Carnival Cruise Woos Biz Travelers With Wi-Fi

Ocean liners are increasingly being selected as the sites for corporate retreats and conventions hosting top managers and other VIPs.

People often think of cruise ships as romantic places where guests leave the telephone, the computer and even the alarm clock behind: luxurious vacationlands where time stands still.

Those who work in the cruise industry and are responsible for keeping cabins booked understand a different reality. Ocean liners are increasingly being selected as the sites for corporate retreats and conventions hosting top managers and other VIPs. These guests are often more interested in surfing the Web than watching the surf.

"Theyve already been to Vegas; theyve been to Miami Beach; theyve been to Cancun; theyve been to New Orleans," said Richard Weinstein, vice president in charge of corporate incentive sales at Carnival Cruise Lines, in Miami, explaining how businesses, ever on the lookout for new and entertaining ways to reward top salespeople and other key players for a job well done, are opting more and more to treat them to a trip at sea.

After years of watching its base of business travelers grow, Carnival finally decided it would be nice if guests could check their e-mail while checking out the sunset. The company had been offering wireless Internet access on its ships for a long time but only on a localized basis. Guests had to confine their Web surfing to certain rooms on the ships, while relying on a limited number of ship computers.

Last year, the company resolved to change that with an ambitious project to build a ship where the Internet would be accessible anywhere on the boat, from bow to stern, in all the cabins and on all the decks.

The image of a business traveler cozying up with a laptop may not be what comes to mind when imagining guests on a cruise ship, but Weinstein said it makes a lot of sense for Carnival to pursue the business traveler market. Cruise ships, he said, can serve as a quick and easy way to add lodging capacity in a city hosting a large convention where all the land-based hotels are booked.

Some convention sponsors have even started using cruise ships as their primary event venue, supported by creative layouts in which keynote speeches are made on board and the trade floor is set up at a port of call.

Earlier this year, the National Football League chartered four Carnival ships for a huge VIP Super Bowl party in the harbor by Jacksonville, Fla. And late last year, a Carnival cruise liner was selected by Clear Channel Communications Inc. as the site of a concert featuring live bands from the 70s. Clear Channel was drawn to the idea of a rock cruise but insisted on on-board Internet access before it signed the contract.

Damned if you do ...

All this growth in the business travel market has been a significant factor in Carnivals overall expansion, from about eight cruise ships in its fleet 10 years ago to 21 cruise ships today. And with that influx of business travelers has come a whole new set of expectations. Essentially, competing in the cruise industry today means offering all the same services found at land-based resorts, and chief among them is a reliable wireless Internet connection.

Its worth noting that while business travelers almost always demand Internet connectivity, nonbusiness travelers have come to expect it as well.

"They call us to book a trip, and they ask if they can bring their laptops along," said John Harshaw, director of shipboard IS at Carnival.

Transforming a massive 2,974-passenger cruise liner into one big Internet hot spot proved to be a daunting task that made the establishment of Internet hot spots in land-based cafes look like childs work by comparison.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about how Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines upgraded their network.

"The difficulty was not so much about the equipment on board as the fact that a ship is a moving vehicle with no fixed wired link," said Ann Sun, senior manager of wireless and mobility at Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., which worked with Carnival to make the project happen. Sun said that extensive planning was required to ensure that the whole ship was covered—but not covered so much that overlapping signals would create interference.

"It was science and a little bit of art," Sun said. At sea, there would obviously be no phone line to deliver a backup Internet connection, and building satellite links for a ship that would be in constant motion and subject to rough seas and stormy weather proved to be another tricky hurdle.

The more Carnival explored the project and studied its ship designs, the more it discovered some stubborn physical challenges. All large cruise liners are built with heavy steel and concrete walls that serve to compartmentalize the ship and prevent fires from spreading in an emergency. But because the walls are designed to be impenetrable, they can also block wireless Internet signals from getting through.

Next Page: Harder than wiring Starbucks.