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Hospitality Upgrade Interview with Andy Schwalb, Chief Information Officer of Virgin Voyages

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April 07, 2020
Cruise | Technology
Fran Worrall

Editor’s Note: The Spring 2020 issue was published prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. While some of the information is dated we published the articles in their entirety as the industry was showing great progress prior to the outbreak. We can learn from these articles and examples as we prepare for future disruptions.

In this exclusive interview, Hospitality Upgrade talks with Andy Schwalb of cruise line newcomer Virgin Voyages about the technology challenges—and opportunities— surrounding a launch, the effect of consumer technology on cruising and technologies that are transforming the industry.

Andy Schwalb is chief information officer for Virgin Voyages, based in south Florida. He joined the team in August 2015 and leads the information technology function, providing technology strategy, direction, innovation, delivery and support for all ship and shore operations. His focus is developing a unique guest experience through the creative leveraging of technology at every touch point in the customer journey. The company’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, arrived at PortMiami in March for her inaugural season where she sailed to the Caribbean, hosting more than 2,770 sailors and 1,150 crew from around the world. Virgin Voyages currently has four ships on order, due for delivery in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. First, let’s discuss the challenges—as well as the opportunities-- surrounding the launch of a brand new cruise line. What has that been like? And in what areas have you made the biggest investments in technology?

ANDY: Thanks for chatting with me. As you can imagine, it’s been an exciting time for us. Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson brought together designers, engineers and other visionaries to build a ship that redefi nes what it means to travel at sea. We’re working with experts across industries not specifi c to cruising, which comes with a learning curve, of course, but was intentional as we wanted to create a truly unique and engaging experience. It’s no easy task, but the timing is good. Globally, the cruise industry is booming with passenger numbers, almost doubling in the past decade. It’s valued at $150 billion worldwide, and Virgin Voyages is seizing the opportunity to off er an experience like no other. The Scarlet Lady offers contemporary design features and boasts the latest guest-centric technology, especially when it comes to the look and feel of the ship and onboard activities. We’re most proud of our commitment to using the latest technology to reduce waste and energy. We’ve forged partnerships with innovative companies to address climate change, and we designed our ship to the latest energy-effi ciency standards with state-of-the-art equipment. One of our spotlight innovations is our wearable technology, The Band. Activated with just the tap of the wrist, it’s a hands-free, wallet-free and worry-free way for Sailors to do a number of things onboard.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Many people comment that ships are ‘floating hotels’, but there are significant differences, of course. Thinking about technology, do cruise lines face unique challenges that hotels and other hospitality venues don’t encounter? If so, what?

ANDY: Well, sure. Fuel is a great example. Roughly 60 percent of our fuel consumption is for propulsion and 40 percent is for powering onboard operations. To advance to a net-zero carbon future, we’re working with the industry to support the research and development of carbon-free fuels. Virgin Voyages has partnered with Climeon, a Sweden-based technology company, to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions by converting engine waste heat into clean electricity. We’ve also partnered with Ocean Unite; a non-profit organization focused on protecting 30 percent of the oceans by the year 2030. We not only encourage our own crews to do this, but we also encourage the entire cruise industry to invest in a net-zero carbon future.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Tell our readers about The Band, Virgin Voyages’ wearable technology made from recycled plastic. How was it developed?

ANDY: We teamed up with BIONIC, a mission-driven material engineering company, to create The Band, smart and sustainable wearable tech that unlocks onboard experiences. The Band acts as a room key and makes it easy for Sailors to board the ship. They can also use The Band to make onboard purchases, pay for drinks and game at the casino. And, for our suite guests, it’s a VIP pass to Richard’s Rooftop, an exclusive outdoor space. The rope material used for The Band is made entirely from BIONIC Yarn and contains six grams of marine and coastal plastic, equivalent to half a plastic bottle that washes ashore.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: And what about the Sailor App? It sounds really unique. How is it used?

ANDY: You’re right! It is unique. Our guests can download the app to order meals, book exercise classes and track friends onboard. It also allows passengers to shake their phones for champagne. When a Sailor shakes the Virgin Voyages Sailor App, it reveals a secret Virgin Voyages Champagne button. The Sailor simply presses it and a bottle of Möet Chandon Impérial is delivered, no matter where he or she is on the ship.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Do you also have a crew-facing app?

ANDY: Yes, we do. In fact, every member of our crew is outfi tted with a smartphone and app installed on their device. The app for our crew provides information that relates to Sailor needs. For example, it acts as a point-of-sale device for crew needs, such as the Shake for Champagne feature. The crew app notifies our team of bottle delivery. In addition, the app allows for training on each device. And we’re also arming crew members to support guests who might need extra assistance.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Looking at your digital strategy, is it designed with younger, more tech-savvy guests in mind? How do you balance generational issues when it comes to technology?

ANDY: Our ships are ‘Adult by Design’ which means we’re creating an incredible yacht-like vacation experience for those 18 and older. Whether you want to party or relax, there’s something for everyone. The ship is packed with spas, gyms, wellness pools and even a mud room. If a guest doesn’t want to use The Sailor app to order food or champagne, the ship has more than 20 eateries, ranging from brunch bars to restaurants where they can order in person. As part of planning for a Voyage, Sailors receive The Band in the mail, giving them time to become familiar with the technology. All they have to do is put it on their wrists, and The Band takes care of the rest—from checking in to booking onboard activities.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Now, moving to more general questions, how has consumer technology impacted the cruise industry? In particular, has it enabled cruise lines to streamline guest service?

ANDY: The answer is a definite yes. Technology places guests in control of their holidays, and it enables us to provide a unique experience on a more personalized basis.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: What technologies do you see as being the most transformational for the cruise industry today?

ANDY: Improving sustainability efforts is a huge opportunity for this industry, and it’s a top priority for us. In fact, we consider it at every touchpoint of the customer experience. I’ll give you some examples. We’ve banned single-use plastics on our ships, all food is made-to-order—preventing an estimated 225 tons of food waste per ship each year—and disposable items have been sourced sustainably from agricultural byproducts and plastic-free materials. Energy-saving design has also been built into the entire ship, including optimized HVAC systems, LED lighting, sensors that automatically close curtains and turn off lighting in cabins, and real-time energy measurement.

HOSPITALITY UPGRADE: Give us a quick glimpse into the next decade at Virgin Voyages.

ANDY: Our commitment to protecting the environment will continue. We’ll always be looking for new and innovative ways to improve sustainable operations using technology as a vehicle for change. In the last 10 years, and with a major infl uence from tech, more things have become on-demand and instantly accessible. What we’ve done is tracked with trends in the consumer industry and as a lifestyle brand, and we’ll remain focused on the guest experience. We see technology onboard as an evolution of how we can enhance the lives of consumers. 

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