MSC Cruises sails towards trailblazing tech launch
The third new ship to launch out of thirteen by 2026, the christening of MSC Seaview took place in Genoa, Italy in June. Frances Marcellin talks to MSC Cruises about its unique design, MSC for Me, and the new high-tech features making a splash next year
ith just one new ship, MSC Seaview, launching in 2018, this year is a relatively quiet one for MSC Cruises.
Having introduced MSC Meraviglia and MSC Seaside in 2017, and with MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa launching in 2019, the introduction of the $900m MSC Seaview is making waves at what is just the beginning of the company’s €11.6bn expansion project.
With thirteen new ships planned between 2017 and 2026, MSC Cruises estimates that it will account for around 25% of the industry’s projected capacity increase over the next eight years. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), demand for cruising increased by 20.5% between 2011 and 2016, with passenger numbers expected to reach 28 million by the end of this year.
With a capacity of 5,331 passengers and a gross tonnage of 153,516, MSC Seaview, like her sister ship MSC Seaside, is the largest ship to be built in Italy. She will cruise the Mediterranean over the summer and then head to South America for the winter.
Image credit: MSC Cruises
New design means more sun, sea and space
The 323m-long MSC Seaview has been designed to provide guests with more outside space and a closer connection with the sea. Largely, Seaside-class ships deliver this through: a 4.5m-wide boardwalk lower down on deck 8; 70% of cabins having ocean-view balconies; and almost one-third of public areas (13,100m2 out of 43,500m2 ) being outside space, the highest ratio in the fleet.
“MSC Seaview has been designed to provide guests with more outside space and a closer connection with the sea"
MSC Cruises chief executive Pierfrancesco Vago explains that the new design concept brings back the engine to the mid part of the ship, where traditionally it has been at the aft.
“This is creating not only balance, but if you notice, the funnel is right in the middle of the ship for better weight and consumption,” he says, adding that it also enabled the Miami condo design to be positioned at the aft.
“It’s one of the most stable ships we’ve ever put in the water and it allows this external balcony which you see around the ship,” he explains.
The Seaside class: a gamechanger
The atrium is the heart of MSC Seaview, a mirrored four-deck-high multi-media stage, showcasing pianists, DJs, saxophonists and bands, bordered by MSC Cruises’ signature Swarovski staircases.
The space is sharply designed and the blend of bars and restaurants, such as the glitzy champagne bar and comfortable French-themed L’Atelier Bistrot, creates a convivial, friendly meeting place where floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the exterior blue seascape.
With twenty bars in total, of which five are outdoors, and six speciality restaurants, there is a broad offering of flavours and spaces to explore.
“The atrium is the heart of MSC Seaview, a mirrored four-deck-high multi-media stage"
Partnerships with two Michelin-starred chef Ramon Freixa, who has developed his first restaurant at sea on board MSC Seaview, Ocean Cay, and celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, offer guests the chance to savour high-level seafood and sushi on board, too.
Entertainment such as the F1 simulator, XD cinema, zip line, slide boarding (waterslide with interactive game) and full-size bowling offer some thrilling entertainment options.
There are also various swimming pools and waterslides (including small ones for young children), a luxury spa and an intriguing art gallery.
Antonio Paradiso, MSC Cruises' managing director for the UK and Ireland, says that the UK market has been heavily driven by the new ships, and that MSC Seaview alone has prompted a 55% increase in demand.
“This prototype of ship is a game changer,” he says, adding that he’s optimistic about how the 'MSC for Me' digital platform will further encourage UK market growth. “Technology will never replace humans, but technology is good when it helps you simplify or facilitate things on board a ship.”
MSC for Me – a multi-channel, industry-leading digital experience. Image credit: MSC Cruises
Optimising MSC for Me
Launched last year on MSC Meraviglia, passengers can use the MSC for Me app and a wearable wristband (for door access and swiping payments) to optimise their on-board experience.
The app puts all the information a guest would need at their fingertips. Services, restaurants, activities, excursions and entertainment can be booked and cancelled from wherever they are on the ship.
Interactive screens around the ship act as wayfinding and information points, and the stateroom TV is loaded with guest-friendly data, from billing information to disembarkation procedure videos.
“Interactive screens around the ship act as wayfinding and information points"
Around 3,000 sensors are spread around the ship enabling a Google Maps-style “blue-dot” wayfinding system, which guides guests to their destination within 5m.
A kids’ locator service – using Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate with around 600 active beacon sensors around the ship – means that guests can always know where their children are in public areas.
Luca Pronzati, MSC Cruises’ chief business innovation officer, says that the MSC for Me version on Seaview is an optimisation of that on Seaside and Meraviglia.
With five different class of ships being introduced – Meraviglia, Seaside, Seaside Evo, Meraviglia Plus and World Class – Pronzati says the biggest challenge is developing something new for a ship that doesn’t yet exist.
“Nobody’s ever done it, even suppliers, not only our competitors,” he explains. “You have decks, steel and water, and the signal bounces, so we spend days, weeks and nights trying to understand all the algorithms to make it more powerful.”
Another difficulty is that Seaview has more outside space. “Outside there is a behaviour and inside another behaviour, which brings us back to the engineers properly fine-tuning the algorithms,” he says.
Next-level cruise tech and data analysis
Dealing with these kinds of problems has become standard fare for Pronzati and his innovation team, yet there is nothing standard about their goals.
The cruise company’s digital ambitions will again step up a gear for MSC Bellissima – to be christened at Southampton in March 2019 – which will offer the “next level of features”.
“We are currently designing a system of analytics based on machine learning"
These will include passenger-customised push notifications, internal chat functionality (so guests can message via the app using the ship’s WiFi network) and a locator for friends and family.
These systems will also enable the company to track and monitor passenger flow more precisely and conduct a more extensive analysis of how guests use space, which can be taken into consideration for future ship design.
As a result, MSC Cruises is becoming more data focused. “Managing data on a ship is rising in complexity,” says Pronzati. “We are currently designing a system of analytics based on machine learning that could be actionable and utilised on the ship.”
The Jungle Pool covered. Image credit: MSC Cruises
Creating the industry’s first digital voice assistant
The most challenging high-tech feature to be launched on MSC Bellissima next year is the cruise industry’s first digital voice assistant called Zoe. Over 400 people are working on the project, which will enable guests, in the first phase, to speak questions into the speaker and receive answers without having to leave their cabin.
“Machine learning will ensure Zoe learns and improves her performance without being specifically programmed"
The technology is being developed with HARMAN International – a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics – and will be available in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese and Mandarin. Dialects are also being taken into account.
Machine learning will ensure Zoe learns and improves her performance without being specifically programmed.
Pronzati is clear that the goal is to leverage technology to offer new and streamlined experiences on the ship. Using technology to enhance, and not overwhelm, the on-board experience seems to be a universal approach that runs through each area of the ship, even to the children’s department.
Optimising technology for kids
In 2017, Cruise Critic’s Editor’s Picks named MSC Cruises “Best Cruise Line for Families”; the 250,000 children (of 35 different nationalities) who cruise each year with MSC Cruises are testament to this.
“The best strategy for us is to teach them [the children] how to use technology in the best way possible, and not all the time,” says Matteo Mancini, MSC Cruises' youth activities manager. “If you spend a vacation just around technology, it can't be a perfect vacation, you need sports outside, group games and music games, but then also technology to maybe do something new and different.”
“The team often introduces activities based on feedback they get from children in focus groups"
From the 3D printer to the large iPad-style table where kids are encouraged to share their messages, media content and music together, there is an inclusivity to the way technology is used on board.
Mancini explains that the team often introduces activities based on feedback they get from children in focus groups, such as MSC Cruises’ kids’ web series ‘Kelly & Kloe On Board’.
Season three of the series started filming on MSC Seaview in July this year. “The kids have Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, and they live with that, so we need to create entertaining content to meet their needs,” he says, adding that the kids co-write and participate in the casting for the production, as well as act in front of a green screen.
For each new ship there is a new story, so, given MSC Cruises’ expansion plan, there will be many more seasons in the future.
A humanoid hint at the future fleet
But in terms of future technology across MSC Cruises’ new ships, what else should guests expect?
One futuristic feature will be a robotic experience, which may be introduced next year on MSC Grandiosa. “It’s going to be a human to humanoid interaction,” says Pronzati, adding that on the Seaside Evo class, robotic entertainment is planned for an outdoor area of the ship.
“On the Seaside Evo class, robotic entertainment is planned for an outdoor area of the ship"
He also reveals that facial recognition is coming. The company is in discussions with Japan's NEC Corporation, with visits to Silicon Valley, Israel and China underway to explore the latest technologies.
“Our main focus around this tech is to speed up embarkation and the second is for security,” says Pronzati. “We want to leverage technology to change the experience on the ship.