It’s hard to imagine an industry more dramatically disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic than the cruise industry. “We as an industry basically stopped, during the pandemic,” says Martha Poulter, CIO, Royal Caribbean Group. “Our industry literally came to a standstill.”
Now, with restrictions lifting and leisure travel resuming, Poulter reflects on how her IT team made the most of the pandemic downtime to address new and existing challenges.
CIO columnist Maryfran Johnson sat down with Poulter at CIO’s Future of Cloud and Digital Infrastructure Summit to discuss the unique technology challenges of “operat[ing] in this world where our core product is at sea.” What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation. For more of Poulter’s insights, watch the full interview embedded below.
On taking advantage of pandemic downtime:
My husband—during the pandemic—would say, “I do not understand why you are so busy. You are not operating.” But we used the downtime to really reimagine what we could do onboard that isn’t usual or customary.
Typically, our ships go into big maintenance cycles every 5 years. And other than that, they are in operation, they are serving guests, 7x24x365 days a year. When we think about doing major changes in our technology, in our capabilities, we have to be very thoughtful to make sure that we are within those cycles which, as you can imagine, is not very timely from a technology perspective.
So, we used this downtime to do a number of things. We did all sorts of upgrades to systems, we did all sorts of hardware replacements, we reimagined how to do new technology deployments. We used the staff that was still on board to do the work that we typically would fly teams around the world to deploy and do.
We revamped, essentially, our work models, which really was incredibly effective. We got incredibly faster as we went along and did the deployments that way. And we accomplished a tremendous amount in this downtime, which is why we were so busy while the ships were not operating.
On connectivity and cloud:
One of the things that is incredibly transformational for us as we look at the landscape ahead, is that that satellite technology is evolving because of new market entrants. You may have been watching, as Amazon and SpaceX launched their rockets. And the reason that is interesting to us is because they are also thinking about entering the satellite market.
Not just is more competition healthy, but they are also deploying new types of technology—at different locations in the earth’s atmosphere—which gives us different levels of bandwidth, might give us different levels of coverage. Remember: The engineering problem is really, really complicated. The ship is always moving. The satellites are always moving. We need those two things to connect.
We are desperate to really take advantage of [cloud] solutions. But what we have to think about how to operate in this disconnected state. Transactional data resiliency on board is critical for us. So, we are exploring a lot, use data edge, caching solutions, that might afford us that resiliency to operate cloud solutions.
On data challenges:
We are unique as a business. Our customers sleep at our place of business…. We know from your cards when you leave your room, when you come back in, where you are eating, what you are experiencing when you get off the ship, when you get back on. We know so much about you. And yet we want to know more.
So, on one hand, is this quest for more data; on the other hand, the other challenge that we have been tackling is how to simplify and make sense of so much data. What are the touch points that really drive us? Some of the challenge is sort of that juxtaposition of we want more, but we want to simplify.
We did tackle during the pandemic, more analytics around our offers and promotions processes as well as our revenue management processes. And I think it is particularly important because we are at this unique time. We have just been in this very bizarre 18-month period where everything and every behavior has been disrupted. So how do your models evolve and how do you really bring it to the next level? You cannot leverage what you knew in the past because you have had this dark period. So, what do you do? [For example,] our predictability of bookings has completely changed. There is just no model that really has operated, so we have had to really redo all of that work, which has, I think, been healthy. We have had some healthy debates about sacred cows that might have been in the past that really are going to shape the next future.