The State of Mobile Apps in the Cruise Industry

May 18, 2022

Since 2018, Sourcetoad has been very interested in the world of cruise mobile applications and their features. We’re interested partly because we want to be better software engineers, and partly so that we can better inform our clients. This interest drove us to begin publishing our annual reports on the state of cruise mobile apps. Below is an overview of the progression of cruise apps we’ve seen since 2018, including a brief history, discussion of emerging trends, and our predictions of what features may appear in the coming years. 

Download your free copy of our 2022 Cruise Mobile Apps Report.

Cruise Apps from 2018 to early 2020

History

First, let’s discuss a bit of history. When we really started looking at the cruise apps in 2018, we saw a lot of diversity in features, such as:

      • Packing checklists of what to bring on your trip
      • Augmented reality models of your ship floating on a table in your cabin
      • Simulation of a tender ride back to the ship from a shore excursion
      • Onboard trivia games to play against fellow passengers
      • X-ray vision to see through walls of the ship… kind of.

It was the wild west out there. Passengers and cruise lines hadn’t really come to an agreement on the fundamental reasons to have a mobile app.

Over the next two years, we saw the set of common features constantly expanding, and it became a bit of an arms race. One cruise line would release the ability to do spa bookings, and then within months, half of the apps would add spa bookings as well. At this point, we roughly had a feeling for what should be in such an app. Standard features included:

      • The guest folio
      • Shore excursion booking
      • Spa booking
      • Dining reservations and menus
      • A daily newsletter
      • A calendar

2020-2021

COVID-19

Then of course, COVID-19 happened. The world was faced with a global pandemic. The first ships stopped sailing at the end of March 2020, and within a few weeks no one was sailing. Things were scary for everyone involved in any aspect of the cruise industry (or any industry, or any person, come to think of it). I remember what that felt like, and I’m sure you do too.

Cruise industry folk, however, are a resilient lot, so we pulled ourselves together and went back to work to figure out how to get people back to sailing as quickly and as safely as possible.

The COVID Features

As early as July of 2020, we started to see COVID-inspired health and safety features enter apps, such as:

      • Contact tracing
      • Paperless tickets
      • Health Surveys
      • Queuing systems and virtual waitlists

Digital health surveys became ubiquitous, asking questions like “Did the passenger have a fever in the last week before the cruise?” or “Have you felt sick today?” In the daily survey systems, we also saw more and more integrations of electronic medical record systems — mainly everyone’s favorite, Seacare. 

So unsurprisingly, compliance and health and safety were the hottest topics in the cruise app world in 2020 and 2021.

2022

What we expected

In a theoretical world where all cruise lines have the same basic features in their apps to start with, you could predict a rational strategy for new feature development. Let’s say that strategy would be to tackle the features that offered the best combination of guest experience and operational efficiency.

A good example of this combination of guest experience and operational efficiency would be something like room automation. The passenger could see the ability to use their device as a TV remote control, change the HVAC temperature, or close the blinds as fun app features. However, the driving force of these features is more operational. If I can tell which passengers have gone ashore, then I can close their blinds, reduce the HVAC outputs, and therefore save diesel fuel. When the passenger is coming back on board, we open the blinds and spin the AC back up.

Virtual queuing is another feature we’ve seen popping up in 2022. Passengers don’t want to wait an hour in a line for the rock climbing wall. Well now thanks to virtual queuing, they can put their name down on a list in the app, and then get a notification letting them know when it’s their turn. The guests can now use that hour to do other onboard activities, the staff have real time demand data for staffing the rock wall, and we have now also gotten rid of the queues. 

These features actually add another area to our Venn Diagram: health and compliance. So here we have a really good use case, and a strategy that we can adopt for planning what we should be spending our time on in the future. How do we maximize the usefulness of the development we do?

Is that what we are seeing?

Well the answer is mixed, of course! We are seeing some of those guest experience features that play to operational strengths. For example: booking cancellations. Surprisingly, the ability to cancel things like restaurants, spa, and shore excursions are only now appearing in apps in 2022. Or maybe I should say reappearing.  We saw the ability to cancel reservations and bookings during our initial analysis way back in 2018. Cancellations made perfect sense in the operational efficiency vs. guest experience sweet spot: they took pressure off guest services and shore excursion desks while also empowering passengers. However, they were taken away from almost all the apps that had them over the next year or two. We suspect this there were two likely reasons for this:

    1. The first is logistical issues. If you cancel your shore excursion after a certain time, the list of people expected on the motor coach may have already been printed, or that cancellation might cause ripple effects throughout the supply chain. Dealing with these issues turned out to just not be worth it.
    2. The other possibility was limitations on the business logic on the PMS side. If you go and try to cancel a reservation from someone in person, the PMS has all sorts of business rules in place to stop the logistical issues I mentioned. However, those rules are often not baked into the APIs that the mobile apps use, which often leads to excited developers building something that does have the safety rails on in real life.

So these problems have clearly been worked out, which is why we see cancellations added back in some apps. Or perhaps cruise lines have decided that the health and safety benefits of avoiding long lines at front desks is worth the logistical risks.

Many of these risks can be mitigated with good guest communication, which means reliably sending the passenger notifications to their device about the changing status of their requests. For years it has been very difficult to get notifications to work onboard, but things have changed.

 

Notifications

So, a quick review of push notifications. Prior to 2021, there were basically three main types of push notifications (there were actually more than three, but we then go into the esoteric).

    1. Timed local push notifications occur when there is a preset time for an event in an app. For example, if your device knows you have a restaurant reservation at 7:30pm, it can alert you with a notification. The problem on a cruise ship is that this notification is driven from the device’s clock, and the ship time and the device time can be different. This leads to developers writing notifications like “Your reservation time is approaching” which is not really that useful. Anything more specific can cause problems and frustrated passengers.
    1. Standard remote push notifications are not much better. You may know that for most of the smartphone era, you have needed a push notification server on the internet in order to send notifications. That means requiring a consistent, reliable internet connection.
    1. Polling push notifications are when the device asks the server onboard “do you have any messages for me?” again and again, until it does. The problem with this type of notifications is that it has battery life implications and is only guaranteed to work once per hour, so it has limited applications.

 

So what has changed? Local push notifications have entered the scene. 

In 2021, both Apple and Google released new ways to send local push notifications. This means that a server onboard a ship can directly send a device a notification—reminding guests of upcoming dinner reservations, letting them know it’s their turn on the rock climbing wall, or telling them to look off the port bow for whales that were just spotted.

Having instant reliable communication with passengers is a game changer. It means virtual queuing systems for the go kart track, telling people when they are departing for a shore excursion, letting them know when a reservation has been canceled, and alerting a passenger that they have been in contact with someone with COVID and need to quarantine and be tested.

Surprisingly, we have only seen only one cruise line implement this technology with the new Apple/Google methods, but early user reviews are excellent with very high delivery and read rates. Before Apple and Google released true local push, quite a few other cruise lines had implemented a variety of stop gap solutions that are less reliable. These techniques have lower reliability and worse user reviews.

How do we see things evolving?

Most of the major apps out there now have the basics (bookings, folio, itineraries, etc.), which means that the next year or two is going to be interesting in terms of development. The race for feature parity is now over.

We expect that Onboard Notifications are going to be the driving force behind many new features added in those sweet spots between operational efficacy, health and safety, and the guest experience.

What is really interesting is that it looks like no one really agrees on what they want to tackle first. Once you have made sure your guests can book a spa treatment in the app, what’s next? These possibilities mean the future of cruise apps is becoming more and more like the early days of cruise app development. Cruise lines are going to tackle problems in their own unique ways. They are going to try and add guest “surprise and delight” features that are creative and innovative. We’re already seeing things like Bluetooth Low Energy, Augmented Reality, Machine Learning, and slick animation libraries making a comeback in the app packages – libraries that we had seen in the late 2010s, but had been removed for a number of reasons. Health, safety, and operational efficiency are great, but at the end of the day cruise lines want to make sure the actual human beings paying for the trip have a good time. Adding quirky features like being able to see through walls with AI or join a trivia game should not be written off. These fun features get guests to download the apps, which then makes them more likely to try out all your other operation features.

The Scary Stuff

There are still some concerning things out there that we have seen in our recent analysis, including some pretty glaring security issues, so we do worry about onboard IT security. Additionally, a lot of these applications are not ADA compliant. While some of the more risk averse IT teams will address these issues on their own, it’s doubtful we will see industry-wide improvements until the lawsuits start to fly.

Privacy is also a serious concern. Data transmission standards, passengers’ information storage, and onboard availability of information still clearly have a ways to go.

Conclusion 

To recap, we have seen a move from wild west features of the early days to a race to get the baseline features guests expect. This race to parity was cut short partly by COVID, and we saw the next generation of development focus on health and safety. With local notifications now a reality, I think we are going to see a lot more interesting and complex features coming out, as well as some quirky surprise and delight features. The next few years are going to be a really exciting and interesting time to watch this space.

Greg Ross-Munro

Check out our Cruise Mobile App Report archive to read our findings from previous years.

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