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Seatrade Cruise Talks: Post-COVID IT, Part 2

by Asa Sargeant | February 24, 2021 | | 0 Comments

Last week we covered the opening segment of the recent Seatrade Cruise Talks panel on ‘Post-COVID IT optimisation: How IT departments can do more with less’. Today we re-join the discussion as theICEway’s Ian Richardson asks the illustrious panel about what they did once initial IT processes and actions had been implemented to combat COVID.

Watch the video here.

Seatrade Cruise Talks: Post-COVID IT optimisation

Moderator:

Ian Richardson (IR), CEO and Co-Founder of theICEway; Seatrade Global Technology Ambassador.

Panellists:

Jean-Louis Cambert (JLC), Chief Operation Officer, Ponant

Dimple Jethani (DJ), CIO & SVP IT Operations & Governance, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH)

Scott Piccolo (SP), CIO & SVP Enterprise Applications & Emerging Technology, NCLH

Transcript:

IR: “I think… [COVID has] … made every business re-evaluate a lot of things about office work and also about the location of resources as well, about where you can resource from, because now you can pretty much resource from anywhere because everybody's used to working from anywhere so that's certainly something we've realised. So with the immediate challenges dealt with, what sort of things have you been dealing with during the shutdown and what's your main focus right now?”

JLC: “Some priorities changed completely, we had to stop some projects for example our warehouse management system and some others have been pushed back by the necessity of the crisis. For example, digitalisation of paperless in the future will be very important.”

IR: “I think it's fast-tracked a lot, even though a lot of projects have been shelved or frozen there's been quite a few that have been aligned with what people need to do that have actually just had to fast track, I think that's been quite the same across all the industry – hasn't it?”

DJ: “I think it's multi-pronged for us when I look at least just from the IT Operations Governance side of the house. In transition to work from home, what we did was accelerate the deployment of our technologies to the workforce. You don’t want to bring that much change to the organisation but you had no choice so we took full advantage of that, of getting all of our new tech out there as much as we can from a work productivity perspective, so I think there was a huge benefit they were allowed to accelerate that. Things like single sign-on and Z-Scaler, had a tremendous push to go quickly. Obviously, they were stopping projects across the board and I know myself and Scott, key projects were stopped and the things that we focus on are no different than anybody else in our industry."

"‘What do we need to do to return to service’ and ‘what technology is in that?’ I know that we've been hyper-focused on things that are not growing; ‘what can I do that's going to make our passengers and our guests feel safe with us?’ but also that improves a guest experience, so I think a lot of what we're doing, I think that Scott and I are both thrilled about, is that we think a lot of it isn't throwaway – there are some things that we think will go away but I think we're happy to say a lot of things that we're investing in will stay.”

SP: “I think it also created a different environment in terms of how things get funded. I think it's helped us because that’s been a big part of what Dimple and I have tried to do, instilling a culture change not just within IT but also within our entire organisation and how they work with IT, how they view IT and allowing us to be more at the beginning of the process when we start talking about looking at new technology and how that might work and making sure that it fits into a strategy. All this did was help us really focus that process, really focus the way we go about procuring technology and why we do it, and how we go about determining whether we should we work on this or we should work on something else, this really helped us create that more modern process for that which we're going to take. When this thing is over that doesn't go away, we can then take that and refine it and that helps so in a way it sort of accelerated again something else that we were really working on which is a better management of demand within IT and how we go about determining what's most important because we are tri-branded for example, so we don't have one business to support per se, so when we look at things we have to look at them across all the organisations and say, ‘I know what's number one to you, I know what's number one to you and I know it's number one to you’."

"We of course have hotel ops and ship and other areas of the business, it's all important – we get that but we need a process in place so that we can better manage all of that demand intake and I think that was critical and I think that was one of those little silver linings because everything started getting scaled down and because people had to offer really strong support for a lot of these initiatives. I think it created that more focused process and I think it's been good for us and I think we're going to take that and our job now is to not return to the way it was before, our job now is to then take that and refine it and make a better process going forward so I look at that as a slight silver lining that we get out of this."

"I think when times are good there's less focus on making those right decisions 100 percent and that is true, it's something you learned in business school about when a company is cash rich, things are done differently than when you've got to tighten up the belt strap and when you have to tighten up the belt strap, that is when you can become more efficient and you can have better control over what we should and should not be doing, and from our perspective our company as a whole is very young when you look at it. When I say that, what I mean is it's not been that many years since NCL acquired PCH, so NCL used to be its own entity doing its own thing and PCH was two brands that had kind of also been pulled together but it ultimately learned how to do everything in a certain way. Now you pull those together, that was 4 years ago, 5. So what Dimple and I still have to deal with is a lot of technical debt, a lot of redundant systems, a lot of processes that are unique across those different brands so there's all these things that we were already dealing with on a massive scale when everything was working and everybody said, ‘well this has always worked this way and I don't want to change’."

"Well, now we have this situation where we're all together as one dealing with this situation and for the good of the entire organisation we have to look at how we go about rebuilding ourselves and from our perspective, I think it's been very helpful, it's been a silver lining in that we're no longer that cash-fat company. We are now that lean, ‘tighten your belt’ company, and it helps us to manage that process because it's hard when everything's great, because everybody wants what they want and I get it.”

IR: “Do you think it's made your job easier in terms of the role that you've been brought in to do? Because that was kind of what you've been brought in to do, isn't it?

SP: “Yes in a sense, because when Frank hired us one of the things that he said was, ‘I want you to be change agents’, and that's say a cliché-type term but we knew what he meant. He knew us from our prior experience as a consultant to NCL, he knew how we delivered and he wanted to see an organisation that had that same culture, that same process and we knew we could get there but I do believe in some odd way the silver lining here was that this accelerated our process. It by no means has been good or anything like that, don't get me wrong, but it was one of those things that really accelerated our process because people had to really re-evaluate what was important to them and what was important to this organisation. Not ‘me and my little world’ but as our entire organisation, and that’s a cultural shift.”

IR: “Definitely. So, Jean-Louis, would you agree with that? How have you been making decisions in terms of the choice of investment over this last year, and also which suppliers to choose?”

JLC: “I fully agree that things changed completely, it means that we had to create a new thing. For example, last summer we had to create a full new schedule for 7 vessels in 2 months. We saw that our systems were not capable to be so reactive so we had to change. That same thing at Paul Gauguin occurred 2 years ago but the IT systems were not merged and due to the economy we were obliged to switch from Paul Gauguin to another vessel from Ponant and nothing was ready, so we were obliged to merge the IT system and the booking systems. It just shows how late we were in improving the process and that the decision has been taken very quickly for example for Ponant to merge the 2 systems now”.

IR: “The takeaway from this is that there's nothing like a bit of pressure to get things done!”

JLC: “Sure, it was a little bit too late (!) but now decisions are taken so we can have action and we start this kind of pending project but we start now because it's mandatory before activity comes back. It's a good opportunity to conduct this kind of project during reduced activity”.

IR: “You mentioned that you had some ships sailing over summer which you obviously had to get all the IT systems working for and change all the itineraries, but what kind of experience or experiences did you feel that gave you in terms of preparing for a full restart? What sort of things did you learn because obviously in terms of the regulations and requirements, you were following the European Healthy Gateways requirements over the summer?”

JLC: “We demonstrated the difficulty to be sure in providing customers with a safe cruise despite all system tracking medical forms etc.. We succeeded in maintaining cruise during the summer but we were probably the last cruise company to sail because we stopped at the beginning of October. It's true that it's more and more difficult at the beginning of the second lockdown to maintain cruise so that's why we decided also to stop completely until April and now we can we can understand what type of process we can put in place in the future to avoid the last situation we had at the end of the summer and also on the IT system flexibility, because we absolutely need to be able to change the schedule, the itinerary, for example the medical form and so on, depending on the new rules from the government of each country”.

IR: “I was going to ask you about the medical questionnaire forms because they've always traditionally been paper across the industry for expedition cruise lines, but presumably you've got digital versions of this and obviously you've had to adapt the medical forms as well?”

JLC: “Absolutely it was already a big subject for the expedition cruise lines so we already had a homemade application for managing but we improved it, especially for the charter, to be able to share the control and the control process and the contact with the customer to be sure that everybody is informed, everybody checked the form and that everyone on the medical side validated each passenger to be able to embark.”

IR: “Dimple, Scott, do you think in terms of the digitalisation of all the pre-check forms and the medical questionnaires, is that something you'll have to introduce at NCL as well? Because obviously they're not an expedition company, but now with the new regulations is that something that you're going to have to find, get information upfront from passengers in advance?”

DJ: “We're already engaged in that process and I think it's something again we talk about not throwing technology away. I think it's great what do you do with the paper, how do you really know what the responses were? I think that's critical whether it's COVID or some other type of disease that we have a pre-check of information and putting on paper I don't think is as valuable as getting that as part of your check-in process and having that in your medical systems and having record of that. I think that gives you a tremendous amount of data about your passengers that's critical for their health and safety, so we've looked at that process and I think that also expedites the process of check-in, so it serves two purposes.”

SP: “To the point that Dimple’s making, it's something we can look at and go, ‘this is just good guest experience anyway’, so again there's a good example of a technology that we put in place in this COVID world that we feel is still very valuable and we can expand upon that right, we can take that and continue to refine that and evolve that for the guest experience, so I think it's important.”

IR: “I guess anything that reduces friction is a good thing?”

DJ: “Passport, Visas, all the things that we do manually whatever we can put around in that process is our focus in taking advantage of that during this time.”

IR: “What would you say has been the most challenging area in operationalising some of the return to service requirements?”

SP: “I think that team unity, morale – it's the people. I think the uncertainty that we've been saddled with as an industry is difficult, when you've got everyone working remotely, we do as much as we can to continue to create a sense of community within our organisation but you do tend to lose that. You don't have that same culture that you have when you're all in the office and you can grab a cup of coffee and have a conversation about something that could lead to an idea that could lead to, ‘hey let's get some folks together’. Innovation happens that way and those types of things don't happen when we're sitting on a zoom call. It's just very difficult, you have to be very specific about it so there's that and then there's just the overall morale, people just feel disconnected and that's challenging of course, just maintaining a really talented staff is very difficult because now we're in a whole new world where people can work from home and they can work pretty much anywhere in the world they want so we’re competing with a lot of different organisations for our talent."

"...We're an industry that has this thing over our heads, we're the only industry in the world that is seeing this kind of impact from COVID. COVID has impacted everyone, I'm not suggesting that it's only us but when you look at how it's impacted us as an industry, I think everyone can honestly say it's far and above anyone else. So that creates uncertainty for people, a certain level of discomfort, ‘when are we going to sail again?’, because everybody understands that we are operating on a limited amount of funding and our executive team has done a phenomenal job in managing that but we need to have some point where we can say that ‘that's when we're going to start sailing again’ and then revenues will come and things will start to return to normal but until we get there, that is probably the biggest from my perspective...“

IR: “It’s the big unknown, it's impossible to plan, right?”

SP: “Everything else is like I said, I feel like the work that we had done prior to this set us up to be successful and now we can just continue that and we can take this different type of organisation that we've tightened the belt strap. I think that helps us in terms of managing input, demand for IT, so we've managed that, we're pretty good there. Obviously on the return to service side there's the challenge of the unknown because everyone is sorting this out, including the agencies that are governing what we should be doing, we're all together figuring it out. We're all figuring out what makes the most sense and what's going to be the most valuable thing and it changes and if that is constantly changing then obviously it makes it more difficult for us. How do I implement a solution that can change with it, or if I don't know what the target is, how do I hit it, so from my perspective, that's probably the biggest challenge”.

DJ: “I think I'll add to that in two things; if a European requirement, an Asian requirement and the US requirement and the Caribbean is different, that creates a challenge especially with flexibility of our of old systems, legacy systems, so I've got to be able to flex with that and it would be great as a global community if we had a standard set of rules. Everybody has to be vaccinated, everything's attacked at the terminal when you disembark, whatever that is, I think that'd be immensely helpful. It's not just a technology, it's the people in the process; I've got to train crew and staff to do something different here versus different here and I could start itinerary in one country especially this is in the EU and I move across different countries and they've got different regulations, we've got the general EU standards but that shifts."

"I think that's a challenge and sorting through that for our operations team, saying ‘okay, am I good here? What do I need to do here?’ I think that's one big challenge yet to be dealt with but as the vaccination becomes more widely distributed, more folks are vaccinated, I think that'll change the environment and that'll give us some of the stability we're looking for, eliminate some of the unknown, and I think the second thing is we look at health technology vendors, this is a whole new market, everything's new, these aren't products that have been out there for many years so accelerating the implementation of these, making them operational, making them secure from a cyber security perspective, making sure they've got the right up-time to handle the volume, that's all new."

"We're the ones that are charting that course so I think that's the other thing that is challenging we're dealing with and I think all the changes Scott and I have made are allowing us to make sure we vet our technologies correctly we do a good job of vetting those before we go to the ships we can't just be on the ship whenever we want anymore, with COVID we're limiting the number of resources that are on ship or absolute critical items we're looking at, ‘how do I do more remote deployments?’, ‘let me set up my lab properly so I'm really tightening up most of my testing implementation’. At our lab we didn't have that before, that's something that we kick-started as part of our tenure here, so I think those are big things that we have dealt with and that's going to help us and actually I would love for our team to change our mindset of always being on the ship to do deployments in general”.

IR: “That's an interesting one actually because Jean-Louis, you mentioned a recent project where you’d carried it out completely remotely on the ship, I think it was an SPMS upgrade?”

JLC: “Sure, we took the opportunity that all our vessels are in layup to make this big operation that's nearly impossible during exportation so it's true that's it's a huge task but it can be made remotely and globally because all ships will be made in the same time and also remotely by the Oracle team and it's avoid to send each on each vessel as a different engineer with during 2 weeks, 3 weeks, build another system in parallel and switch in during the night, some nightmare that we don't want to reproduce, so yes, for this operation for example it was a really good opportunity layup was a really good opportunity.”

IR: “You can get it done quicker and for less cost as well and you don't necessarily need engineers there on every single ship”.

JLC: “Just to say one thing that is very important for us is the number of calls we still have at the call centre, all our customers want to sail so it's really positive in this way but we need to propose them to have a safe cruise. On the Expedition 2 cruise you can imagine that in the middle of nowhere on the North Pole, where having a positive case should be very anxious, but we and our customers are convinced that we can restart”.

IR: “I guess that's an area of uniqueness about expedition cruising, is the remoteness of the cruise isn't it, that makes your incident management that much more difficult?”

JLC: “Sure, that's why for example we improve our hospital with the last technology in terms of the PCR detection and resurrection system in the worst case I would say yes, it's a necessity”.

End of part 2

In part 3 we will witness the conclusion of this insightful discussion as the panellists look at cost management and innovation. More specifically, we’ll hear how NCLH and Ponant managed to balance the need to closely monitor outgoings as revenues began to decline, whilst still aiming to create cutting-edge solutions – don’t miss it!

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