How Carnival is turning to IoT for more personalised guest experiences

© Carnival Corporation
© Carnival Corporation

The cruise giant is using Splunk analytics tools to ensure wifi connectivity onboard its ships and leverage a growing pool of IoT data to personalise experiences for guests

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Cruise giant Carnival Corporation is starting to leverage the growing pool of data it is collecting from guest's smartphones and wearable devices to deliver more personalised onboard experiences.

During the Splunk .conf event in Orlando last week, Computerworld UK sat down with Ariel Molina, senior director of software engineering and enterprise architecture, and Curt Persaud, director of IT for guest technology at Carnival to discuss how they are starting to leverage all of this data.

The cruise company is made up of nine brands, including Carnival, P&O, Cunard and Princess, operating a fleet of more than 100 ships, each with their own unique and often challenging IT environments, especially when it comes to connectivity.

IoT data

IoT data is increasingly important to cruise ship operators as they look to create more personalised onboard experiences for passengers by tracking where they like to eat, shop and spend their leisure time.

"It starts with personalisation, that is the consumer-facing value proposition," Molina said. "There's also an operations value for things like line busting and better planning events. We certainly have an IoT play like that as well.

"How do we use data to personalise the experience to say 'remember when you did this' or 'here are the pictures you took two years ago'. At the end of the day there is a ton of pressures to innovate, so you need tools to do that."

Carnival's main rival Royal Caribbean is also going big on passenger flow data. As reported by Oliver Franklin-Wallis earlier this year in his story for Wired, the firm's latest ship the Symphony of the Seas will be fitted with Wi-Fi beacons which will track guests locations, helping the company plan out passenger flows through the ship.

Executive vice president of maritime and newbuilding, Harri Kulovaara told Wired: "They have a relatively high density of population. How can you spread the people and make sure they find their way? Understanding how people behave, anticipating how they behave, is key."

Read next: MSC Cruises: wearables and beacons improving user experience on new cruise ship

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts (now Walt Disney Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products) does a similar thing with its MagicBands, which were rolled out in 2013 and are equipped with RFID tags and long-range radio to track guests through the parks to help with line busting, park planning and personalisation efforts.

MSC Cruises has also equipped its latest ship the Meraviglia with more than 3,000 passive beacons and over 500 beacon controllers, which link up with its smartphone apps to help guide passengers around the vessel.

Back at Carnival, different brands are taking different approaches to collecting customer's data.

"Princess has gone down the wearable route and at Carnival we have gone down the path of asking: what better sensor can we use than your mobile phone? Everyone has one and it has every sensor we could need to action an experience for our guest," Persaud said.

"One of the things we are trying to figure out is scaling these solutions across the entire fleet, there are ships that are 30 years old and some that are a couple of years old, so they are at different levels of infrastructure and connectivity... so the challenge is having something that works at varying levels of infrastructure."

Read next: How Splunk got into IoT

An early use case has seen Carnival start collecting telemetry data from IoT devices that track Wi-Fi performance metrics onboard ships, such as access point saturation and quality of service metrics.

"Splunk allows us to put different lenses to that data for operations or security or guest experience," he said,adding that Wi-Fi is often cited by guests as a key concern when taking a cruise nowadays. "People used to cruise and it was about being disconnected and now it is about being more connected."

Both Molina and Persaud admit that they are dealing with more data than ever before. "Truly it is fresh for us, it's a space where we are capturing new data points and looking to make sense of the chaos and figure out how to ride that wave of all of the data points we are getting to personalise things for specific guests," Persaud said.

Splunk tooling

Much of the corporation's IT is centralised, with a shared desire to leverage the data it has to both improve operations, IT delivery and customer experience. To do this it leverages a range of tools, specifically from machine data specialist Splunk.

Gary Eppinger, chief information security officer and global privacy officer at Carnival Corporation said as part of a press release: "In order to keep data secure both on land and at sea, Carnival Corporation uses Splunk Cloud and Splunk ES to get real-time visibility across all applications, services and security infrastructure in order to mitigate any threats."

So on land Splunk Enterprise is used to monitor its brand websites and mobile app to ensure smooth booking experiences. At sea the primary digital channel for guests is the Carnival Hub mobile app, which helps guests plan their onboard activities and text fellow guests.

Carnival leverages Splunk's core monitoring capability across its application estate, focusing on two key performance indicators: mean time to resolution for issues and accelerating development cycles to deploy more changes, more often.

"We apply two lenses," Molina said, "the hardcore technical lens of response time and error count and that business lens of how conversion is effected and what is our engagement time."

The latter refers to Splunk's growing position as a key part of Carnival's devops tooling.

"We are tasked to deploy more changes, more often, to innovate," Molina said. "So Splunk is able to give us that picture of the quality of the build, so if you go from deploying every three months to every week, how to do that in a controlled risk manner? Splunk gives us that ability to A/B test and canary our deployments.

"The next iteration is the automation and orchestration, so operators are interpreting this data but devops is a continuous effort to deploy more often, we are up to every two weeks and there has to be a level of automation and orchestration to be able to make informed decisions and roll back or forwards deployments."

Democratising Splunk

Splunk spent the week at .conf talking up its desire to bring its analytics capabilities to a broader set of users, especially business users that don't have the technical skills to code queries using Splunk's SPL programming language. In Carnival it has found a willing customer advocate.

Read next: How Splunk is expanding beyond IT and security users

"Giving the power of Splunk to more users and democratising that data is where it is really interesting," Molina said. "We still rely on Splunk engineers and people that write SPL queries to get these insights so I would love to see the day where it would be more around business owners and product analysts leveraging the data in Splunk is part of that evolution."

Persaud added: "It looks like their roadmap is towards that, making it easier for the end user and giving that data to people actually making decisions that could trigger a change or a benefit, we are mining it but the business users and product owners are the guys that need that real time data to make those decisions."

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