In this interview, Greg Sullivan describes how the company works to exceed its guest expectations in every possible way. To surprise and delight, the company has rolled out the ocean medallion wearable, a coin-size device that can be sensed by location and transaction sensors throughout the ship. This wearable removes friction by allowing crew members to provide a personalized experience, and allowing guests to pay and unlock doors. We also discuss the benefits of being an internal first customer, Greg’s take on data privacy, data virtualization, blockchain, and edge computing, his background as a CEO, among other topics.
Peter High: You are the Chief Information Officer of Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company. Could you describe the business?
Greg Sullivan: We are a collection of holding companies that operate the nine different brands that we sail under, which consist of some of the most popular cruise brands in the world. We additionally own a number of island resorts, such as Princess Alaska Lodges. We have rail [excursions], and we additionally have a large motor coach operator. Because of our broad purview, we have many platforms upon which we have to deploy technology for the benefit of our guests and our crew. We are in the business of delivering fun, and our mission is to exceed our guests’ expectations in the delivery of their vacation experience.
High: Could you talk a bit about the role of CIO? How do you fit into the broader picture that you have just described?
Sullivan: A big part of delivering on those guests’ expectations is rooted in the technology that we use to serve our guests. In the traditional sense, that involves making reservations available online or through our call centers. The bottom line is that we have our guests for a short period of time, and even at sea, they expect land-similar vacation experiences. That includes connectivity, guest services, and location-based capabilities. They expect to have connection to their social presence and the ease with which those affiliations can take place. We have to deliver all the capabilities that are expected by our guests from a solid technology platform. We built this organization through a series of acquisitions, so we started with different technology platforms, approaches, and application stacks in different platforms upon which all those run. Bringing all that together in a cohesive way that delivers a consistent experience is part of the challenge I have as CIO.
High: As you think about the various people who engage with Carnival Corporation, whether it involves the cruises, resorts, rail cars, and motor coaches, I assume it spans a variety of ages, profiles, and levels of digital savviness. Is there a certain set of personas that you have evaluated as you contemplate which offerings to make de rigueur across all customers, versus allowing customers to opt in or out as the case may be reflecting the differences in some of the guests’ expectations? Look
Sullivan: I cannot think of a demographic that we do not serve. We serve the retired people that are still capable of traveling and enjoying the experiences we deliver well into retirement. Even for those that have limitations to travel, we make it extremely convenient for them. Young and old families often bring their children or grandchildren, so even a given group can span the age demographics across the spectrum. Regarding the technology, our Ocean Medallion ships give the opportunity to effectively opt into a new technology platform as a guest. You can choose to keep your old cruise card if you prefer, but our opt-out rates on the Ocean Medallion are in the single digits. I am not talking about percentages, but I mean counts on sailings of 3,000 or 4,000 guests. We are seeing widespread acceptance across all demographics, and we find that the most eager and enthusiastic are often some of our oldest guests. We do not see a distinction in the willingness to use the new capabilities, and we certainly do not see a distinction in the demand for it. Everybody expects those land-similar experiences when they are at sea.
High: Can you talk a bit about your Fleet Operations Center and how you use data analytics to improve both the operation as well as the guest experience?
Sullivan: All of our ships are equipped with a primary data center and a secondary data center. Traditionally, they have the type of relationship you would expect where one is available to failover to the other in case something happens to the primary one. All of our ships have some form of connectivity to the cloud. In the past year or two, we have dramatically beefed up our investment in the ship to shore connectivity through satellite arrangements. We primarily enable these for guests’ experience so they can have connectivity at sea for their own purposes.
We additionally use this enhanced connectivity for the business of conducting ship operations and for the data transfer back and forth. We equipped the ships with enough compute to operate without being connected because that does sometimes happen at sea due to weather or obstructions. There is enough compute on those ships to do all the analytics we need to do to provide the experience that our guests are expecting. On any of the ships where we have location-based capabilities, that could include the level of detail on where you are on the ship if you need help, navigating to a different point on the ship, or finding members of your party. This could be as simple as you wanting to order something and have it come to you wherever you are on the ship.
High: You previously referenced the Ocean Medallion and some of the augmented experiences that you are providing using technology. Could you elaborate on that?
Sullivan: The Ocean Medallion was recently rolled out on our princess fleet, we have just fully equipped our sixth or seventh ship, and we have another six or so planned for 2020. We have a wearable, which is a little coin-size device that can be sensed by location sensors and different types of transaction sensors throughout the ship. You can receive this before you sail, so it is as simple as having it on you as you approach the embarkation hall and get on the ship. You configure it so it is associated with your profile, so it includes whatever you choose to tell us about you. You need to tell us at least what we need to know to get you on and off the ship.
Further, you can tell us your preferences and aspects of that nature. Once you are on the ship and you are moving about the ship, similar to location-based capabilities that are on your phone, we now have that information on the ship. All of that is processed on the ship, and we can use that information to enhance the guest experience [based on customer choices]. That can include ease of embarkation, getting on and off the ship, or the ability to unlock your stateroom door on approach so that you do not have to fumble around looking for your cruise card. Instead, it senses that you are in the proximity of that door and it will open it for you automatically. When you approach a crew member, they will have a tablet, so they will know who you are. They will be advised of any special celebrations or circumstances that you may have, so the crew member would be able to engage with you knowledgeably.
Also, it completely removes friction from commerce on the ship as the crew member would be able to identify you from your picture and not have to go through other forms of authorization to conduct a commercial transaction. The same goes for the casino. There is a great deal of capability built into this Ocean Medallion that removes friction from the experience, streamlines your experience, and allows our crew to enhance your vacation experience. That aligns with our mission from our CEO, Arnold Donald, which is our job to exceed our guest expectations in every possible way.
High: There are many businesses where the product is not something that the average employee can test drive. However, you and your team have the great advantage of being able to be customers yourselves. How do you and your team take advantage of being able to walk a mile on the deck of your boats or live the experience you just described?
Sullivan: I recently had the opportunity to enjoy what we call a shakedown cruise, which was a ship that had just been delivered from a shipyard in Italy. We embarked in Trieste, Italy and sailed for four days, we stopped in Montenegro for a day, and we ended up in Athens. Part of our job on the ship is to experience the ship in the same way our guests were about to the next week. That particular shakedown cruise was the first new build that was fully equipped with the Ocean Medallion and the MedallionNet, so it was quite an enjoyable experience.
High: You have an unusual background as a Chief Information Officer. You were the CEO of Global Velocity for more than a decade, so you had the ultimate responsibilities as the head of a company around setting the direction and the strategy, motivating the team, and having the ultimate profit and loss responsibilities. How has that oriented you as a CIO?
Sullivan: I have spent my entire career starting, building and growing companies with full financial responsibility up and down the line, so this is my first opportunity to come into an existing company. We are approaching 50 years in age [as a company], and in one of my first meetings, they handed out a 50-year pin and two 40-year pins. One of the 40-year pins was for my predecessor, the prior CIO who had a hand in writing the reservation system that we still use today for 40 percent of our business. We are a company that performs well, delivers a great service, and has many happy customers.
However, much of that is based on mature or aging technical capability, so we are in need of some modernization and transformation. Many people who have been in these types of roles for their entire career paths overlook that not innovating is more expensive than innovating. The way that products get sunset, get put to end of life, or lose their security support, make it so that we are forced to innovate regardless of the age or size of the company. That is part of what I feel I can bring to the table at Carnival because that is all I have done in my career. This represents a wonderful opportunity, and I am having a great deal of fun doing what we are doing right now.
High: As you looked at your road map going forward, what are some additional trends that particularly excite you?
Sullivan: One of the trends that currently excites me is data privacy. Personally speaking, I am pleased that we have these new regulations coming. It would be nicer if there was some consistency across all these regulations or if there were not 50 individual states making rules. However, I am happy that the control of data is in the hands of me, the consumer. I believe that creates opportunities for firms such as ours because it puts us in a position to target the people who are most interested in hearing from us. Further, when we conduct analytics on our guests’ data, we know we have guests that are interested in sailing with us either because they have in the past or because they have expressed an interest in doing so in the future or again.
On the pure technical front, one of the technologies I am excited about is data virtualization, which likewise ties into privacy and security. In the past, it was extremely common for each new analyst or group of analysts that had interesting questions they wanted to answer to either make another copy of a production database or create their own data warehouse with multiple inputs. In that environment, we drove up our cost for storage, our cost in compute, our cost for operations, exposed ourselves to more security vulnerabilities, increased our risk surface area, and made compliance more challenging. Data virtualization helps to solve the challenges associated with presenting beautiful analytics.
I am excited about the application of biometrics to our use case and the application of blockchain to identity of our guests for security purposes and areas of that nature. There are many individual technologies that are all applicable to what we are doing. I am excited about new connectivity strategies from ship to satellite to go back to shore. Working our way down the earth orbit from geo-stationary earth orbit to medium earth orbit to low earth orbit, there are new capabilities coming in that area that are all exciting. We have to stay on top of every single one of those.
I am excited about edge computing where I can essentially make many versions of full cloud capable platforms and put them on our ships without the assurance of ubiquitous and persisting connectivity.
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