By Gerry Barker
As anyone knows who has taken a cruise recently, technology is front and center when it comes to the guest experience.
On MSC Seaside, we reserved shows and restaurants on large digital touch screens, and were amazed by how easy disembarkation was at Customs thanks to biometric facial recognition. On Carnival, the Carnival HUB app is like having a concierge in your hand. Princess goes a step farther with their OceanMedallion, a wearable that opens your stateroom, pays for your purchases and knows almost as much about you as you do.
Think that's astounding? You haven't seen anything yet, according to Jorge Agnese, VP of Consulting at the Travel and Hospitality division of OZ.
Headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, OZ serves a number of business sectors. Their mission: "Help our clients be magic in customer experience through Digital Wizardry." They just concluded their first annual CXDX Summit. Held at the W Hotel in Miami, it showcased the latest advances in digital services and solutions, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and radio frequency identification (RFID) for Florida travel and hospitality leaders.
Agnese has been at the forefront of developing customer experience solutions since the early 1990s, working with companies who even then were developing facial recognition products and laying the groundwork for many of the technologies cruise ships use today.
In his role at OZ, Agnese meets with industry leaders on how they can advance the all-important customer experience, and just as important, the employee experience (EX).
"The employee experience is truly what enhances the customer experience," said Agnese in a recent interview. "If you don't have the right systems to serve your customers, there's going to be friction at the interaction."
He sees a day -- coming soon -- when the technology will be available to turn every employee on a cruise into a concierge.
"If you can make every employee a concierge, regardless of whether they are a maintenance worker or manager, the guest experience will be phenomenal. For example, you walk out of your stateroom and see somebody working. You ask when the restaurant opens. They not only tell you when it opens, but also make your reservation."
He admits that's a lofty goal, but one that is definitely within reach.
At the end of the day, Agnese said it's all about improving the "car to bar" experience, to quote a cruise industry executive. How efficiently can the cruise line move a guest from their car to the bar on the ship? 'We would like to make it minutes, not hours."
Why all the focus on making us feel good about our travel choices? Agnese cited this: "Almost 90 percent of the companies in the travel and hospitality sector believe they will compete solely on the customer experience." That's a pretty good reason.
While facial recognition has done wonders for speeding up getting on and off the ship, Agnese talked about an even newer technology to improve the customer experience: Mood recognition.
What if you could scan a room and detect the emotions of the people there? They're working on that, too.
Potentially, Agnese said, "You could map out emotions, such as people leaving a movie. Are they upset, complaining? We can do that. Or, I go somewhere where the music is too loud. They can detect people aren't happy and turn it down."
Working with their conference partner, Medallia, all these customer interactions are detected and fed into the Medallia Experience Cloud, a platform that captures customer feedback and processes it in real-time.
It all sounds like something out of the movie, "Minority Report." Are there any concerns with privacy? "No," said Agnese, "as long as the experience is valid and doesn't interfere with the customer's privacy."
While virtual reality is great for creating immersive experiences, Agnese sees a wider range of uses for augmented reality -- an additive experience. "You can use augmented reality to power your employees to know your personal preferences," he said. "It makes you feel like a VIP." The challenge with both AR and VR is the size of the devices and the power required to run them, he noted.
But "it's going to get there soon."
Even though he's not at liberty to discuss what's in the works with their cruise and travel customers, you can bet the ideas being tested in their Innovation Lab will one day be game-changers for those of us who love to cruise.
"Customers judge you on every touch point in planning a trip," he said, from the first notion of taking the cruise and online booking to leaving home and getting back. "Every aspect has to be looked at." The digital wizards at OZ are hard at work doing the looking.
Photo: Experiencing virtual reality at the recent OZ CXDX Summit in Miami, which will be an annual event. (Photos courtesy of OZ)
(Gerry Barker is a freelance travel writer who has covered the cruise industry for 10 years, formerly with The Palm Beach Post. He and his wife Pam maintain a Cruise Blog on NorthPalmBeachLife.com)