Cunard Line: Royal Treatment

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-08-01 Print this article Print

The Queen Mary 2's guests are treated to caviar and champagne. They also get a first-class, in-room interactive system that serves up movies, e-mail and more.

When Frank Finch arrived at the Alstom-Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in Sainte-Nazaire, France, last September, the Queen Mary 2 was almost ready to head out to sea for her first operational test. Freshly painted, the QM2 looked nearly finished on the outside.

The inside was another story. Thousands of workers swarmed through its interior every day, scurrying to meet an immovable deadline: Jan. 12, when she was leaving for her sold-out maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Finch had the same deadline. The director of worldwide technology for Cunard Line had to make sure the ship's information systems matched the expectations of passengers who paid from $2,800 to $37,499 to make that voyage. These were passengers who could dine at celebrity chef Daniel Boulud's restaurant, relax in a thalassotherapy pool at the spa, or munch on caviar and drink champagne in the ballroom.

Cunard also wanted to prove itself to Carnival Corp., which had bought the firm in 1999. Founded in 1840, Cunard popularized the phrase "Getting there is half the fun" to promote the entertainment value of ocean liners as their practical value waned. Now, after not having built a ship since the Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched in 1969, Cunard was entrusted with building the largest passenger ship ever, at a cost of $780 million, including $8 million for information technology. With 1,310 cabins, she would carry more than 2,600 passengers.

Finch was determined to give the QM2 a first-class network infrastructure. In contrast with the converted closet that serves as the QE2's computer room, the QM2 got three communications, or "comm," rooms on decks 5, 6 and 10, each in a different fire zone, for servers as well as other electronics like the public address system. Major computer systems would be duplicated between the two main comm rooms, and fiber-optic cabling would be laid out in parallel connections, so that every major component of the network had a backup.

Carnival allows Cunard a high degree of independence in information-technology decisions. Yet, Finch took a chance by implementing a cutting-edge interactive TV system instead of the more conservative choice Carnival recommended. If his choice failed, embarrassing the company in front of its customers, he knew he would get the Donald Trump treatment: He'd be fired.

A year previous, the information-systems team had started assembling and testing computers and networks in a Miami warehouse. In August 2003, they took it apart, carefully labeled servers, racks, switches, hubs and cables, and loaded it into five 40-foot shipping containers for transport overseas.

When the first container arrived at the shipyard, Finch waited until about 7 p.m., after the construction activity within the ship had died down, before ordering the container unloaded. The night was cold, wet and windy as a crane hoisted shrink-wrapped pallets of computer equipment into the air and swung them across to what would eventually be the Terrace Pool at the back of Deck 8, where Finch waited with a mixed crew of techies and shipyard workers.

Finch personally helped lift 240-pound server racks onto dollies and wrestle them down the ship's dark hallways, nearly from one end to the other, then carry them down two decks because the elevators weren't working yet. Putting his back into the job was something he did partly to show solidarity with the laborers who controlled the ship.

"Carrying boxes like any other guy goes a long way toward getting them to help you out," Finch says. "If you decide to be the boss on the sidelines with the clipboard, barking out orders, that won't get you anywhere."

Still, he was boss enough to set a tough challenge: have the computer room operational within 24 hours.

Although an arbitrary goal, it made his staff understand how carefully equipment had been labeled, cabled and packed for shipment in Miami so it could be put back together quickly in France. They worked until 4 a.m. to make it happen.

The Grand Plan

Early on, Finch had drawn up a detailed deployment schedule. In September, while in France, he trashed it. The rooms he needed to get into were under construction, and he couldn't bring in equipment until the shipyard released them, one room at a time. "The key to a project this size is not so much having a beautiful project plan," Finch points out. "Absolutely, the key is being flexible."

While working with the shipyard foremen and workers, he had a huge advantage. He was a French native and spoke their language. "Being able to take a guy aside and say, 'Do me a favor' was more useful than any formal meeting," he says.

Still, after days of negotiating his way into a room, he often found his key wouldn't work, or there was no power. "There were countless instances where it took four days to get a circuit breaker turned on," Finch recalls.

When a room became available, just finding it could be a challenge. Standard clues, such as room numbers on doors and "you are here" diagrams, weren't there. Finch carried a book about the size of a paperback that contained the ship's plans and wiring diagrams broken down by deck and fire zone.

Every cabin needed an interactive TV controller hidden in its cabinetry. Every shop and restaurant needed to be equipped with PCs and point-of-sale terminals.

With a network switch between every pair of cabins, connected by 100-megabit Ethernet to larger routers in the wiring closets adjacent to each fire zone bulkhead, the ship's network left plenty of room for expansion.

The QM2 would also offer passengers network services through an Internet cafe and wireless access points throughout its public areas. With this ship, Cunard wanted to reverse a pattern of losing money on Internet access by leveraging Carnival's buying power for satellite bandwidth and implementing better access metering software.

Finch's big gamble was a $4 million interactive TV system from IDF GmbH of Hamburg, Germany. Where most hotel and cruise ship interactive TV systems use computer-controlled racks of videocassette players to deliver pay-per-view movies, IDF's system treats movies like any other digital content, storing them on hard disks. Passengers can stop playback of a movie before dinner and resume at the same spot later in the evening, or even days later. The system supports other interactive features, such as the ability for passengers to send and receive e-mail, make restaurant reservations or order a bottle of wine for dinner.

IDF's system had been deployed only on ships with about a tenth the passenger capacity of the QM2. Carnival officials wanted a simpler analog system, since IDF 's product cost twice as much—a difference of a couple of million dollars. Several years before, Carnival had installed a digital version of its Fun Vision system that never quite worked properly. But Finch wrote that off to inadequate network capacity and immature software.

"I was strongly encouraged to put in technology that in my opinion was obsolete 10 years ago, and I absolutely refused to do it," Finch says.

He had the support of Richard Beliveau, who was responsible for the ship's software. As manager of business and fleet solutions, Beliveau had to get the TV system and many other shipboard applications integrated with the core passenger data system from Discovery Travel Systems. Created with Progress Software's database and rapid application development tools, the software was modified to Cunard's specifications by DTS.

Integration work was supposed to have been completed long before Beliveau joined Finch in France at the beginning of November. But he was still waiting for the function passengers would use to book tours, with the options displayed on the TV and the choices recorded by DTS. The real problem was that he was implementing a new version of DTS' shore excursion module, and the two vendors were working out the interface on the fly.

"History has always told you that you don't bring in a brand-new system," Beliveau laments. Still, DTS and IDF got their systems synchronized, although later than he would have liked.

The one technology challenge that really caused his heart to skip a beat came from a system he hadn't thought to worry about.

In January, when the QM2 began a series of two-day shakedown cruises, passengers immediately started reporting being locked out of their rooms. Something was wrong with the QM2's system for controlling the electronic door locks.

Onity's Tesa Entry Systems had been identified as a crucial integration point early on. Instead of the hotel front desk procedure of encoding key cards one at a time, the Tesa system had to be coaxed into exporting batches of security codes. DTS would then combine the key codes with a passenger account number and passport data, allowing the same card to function as a shipboard charge card and ID.

But something had been missed during testing. For cabins with more than one passenger, Tesa was generating a separate key code for each person. But the door lock only recognized one combination at a time.

Thankfully, the purpose of this cruise was finding and eliminating problems, and most passengers were employees and their families. But soon paying passengers would be boarding.

"That one went down to the last four days," Beliveau says. In other words, it wasn't fixed until the day Queen Elizabeth dedicated the new ship on January 8.

After that final crisis, Beliveau flew home, exhausted. Finch and a small team stayed with the ship for her maiden voyage, working out smaller kinks along the way. Sadly, the project leaders are now likely to be among the 180 people laid off as part of a decision Carnival announced in July to combine Cunard operations with those of Princess Cruises.

Smooth Sailing

Since then, to great fanfare, the QM2 has visited the Caribbean and New York.

Beliveau says the interactive TV e-mail accounts have proved popular, which is good news for Cunard at $1.50 per message. Other charges have been ringing up nicely as well, including a service that lets passengers order a bottle of wine so it's chilled in time for dinner.

When Beliveau adds up all the direct and indirect ways the system helps the ship make money, he figures it will pay for itself in three or four years.

Karen Segboer and her husband sailed on the QM2's first eastward crossing from New York to England. And they appreciated being connected to a first-class system. "When we got into our room, there was a message on the TV saying, 'Welcome, Karen and Hans,'" she recalls.

Soon, she was using the interactive TV to order photos taken by the ship's photographers, make restaurant reservations, and exchange e-mail with her dog sitter. She also avoided making trips to the purser's office and other far-flung locations, she says: "The QM2 is so huge that to walk from one end to the other is a big deal. I'd have needed another vacation."

Cunard Line Base Case

Headquarters: c/o Carnival Corp. and PLC, 3655 N.W. 87th Ave., Miami, FL 33178

Phone: (305) 599-2600

Business: Best known as the operator of the Queen Elizabeth 2, Cunard Line became a division of Carnival Cruise Lines after its acquisition in 1999. The company's newest addition, the Queen Mary 2, made its maiden voyage in January.

Director of Worldwide Technology: Frank Finch

Financials: Parent company Carnival Corp. earned $1.2 billion on sales of $7.6 billion in 2003. Revenues for Cunard are not reported separately.

Challenges: Create a digital passenger experience worthy of the Cunard name, implementing systems in the chaotic environment of a ship under construction and with an immovable deadline.

Baseline Goals:

  • Make $120 million a year, or about a 15% return on investment, on the Queen Mary 2, compared to the $780 million ship construction cost.
  • Eliminate a $500,000-a-year loss on Internet access by switching to a new satellite bandwidth provider and instituting better access control, first deployed aboard the QM2.
  • Demonstrate the value of spending $4 milion on an all-digital interactive TV system, which was twice as much as the analog system recommended by Carnival's management.

    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

    Submit a Comment

    Loading Comments...
    eWeek eWeek

    Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.