This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Zoe is MSC Cruises’ newest, and perhaps most helpful, employee ever. She is available 24/7, fluent in seven languages and she can provide detailed answers for up to 1,000 of the most common questions from cruise guests. She can offer information about onboard activities and amenities, provide personalised guidance and recommendations, and even help guests to make reservations – all within a matter of seconds. However, Zoe isn’t a typical human crew member. She’s a voice-enabled personal assistant powered by artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
Developed by MSC Cruises’ business innovation team in partnership with Harman and Samsung Electronics, Zoe is the world’s first virtual personal cruise assistant and she’s housed in a small device with far-field microphones and a professional quality speaker. She made her debut in every cabin onboard MSC Cruises’ MSC Bellissima, when the vessel hit the waves in March 2019.
“We realised that most of our guests visited the services desk during their cruise to request directions or ask the same common questions about ship facilities and onboard services over and over again, which was wasting their valuable vacation time and putting our staff under immense pressure,” says Luca Pronzati, chief business innovation officer at MSC Cruises. “We wanted a solution that would enable guests to instantly get the answers they needed without having to leave their cabin. After researching the latest connected technologies, we found that an AI-powered digital assistant would enable us to do that, while also personalising the guest experience.”
Pronzati and his team began working on Zoe in 2017, collating all the questions commonly asked by MSC Cruises’ guests at the services desk and using machine learning and natural language processing to train her to answer them intuitively. In total, a team of around 500 people of different genders and nationalities asked Zoe more than two million questions during the training phase.
“We have guests of 170 different nationalities, so Zoe has been taught to understand the world’s seven main languages – English, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Brazilian and Mandarin – and detect various accents within each language,” says Pronzati. “Zoe can accurately answer around 1,000 questions and recognise the thousands of different ways people will ask the same thing. She’ll continue to learn and develop her answers with every real-life guest interaction.”
MSC Cruises carried out behavioural, experiential and performance tests and carefully developed every aspect of Zoe to ensure she interacts with guests naturally. When research identified that people prefer short vocal interactions, for example, Pronzati asked Harman International and Samsung to develop a system that allows Zoe to connect with the in-cabin television to display more detailed information on the screen.
“Whenever a guest asks a question with a long answer – such as what shore excursions are available in the next port – Zoe automatically displays the relevant MSC for Me shore excursions page on the television,” explains Pronzati. “Guests can then select an excursion and book it instantly through the MSC for Me platform, rather than wasting valuable vacation time queuing at the service desk. Meanwhile, our crew members are free to help guests with in-depth enquiries.”
Zoe is a pivotal part of the MSC for Me multichannel digital ecosystem, which empowers guests to use a mobile app, interactive portals and other digital tools to access services, interact with crew members and more while onboard the ships. First introduced on MSC Meraviglia in 2017, the platform is now available on MSC Seaside, MSC Seaview, MSC Splendida and MSC Bellissima.
“When MSC Cruises decided to add 13 new ships to the fleet between 2017 and 2027, it gave us the perfect opportunity to use digital technology to transform and customise the guest experience,” says Pronzati. “We started the project at the end of 2014, speaking with our guests and crew to identify areas that could be improved by technology and working with multiple partners to develop what became the first digital platform of its kind on a passenger ship in 2017. All features ensure our guests enjoy a simplified, frictionless, stress-free and personalised experience while they’re on our ships.”
MSC Cruises added new capabilities to MSC for Me in time for the debut of its first Meraviglia-Plus ship, MSC Grandiosa, in November 2019. These include services that guests can use prior to embarkation, such as pre-registering a credit card to simplify onboard payments and pre-booking shore excursions, theatre shows and prepaid drinks and speciality restaurant packages. In addition, guests benefit from mobile check-in to expedite embarkation and disembarkation.
Once onboard, passengers can use a chat feature to message fellow cruisers without purchasing an internet package. Plus, they can check daily events, activities and onboard highlights in real time via the app, in-cabin TVs or interactive digital screens throughout the ship. In addition, guests can purchase wristbands with Bluetooth Low Energy technology to book services through the interactive digital screens, open their cabin door and access the industry-first Family and Friends Locator.
“Cruise ships are like floating cities, so it’s easy to lose travel companions, especially young children, which means that many of our guests weren’t really relaxing onboard,” says Pronzati. “Now, the Bluetooth technology in guests’ wristbands connects to 800 sensors as they move around the ship, allowing friends and family to locate them instantly at all times.”
Linked to this is another industry first: MSC for Me’s dynamic wayfinding system. “Many of our guests were disembarking the ships without visiting all the onboard venues because they either couldn’t find them, or didn’t know they were there,” says Pronzati. “We’ve installed over 3,500 beacons on each smart ship, which connect to the MSC for Me platform so guests can use an interactive map to be instantly guided to any public point of interest. It’s much easier than using a paper map or your memory!”
MSC Cruises plans to continue adding new capabilities to both the MSC for Me platform and Zoe. “We want to provide guests with personalised information and offers via the MSC for Me app and we’ll also make Zoe accessible on smartphones, transforming her into a cross-channel personal assistant,” says Pronzati. “Another first we’re working on is a humanoid robot that will interact with guests on MSC Virtuosa, which will debut in 2020.”
However, MSC Cruises’ technology investments are not just limited to its ships. “The cruise experience extends beyond the time on the ship, so we take a holistic approach to digital innovation,” Pronzati says. “Digital technology will help us create frictionless experiences in our Ocean Cay Marine Reserve private island in The Bahamas and our new PortMiami terminal, which will open this November and in 2022 respectively. Zoe and MSC for Me has already propelled MSC Cruises into an entirely new league in terms of guest experience and technological innovation on a cruise ship and now we’re committed to achieving that in all areas of our business.”
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