Thursday, 29 January 2015

Cruise lines modernize photo operations

Cruise lines modernize photo operations


When Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas made its November debut, almost lost in the crush of technology firsts was the ship's photo gallery, the first all-digital display space at sea.

Quantum guests don't stroll past walls of glossy prints, peering to see which ones might include them. Instead, they check digital monitors, which shorten the hunt for relevant photos.

On the Quantum, images are developed and printed only when guests see a photo they want to keep. 

The system is a leap forward, said Brynley Davies, managing director of the Image Group, the concessionaire for photography on Royal Caribbean's global fleet of 22 ships.

"It sounds very easy to say, 'Do print on request,'" Davies said. "But what you see in the photo gallery and the systems that are running it aren't evolutions of what we've done before. We started a complete rebuild three years ago, so this is a completely different architecture."

In fact, he said, it is built on "a very, very sophisticated set of computer systems, programs and hardware that are all aligned and integrated with Royal Caribbean systems to make it work effectively."

Across the industry, cruise lines are dashing to keep up with digitization of photography, which has brought sweeping changes to the way people take and store images.
A customer on Royal Caribbean International's Quantum of the Seas chooses photos with the Image Group's Li Jing. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
A customer on Royal Caribbean International's Quantum of the Seas chooses photos with the Image Group's Li Jing. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
On land, it spelled the end of everything from Kodachrome film to Polaroid cameras and one-hour photo shops. At sea, it promises to slash the amount of wasted paper and chemicals used in cruise photo operations and do away with the ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling photo display wall.

The transition to digital is happening as fast as cruise lines can figure out how to do it properly. 

Old gives way to new

Every major cruise line has a mix of advanced and legacy photo systems, ranging from the all-digital vanguard on the Quantum to the traditional print-everything model on many older ships.

But digital will eventually rule because it offers benefits to every cruise photo operation, and consumers are comfortable with it.

"What we see is a fundamental shift," Davies said. "We've been [doing trials of] these new technologies on another ship. What we saw there was a shift away from print toward buying digital images. We see that trend continuing."

If for no other reason, cruise lines would embrace digital because of the growing size of new ships.

Photo managers say it has become increasingly difficult to display on a wall all of the images on ships that are carrying between 3,000 and 5,000 passengers each week. Some cruise lines had begun to adopt a folder system to cut down on the need for display space.

Going digital simplifies the photo search process and frees a wall's square footage for other uses. The photo gallery on the Quantum is 50% smaller than a traditional one on a ship of comparable size, Davies said.

A second benefit of going digital can be found in the print savings, both economic and environmental.

Ecofriendly bonus

Although he didn't quantify the amount, Davies said the fully on the Quantum will use much less photographic paper. Many of the prints in a traditional photo concession aren't even viewed if the guest has no desire to buy photos. Henceforth, none of those images will be printed.
Guests of the Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas can use their WOWbands in the Focus Photo Gallery to digitally access and print on demand their professionally taken photographs, significantly reducing preprinted photo waste.
Guests of the Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas can use their WOWbands in the Focus Photo Gallery to digitally access and print on demand their professionally taken photographs, significantly reducing preprinted photo waste.
The classic print process also requires photo chemicals that produce "a waste stream that has to be removed from the ship and disposed of in an environmentally safe manner," Davies said.

On the Quantum, instead of wet-processing, Image Group uses a dry-process inkjet printer, an industrial-grade version of the printer technology that many consumers have in their home or office.

"It produces absolutely no photo waste at all," Davies said. "There's a much-reduced environmental impact."

The Quantum's photo space, with 35 touch screens, 15 tablet-size devices and eight digital photo finders (that help find hard-to-track items) represent the state of the art in photo galleries.

Most of Royal's ships are more retro. The relatively new Oasis and Allure of the Seas have 22 digital kiosks where guests can view, manipulate and purchase photos. But Image Group also prints all the photos taken on the Oasis and Allure, although it puts them in folders organized by cabin, rather than displaying them on a wall.

The print-and-display galleries will remain on many older Royal ships for some time, Davies said. 

"It will take time to transition to this new business model," he said. "This is the first time we've done this in terms of print on request. It will take a little time to settle into it and get it absolutely right."

A shift to digital packaging

At Carnival Cruise Line, a transition is also underway. It will be testing digital packages that work with its current print model on one ship this winter to gauge consumer response and demand. 

Guests will have the choice of one of three packages, enabling them to buy either a set number of images or all the images taken on an entire cruise, delivered on a USB thumb drive.
Photo displays aboard Princess Cruises' Regal Princess. Like other lines, Princess Cruises has carved out space for a high-end custom portrait business. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Photo displays aboard Princess Cruises' Regal Princess. Like other lines, Princess Cruises has carved out space for a high-end custom portrait business. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Carnival said the digital images will be a better value on a per-file basis than the current pricing offered by prints. 

Like many other cruise lines, Carnival also offers a DVD of each cruise that includes brief glimpses of many guests, along with footage of the cruise, its destinations and live events.

Many cruise lines have found that guests are asking for fewer photos than in the past, when cruise ship photographers could count on a steady stream of orders each voyage.

"It was a very captive market," said Michael Miller, director of the Ship's Photographer, which handles photos for Cunard Line and P&O Cruises. "We had it all to ourselves."

Today, with almost every guest equipped with a digital camera or a camera-capable smartphone that takes quality pictures, many guests are opting to snap their own photos, driving down demand for the professional variety.

"There's been [everything] from a free fall in photographic revenue onboard to diminished returns year after year," Miller said. "We're still talking about a significant business both for the cruise lines and in general, but the industry has been challenged by the advent of digital and what it's meant to the average consumer."

One response has been to change the type of photo that onboard photographers shoot.

While they still do embarkation, gangplank and dinner photos, there's less emphasis on those because they're the type of images that consumers can take themselves.

Instead, Miller said, the Ship's Photographer is taking more studio-quality photos with professional lighting for a customized album that tells the story of a passenger's cruise.

The album blends photos of the passengers with stock shots of the ship and port destinations, tied together with a narrative written by professional copywriters. 

If a special enrichment speaker or performer is on the ship, it might include a page about them.

In one example, passengers who have paid $125 for five prints can, for an extra $50, embed them in a 24-page book. "It becomes a very good value for money," Miller said. "It's a hardback book, a beautiful glossy book you'd love to have and cherish."

Making room for cameras

There's been an upswing at many lines in the use of spaces around ships during the evening to do more personalized photography. 

"Usually there are four to seven studio locations throughout the ship and more than 34 backdrops we are using," said Laszlo Keresztes, operations and development manager for MSC Cruises, in Geneva.
Aboard the MSC Divina, a couple chooses photos to buy. Usually there are four to seven studio locations on an MSC ship.
Aboard the MSC Divina, a couple chooses photos to buy. Usually there are four to seven studio locations on an MSC ship.
And many lines have also carved out space for a high-end custom portrait business. Carnival has Dream Studios, Princess Cruises has Platinum and on Norwegian Cruise Line, it's called Perspectives.

Despite prices that can run past $1,000 for some packages, Ross Henderson, vice president of onboard revenue and shore excursions at Norwegian, said demand is there and growing. 

"I think it's a product for which guests are willing to splurge, in a similar vein to weddings and other events that are priceless," Henderson said. "When they're on a cruise, they're in a perfect environment with everyone together, with the time on their hands to go through the process of getting those pictures taken, which will last a lifetime."

To further differentiate its photo offerings from those taken on smartphones, Perspectives takes photos that work together in a cluster or mosaic of images on a wall. So, for example, the "Verve" collection groups 11 mounted images in a larger wall ensemble that works as a unified grouping, for $1,399. Photos are shot on the cruise, and Norwegian works with an outside vendor to have them printed, mounted and shipped to the passenger at home, Henderson said.

At the other end of the spectrum, some consumers are opting to purchase only digital images. On some ships, this enables passengers to buy a set number of photos for a fixed price, take them all home on a disc, then choose the ones they like best in a more relaxed environment.

Software included on the CD enables guests to unlock the images at home for print or other uses. They can also buy additional images post-cruise using a feature on the CD.

Davies described this method as one way to mitigate another common problem: the crush on the last night as everyone tries to sort through and pay for the photos that have been taken over the course of the cruise.

"The last day is not an easy day, so we turn that around in our thinking and say rather than making people come to the photo gallery to choose what images they want, give them a CD," Davies said. "All the images are locked. They take them home, put them into their computer and put an application on their machine, and then they can choose at their leisure."

At Carnival, guests are offered a discount if they purchase photos during the first two days of the cruise.

Enabling technologies

Several recent advances go hand in hand with digital images to improve the photo-buying experience. One is facial recognition, or image-matching software, which makes photo searches quicker and easier.
Packages from Norwegian Cruise Line’s high-end portrait business, Perspectives, can run past $1,000.
Packages from Norwegian Cruise Line’s high-end portrait business, Perspectives, can run past $1,000.
Cruise lines are cautiously testing the software, which currently matches some but not all faces with photos, requiring a backup mechanism. 

"We've got a combination of Google search-type criteria for recognition of people looking at photographs," said Andrew Burt, general manager of the Ship's Photographer. "If you can put in a couple of words to describe the particular restaurant, or maybe the port, they can sort of drill down and limit the number of photos they're finding that way."

Another digital technology that promises to improve the photo selection process is software to electronically link each photo taken to the cabin of the subject. Norwegian introduced such software on the Norwegian Breakaway last year and is rolling it out to other ships, including the Norwegian Star and Gem this year.

The system enables passengers to swipe their key card on a device linked to the photographer's camera, tagging the photo to the cabin. That makes finding the photos in an electronic kiosk much easier.

"We really believe it is the wave of the future," Henderson said. "We need to get away from the concept of not being able to link photos to guests and just putting them on a wall and have the guests find them, especially with the size of all these new vessels coming out."

That system, in turn, paves the way for another innovation: being able to choose and buy pictures from a passenger's cellphone or other portable device. 

"As you look at how photography is becoming more digital and the technology really does exist to do this kind of thing, it just made sense to create a different system," Henderson said. "Down the road, the way we see it, we'd like that kiosk to become something transportable via people's devices. 

"So in other words, your device can be your kiosk; you don't have to go to the gallery to look at your photos. You can sit in your cabin and look at your photos and choose which ones to buy there. And that can result in freeing up a lot of space that you don't have to dedicate to a large gallery."