Payments of the Caribbean: How Carnival built on Disney's legacy

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If it seems there's a little bit of Disney magic in Carnival Cruise Lines' Ocean Medallion, it's because the executive overseeing the Carnival project cut his teeth on the Disney Magic Band.

John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer for Carnival Corp., was part of the original development team for the NFC-enabled Magic Band, which is used throughout Walt Disney World as a theme park ticket, hotel room key, fashion accessory and wearable payment device.

In 2014 Padgett chose to move to Carnival, where he was able to take his ideas even further than what was possible at Disney.

“What bothered me about Magic Band was we never realized the magic — a completely frictionless experience,” Padgett said. “A touch is still friction. Look at payments; you had a swipe, then you have touch, then phone touch, but it’s still touch.”

Carnival's Ocean Medallion uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tokens, which eliminate even the act of tapping a wristband against a reader. “It’s the ultimate manifestation of the guest experience,” Padgett said.

Instead of interacting with a point of sale device, the Ocean Medallions act as beacons. The ship-based beacon system will have an inherent advantage over beacons used in retail stores on land, Padgett said.

Typical retail beacon setups involve stationary Bluetooth devices that communicate with a nearby shopper's smartphone app. Carnival's device is instead carried with the consumer in customized watch bands, necklaces and pendants, or merely slid into a pocket or wallet. There is no need for customers to open a smartphone app to experience the benefits.

In a typical transaction using the medallion, a customer might walk up to a bar on board a ship, and as the guest approaches, a device facing the bartender will use BLE to automatically show the guest profile on a screen, along with a photo of the customer and past orders.

When the bartender hands the guest a drink, no card, signature or other ritual is required. The medallion interfaces with the point of sale, and all of the details are exchanged without any further interaction.

“Ocean Medallion is an individual beacon without variability,” Padgett said. “Our receiving device is not a consumer device. It is enabled with proprietary sensors specifically tuned to the Ocean Medallion device, which eliminates all the technical differences.”

Launching this technology on a cruise ship offered other advantages from a payments standpoint, considering the cruise line already has a credit card on file along with a limited population of potential customers, all with pre-validated identifications, Padgett said.

Other than introducing the medallions and the readers, Padgett said very little of the underlying payments technology had to be changed to integrate the program.

“It is essentially a layer across the legacy POS that allows the interaction to be magical regardless of which POS is being used,” Padgett said.

A new course for beacon technology
Royal Caribbean was the first to enter the wearables fray with its RFID-enabled WOWbands back in 2014. Those allowed guests to forgo their room key cards for a special bracelet that could be tapped against a reader on stateroom doors and at points of sale.

MSC Cruises has its own contactless payment system called MSC for Me, which is up and running on board MSC Meraviglia, MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview.

“We are still at the very beginning of what’s to come,” said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of consumer-oriented website “Pretty much all cruise lines have said they want to do it, but nobody has a fully integrated system just yet.”

Carnival's medallions will also interact with thousands of sensors around the ship in hundreds of ways, including recognizing guests and automatically unlocking their stateroom doors as they approach, tracking the guests’ children as they explore the ship, and even allowing guests to use an app to order drinks to be delivered to them as they lounge poolside, or anywhere else on the ship, for that matter.

That integrated experience has resonated with cruise passengers, McDaniel said.

“They want to make it as seamless as possible,” she said. “It’s all about making the experience more enjoyable.”

Another place the wearable technology promises to improve the cruise experience is in the initial boarding of the cruise ship. That’s because the medallions are mailed to vacationers in advance, and they are able to pre-load their passport information and other details, reducing delays dockside.

“Anything that takes the delay of standing in lines out of the cruise experience will be a big boon to the cruise industry,” McDaniel said.

Building an ecosystem
As with any digital payments system, customers have to be comfortable with the data they provide whenever they initiate a transaction. Carnival's beacon system will be aware of where each guest is on the ship at all times, but Padgett said he is confident guests will trust the company with their information with minimal anxiety.

“In the earliest phases of the Magic Band and Ocean Medallion, people were very concerned about privacy, but it turned out to be a non issue because consumers trusted the brand, but most importantly, they understood that the reason for the connectivity was to benefit the guest and create a better experience,” Padgett said.

It helps that it's clear why customer information is being tracked.

“Because vacation time is so valuable, and trust in the brand is so strong, as long as you demonstrate the experience is better, there is absolutely no issue and people are happy to use it,” Padgett said.

If anything, McDaniel said, the chief complaint about the wearable program that CruiseCritic has found is that it's being implemented too slowly.

“The big thing we are hearing is there are a lot of people ready for it, but it’s just not fully integrated yet,” she said.

MSC has plans to roll out its MSC for Me to as many of its ships as it can as quickly as it can.

Padgett said Carnival’s plan is also to aggressively expand the technology first throughout the Princess brand, and then to the other eight Carnival brands. But he hopes the adoption doesn’t stop there.

In a dream scenario, Padgett said, the Ocean Medallion program would continue into ports of call and be adopted not only by on-shore excursions, but also retail outlets near where the ship docks.

“We are thinking from ship side to shore side, and then into the resort, then into Main Streets across the world that service our guests,” Padgett said.

He said he could envision the Ocean Medallion being a viable payments option at brick-and-mortar locations across the globe.

“The NFC element of the medallion can be used as a payment device off-ship. As a proxy for any card, so really the possibilities are endless,” Padgett said.

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