Embarking on the NEW Love Boat

In an era where customer centricity is the nes plus ultra of a world where everything is quickly becoming digital, it would seem like a godsend to have a captive audience for 10 minutes. An hour. Or a day. How about having a captive audience for an entire week? Nirvana + Shangri La!, at least from the POV of the seller, right?

In August, my extended family and I literally got off the boat. That is, we disembarked from an extended family cruise to Alaska for my mom’s 80th birthday. And the lessons – and expectations – for a 2017 digital world were everywhere.

Among ten of us, we represented a moderately broad cross section of tastes, ages, mobility, etc. Given the relatively high dollar amounts (for us) that we spent – not to mention the hours spent researching competitors – we expected quite a plush, state of the art ride.

The boat in question (constructed in 2005 – curiously christened by Melania Trump, of all people – and fully refurbed in 2013) was certainly new-ish. Ours (can I call her “she”) certainly was up to date in the PHYSICAL world. And, if not entirely “exciting and new”, certainly NOT the old-timey “Love Boat” of 1979, either. But in 2016 – not 1979 – she was not up to date in the DIGITAL world.

Embarking in Seattle, in fact was like being transported to a technology and process-level time machine to the 1990s. The first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of people on board. A LOT.... A couple thousand, to be more precise – but generally, that’s OK in a multi-level vessel that’s as long as three football fields.

And our stateroom was fine, space-wise. For sure, it was cramped, but my family of four generally “does cramped” pretty well. We camp together in a 6 x 14 foot wooden tent cabin every summer near Yosemite, and it’s one of the highlights of our year, bonding family togetherness, taking the art-of-cozy to new levels. And certainly our starter home – a 984 sq. ft. cottage was often akin to living on a boat... ah Bay Area real estate.

But I digress... The Love Boat... Digital ... 1990s...

The first lesson of all cruise ships (or hotels, or planes, for that matter) is that all WiFi should be FREE. For heavens’ sake, like Nike, just DO IT! As a loss leader! It’s 2017! It’s the ONRAMP to the digital world. It’s good! It’s OK! At the very least, enable a free TXT option at sea – “paging Mom – where r u? Bow or stern?” The only conceivable, nostalgic silver lining to this scenario is, of course, is that the kids get to learn the lesson of “making a plan and sticking to it”.

One you get settled on any cruise ship, the next question is: What time is it? Cocktail time! How will you pay? We got kitted out with plastic, credit-card style ID cards because she was – as the clerk at check-in informed us – “A Cashless Boat”. Awesome – Code Halos here we come! WRONG. Part of me wanted a witty, Isaac-style bartender (complete with a knowing smile, and double-index finger guns). Instead, after the 5-second “hey ho!” of our order, our Isaac spent 3 minutes, with his back turned, swiping at a cash register, only to have to produce a paper receipt for us to sign for the tax (even if you go “All you Can Drink”, you still have to pay the tax when you’re off the coast of Washington in the Straits of Juan de Fuca).

Again, this struck me as totally `90s orientated. The bartenders/staff are basically reduced to paper-pushing inputters, instead of the hoped-for Isaac of legend: “Hey! Where are you guys from! What can I get for you? Do you like bloody Marys, pina coladas? (pour) You’re gonna see some orcas on this trip (pour)! Stunning glaciers (pour)! Hey, that mountain off the ship (pour) is the northernmost point of (mix, shake) the Olympic Peninsula! God bless America, here’s your martini! (Or was it a Bloody Mary? – who cares, this guy/gal is awesome... He had me at the hale-and-hearty “Hey!”)... “Come on back when you’re ready for your next one... Rob is it?”

As my colleague Ben Pring would say: “Assuming that in a bot-full-future DNA-life-based-forms (that’s you and me mate) want to deal with other DNA-life-based-forms, I’d say giving “good meeting” is going to be a pretty important job requirement in the second machine age.

This same sequence of 5% of the time “giving good face” versus the remaining 95% manually dealing with a 90s style reservation system, computer, etc. cropped up in various guises – over and over again. At the dinner hostess station. Making an off-boat excursion reservation. My 80-year-old mom getting jawed at because the “free WiFi upgrade package” she expected for my dad and her – promised over the phone by the over-zealous cruise saleslady months previously – never materialized. Says the witchy twenty-something behind the counter: “Oh? Some sales lady said it was included? Never heard of it/her/we have no record”. For the love of Pete -- it is ZERO-MARGINAL-COST WiFi – not a kilo of Beluga caviar! Just give it to her!

Lest anyone think I’m griping about a “first-word problem”: you’re absolutely right. I am. It’s a total luxury to even be able to take a cruise in the first place. And the staff that works the ships are undeniably hard workers, many of them go-getters from countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal, etc. So, like many office workers using the power of digital and systems of intelligence to eliminate rote-and-repetitive tasks, why not take away the lame dumb terminal/process drudgery and make them better aligned with the customers and what REALLY makes them tick? Or, even just start with a little – friendlier “face time”, and less “transaction time”?

All in all, it was a great trip. The family time was awesome, my mom (celebrating her 80th) really enjoyed herself, the boat didn’t sink ... and that little stateroom was surprisingly comfortable. But these floating fortresses of captive attention need a serious digital reboot to stay ahead in the delight (and repeat –revenue generation) sweepstakes.

Clearly, it’s time to disrupt these boats... You have a captive audience at your disposal for creative, personalized engagement for AN ENTIRE WEEK. A new, digital opportunity and paradigm is staring you in the face for radically new, improved, and differentiated process-level change. My family and I were Exhibit A. Time for the creative destruction to begin, NOW!

(UPDATE: The future MAY be here. I was prompted to write this blog post – and delighted – upon seeing this clip in the New York Times today from CES: “Coming to Carnival Cruises: A Wearable Medallion That Records Your Every Whim”. Yes – absolutely right. These guys get it. They’re “disrupting the ship” with their so-called “medallions” – sort of like Disney’s Magic Bands. Good for Carnival – or should call them by their nickname – “The Fun Ship”? Today – it’s a start. Tomorrow, give us Isaac and the NEW Love Boat. If not, there’ll be tens of thousands of icebergs in the shape of customers ahead.)