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.
“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.
Harder Than Wiring Starbucks
On one hand, the company faced the risk of whole swaths of the ship going uncovered by wireless access points; on the other hand, installing too many satellites was risky as well. Too many competing signals, just like competing radio stations, could cause the loss of the signal altogether.
“Its very different from a Starbucks, where you can put in one antenna and six people can surf the Web,” said Harshaw. Yet Carnival was resolved to offer a reliable Internet connection and not one that would fade in and out with the unpredictable weather at sea.
To ensure that it could pull off the project, Carnival partnered with Cisco to install Cisco Aironet 1230G Series IEEE dual-band access points. The equipment, which features two radio modules to extend the range of coverage, is typically used in especially challenging sites such as factories, warehouses or structures with high ceilings. Ciscos Catalyst 6509 Series Switches and Catalyst 3750 Series Switches were used to connect to the network.
Style meets substance
After Carnival selected the equipment, it took on the unprecedented task of installing it. Harshaw said teams of engineers from both companies descended on the ship and spent days walking every inch of it. Armed with laptop computers, antennas and “sniffer” equipment, they would read wireless traffic and detect the shifting qualities of reception throughout the ship.
From the data the engineers collected, they determined that more than 200 antennas would need to be scattered around the ship staterooms, common areas and 17 decks. Then they mapped out exactly where equipment would have to be installed to guarantee passengers a seamless wireless experience.
“We created a mobile Wi-Fi lab,” said Harshaw, who explained that the teams finally devised a satellite map to ensure any passenger would be able to surf the Web anytime, from any spot on the ship.
By some accounts, building the system blueprint was the easy part. Transferring the two-dimensional map onto the ship itself was an entirely different matter. Harshaw said engineers flew to the shipyard in Italy to consult with shipbuilders and work out the challenge of building a mobile wireless Internet network without disturbing the ship designers aesthetic vision of an elegant and serene resort.
“It was easy to put dots on a flat drawing showing where we wanted the antennas to go,” said Harshaw. “It was very difficult to go to the ship designers and say, We need an antenna there, when in reality there was 6 feet up in the air and in the middle of a block of concrete.”
Ship designers worked to make sure the antennas would be invisible or at least obscure to the naked eye. Even in elevators or the ships prominent glass atrium, engineers were consulted to see whether the equipment could be moved a few inches or feet to a more aesthetically pleasing place.
After a great deal of effort and planning, the teams found ways to install more than 200 antennas within a meter of where they had been mapped out on the ships blueprint.
The effort paid off. On Dec. 15 of last year, the Carnival Valor set sail on its inaugural voyage to the Bahamas. On board were hundreds of guests, many of whom had packed their own personal laptops along with their cruise wear.
While the Valor also offers an Internet cafe equipped with flat-panel workstations, it can now guarantee that any Wi-Fi-enabled laptop will work in all its 1,487 staterooms and in every lounge, bar and restaurant and at every pool desk. The ship, which sails weekly from Miami to the Caribbean, offers Wi-Fi cards and rental laptops for a nominal fee and applies a charge of 25 cents per minute for Wi-Fi connectivity.
“When I started cruising 10 years ago, we barely had Internet access; and if you could connect, it was excruciatingly slow, so you couldnt count on it,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, who, as editor of the Web site Cruise Critic, based in Pennington, N.J., cruises frequently. “Now its so much faster, even cheaper … and so much harder for Type A travelers to disconnect.”
The new features became an instant hit with Carnival customers as well as with many of its staffers. Less than a month after the Valors maiden voyage, revenues from Wi-Fi charges had already doubled expectations.
While it will take a little longer to determine whether the new wireless features have translated into increased bookings on the Carnival Valor, the initial signs are strong. Harshaw said that every week Carnival hears from more and more customers who are interested in booking cruises but first want to be sure they can bring their laptops along.
Andrea Orr is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].