look for ways to make guest vacations even better — both in the digital realm and in real-world environments. “We’re really pushing into bigger areas, and different opportunities,” Hasty says. “I think we could be dreaming a lot bigger and crazier.”