For the past few years, one of the biggest buzzwords in travel has been “seamless”, envisioned as a utopian experience in which every moment of a journey – before, during and after a trip – happens effortlessly and yet is customised to the needs and interests of the traveler.
Then came Covid-19 – upending the travel industry, the way business is conducted and the expectations of consumers.
Seamless is of course still nice, but seemingly overnight, “contactless” has become even more valuable. Now that the coronavirus has made the world aware of the potential invisible risks associated with the virus, the goal of a hands-free experience has become paramount for both travellers and brands.
The cruise industry was one of the first sectors of travel to feel the shock and pain of Covid-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in late January a symptomatic passenger disembarked from the British-flagged Diamond Princess in Hong Kong, and testing confirmed the Covid-19 infection.
Over the course of subsequent weeks, more than 40 cruise ships reported confirmed cases.
While the cruise sector was one of the hardest hit, it is also one that was already moving deeper into contactless technologies for passengers.
Long before Covid came on the radar, Princess Cruises was getting attention for its quarter-size wearable device known as the OceanMedallion that communicates with thousands of sensors on the vessel and a mobile app, enabling guests to house their passport, travel and payment information, plan activities, order food, do wayfinding and more.
And there are many other examples of contactless products in existence before the pandemic, including Celebrity Cruise Line and its parent company, Royal Caribbean, using facial-recognition software in tandem with geofenced beacons to expedite passenger boarding.
Now, as most cruise lines remain on pause, new contactless solutions are being developed to rebuild traveler confidence as travel resumes.
Safer safety drills
All cruise ships must conduct a muster, or safety drill, prior to embarking on a voyage to prepare passengers for safe evacuation in the event of an emergency.
Traditionally these drills require passengers to gather in central locations on the ship, often crowded very close to one another as they listen to the briefing.
In July, Royal Caribbean Group announced it is revamping the safety drill to eliminate the need for passengers to gather.
The cruise line’s new “eMuster” technology will provide the safety information to guests on their personal mobile devices and on stateroom TVs.
After reviewing safety information individually, passengers complete the drill by visiting their assigned assembly station, where a crew member will verify that all steps have been completed and answer questions.
The revised drill, known as Muster 2.0, has been in development since last year and was first tested in January.
“Muster 2.0 represents a natural extension of our mission to improve our guests’ vacation experiences by removing points of friction,” says Jay Schneider, Royal Caribbean Group’s senior vice president of digital.
“In this instance, what’s most convenient for our guests is also the safest option in light of needing to reimagine social spaces in the wake of Covid-19."
In addition to introducing the eMuster system on ships in its own lines - Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara – Royal Caribbean Group is licensing the patented technology to other operators, without license fees during the pandemic. The company says it has already granted licenses to its joint venture, TUI Cruises, as well as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Telemedicine at sea
Tritan Software provides health and safety software to more than 95% of the world’s cruise lines, covering more than 40 brands.
In May, the company launched SeaConsult, a telehealth solution accessible via laptop or mobile device that equips cruise lines to offer virtual cabin visits to assess suspected illnesses among crew and guests.
In addition to secure voice and chat communications, the system offers video, directly between the onboard medical centre and any guest or crew member.
“Now they have the ability to virtually – without leaving the cabin, without sitting in a waiting room – initiate a virtual exam with onboard medical personnel,” says Nedko Panayotov, head of strategic partnerships for Tritan Software.
“And if that onboard personnel is unable to help you, they can use the system to connect you to a shoreside specialist, without risking you getting off the ship, to get advice.”
Since its launch in May, SeaConsult has been updated to process Covid-19 symptoms, lab results, contact tracing and follow-ups. It can also be used to monitor crew and guest mass temperature checks. Using a new Temperatures API, the system can connect to authorised third-party vendors that offer self-check kiosks or thermal scanning, so that data can be uploaded to SeaConsult.
Panayotov says SeaConsult used Tritan’s SeaSync technology, its proprietary system, to ensure its products can function when there is low or no internet connectivity at sea.
The self-service buffet has long been seen as a staple of large cruises, but Covid-19 may mark the end of that era.
Several lines have announced plans to change their dining options to maximise sanitation and minimise crowds.
In its “Peace of Mind” safety plan released in June, Norwegian Cruise Line says its buffets will now be full-service, with staff dishing out food to guests.
French Cruise operator Ponant says both its Ponant and Paul Guagin ships have redesigned their restaurant layouts and will only offer contactless, à la carte dining options.
Before Covid became an issue, the new Virgin Voyages cruise line announced it would not have any communal food sharing, buffets or large dining halls on its first ship, Scarlet Lady, now scheduled to sail in November.
This story was first published in Phocuswire.