Entertainment tech in demand as cruise ship industry starts to recover

As the cruise ship market roars back to life, so do opportunities and challenges for AV firms targeting that sector. Tim Kridel describes the nuances.

Last month, the world’s largest cruise ship had its maiden voyage. At 362 meters, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas is longer than any aircraft carrier, with 18 decks and room for nearly 7,000 passengers.

Wonder of the Seas is just one of at least a dozen major cruise ships launching this year. One thing they all have in common is AV systems onboard rivalling those in theme parks, nightclubs and other landed venues. For example, MSC Cruises’ World Europa [pictured above] will feature a water park with a VR component, as well as a 300-seat multipurpose venue for concerts and other entertainment.

“Five or six years ago, it was very much an old school way of thinking,” says Scott Wakelin, L-Acoustics business development manager for cruise ship and sports facilities. “Although they’d taken the leap with screens and lighting and were installing some very high-end products in both of those areas, they hadn't really taken the leap out of the dark ages with audio.” 

“The production value and the available budgets for spend on screens and lighting have continued to grow, with audio not quite receiving the same priority. The cruise brands that L-Acoustics work with have recognised the value in having a concert sound capability and delivering a West End/Broadway experience on board.”

For cruise line brands, part of the business case for a high-quality setup is that they’re presenting those shows, such as Cats and Mamma Mia on Royal Caribbean. Providing the shows’ stars and production staff with AV systems comparable to what they have in the best theatres helps convince them to take the gig.

High-quality setups also attract passengers, particularly those who travel enough to know exactly which ships provide the best experiences.

“Something like 65 to 75% are repeat goers,” Wakelin says. “They are looking for something special, and they tend to find the ships they know have got the best facilities. So it's a sort of a case of educating [cruise line brands] that if you build it, they will come.” 

The cruise ship market includes voyages centred around music genres, such as the ’80s. Sometimes these charter organisers help educate passengers about a ship’s AV amenities — both in entertainment venues and in staterooms. One example is The Smooth Jazz Cruise’s announcement that after 17 years with one line, it was jumping ship.

“The main draws to that class of ships are the size, number, and variety of performance venues,” the company says on its website. “No other mid-size cruise ship allows us to present our music better than these Celebrity Cruises ships. Recently, the Celebrity Millennium, our ship for the ’23 sailings, completed an amazing Revolution upgrade program in which each stateroom was rebuilt with advancements in technology and updated accommodations.”

Some AV vendors are meeting this demand with products designed for staterooms. For example, last summer, LG Business Solutions launched a line of smart TVs for staterooms and crew cabins. Featuring speech control and Wi-Fi, the Pro:Centric sets offer specialised service menus, allowing ship operators to create custom branded digital experiences. And as with hotel room TVs, Pro:Centric supports wireless streaming from passenger devices.


Permanent vacation

Depending on their production requirements, some bands and charter operators will bring their own gear to augment the ship’s permanent equipment.

“For special occasions, temporary stages can also be set up in a variety of locations, like beside the pool,” says Andreas Mohnke, Riedel account manager for cruise ships. “For cruises like Full Metal Cruise, there will also be touring equipment and crew on top of the permanent infrastructure.”

For example, a ship’s PA system might not have the horsepower necessary to provide the kind of heartbeat-deregulating experience that fans and artists want.

“Typically the installed system is targeted at cabaret and has other considerations such as noise transmission and affecting the ship levels above and below,” Wakelin says. “EDM cruises, for example, will always bring in more.”

Even so, cruise line brands have a vested interest in providing as much as possible in terms of both quantity and quality.

“There is definitely a trend towards increasing the production value on the audio side and a recognition that industry leading brands deliver ROI both in regular cruising schedule and in the charter events markets,” Wakelin says. “The vessel operators prefer the charter operators to use the installed products as this is a revenue stream that can be charged.”


IP and TV aboard

Networking is another trend.

“Whether conference or information technology for infotainment (for example on expedition ships) or as part of the entertainment offer, [there] is more and more comprehensive networking of all systems acting with each other in IP network structures that are already in place,” says Dierk Elwart, Amptown System Company (ASC) head of business development. “Here, however, it must be taken into account that the desire to use central networks used by a wide variety of applications for AV and entertainment technology is not always expedient. Different concerns in the configuration often lead to corresponding difficulties.”

Amptown System Company delivered media and entertainment technology for the AIDAnova cruise ship

Sometimes those networks are used to broadcast content produced by a shipboard TV studio, which itself is another trend.

“Green screen studios are used to make use of virtual sets and surroundings,” Elwart says. “Sets are computer generated and can be easily swapped and adopted. In more modern environments, these green screen studios are based in virtual environments. So, these computer-generated environments are not only 2D image, but also 3D models of a studio, where the presenter will be inserted. With some camera tracking, not only static shots are possible (fixed camera angle on anchor), but also dynamic camera movements (as seen on any news show on TV for openers and dramatic scene changes).”


Seaworthy AV

Cruise ships are unique environments with demanding equipment requirements. An obvious example is how salt air affects electronic components, which may require ruggedised versions of products.

“Technically and in planning, the points of weight, power consumption and waste heat are [among] the central factors,” Elwart says. “In addition, there is the basic durability and, of course, seawater resistance for outdoor installations or under appropriate sea air conditions). Space is the limiting factor, so highly integrated, particularly compact systems are used.

“A lesser-known factor is the stress on the system components caused by the permanent vibration within a ship's hull caused by the many high-performance units — even if this is not normally noticeable to the guest — that are operated on a ship. Here, as an integrator, one has to develop and install essential precautions to protect the equipment.”

"The entire time window from the initial conceptualisation and planning to the implementation of a new cruise ship is much longer than that of a comparable project on land." - Dierk Elwart, Amptown System Company (ASC)

Fibre has become a must have for a variety of reasons.

“The requirements for today’s cruise ships — latency and bandwidth demands, low weight and robustness against temperature and humidity — have a strong indication towards fibre structures,” says Riedel’s Mohnke. “The mass of steel is also very demanding in regards of radio signal reflections.

“For this case, we are very happy that our wireless comms system Bolero not only can handle this environment but almost loves these reflections. So we can take a lot of pain off of the tech guys’ shoulders there.”


Safe harbour

AV standards, product lineups and prices can evolve dramatically in the course of just a year. Just ask anyone who’s worked on stadiums, arenas and other venues that take three or four years to go from blueprints to opening day.

“The entire time window from the initial conceptualisation and planning to the implementation of a new cruise ship is much longer than that of a comparable project on land,” Elwart says. “A highly dynamic change in products and their availability plays a constant role throughout the entire project period, which requires close cooperation between all parties involved in order to react appropriately.”

For integrators, a close relationship with vendors can provide the product roadmap insights that help meet customer deadlines and expectations.

“Since it takes about three years from specification to realisation, close contact with the manufacturers must be maintained during the planning phase in order to plan for future products that will be available at the time of realisation,” Elwart says. “The products must be supportable for approximately 10 years after handover. This means that we are constantly walking a tightrope to use the latest material without teething problems, and on the other hand not to be caught up by end-of-life announcements.”

"It’s crucial that support be available both on-site and remotely, and that it be available on short notice." -  Andreas Mohnke, Riedel

But some product types have more wiggle room than others. One example is audio products, particularly those designed for the touring market, which overlaps with the cruise ship sector to some extent.

“Most of our products were designed for the touring market,” Wakelin says. “It's not our business model to regularly change our product types because people invest in our products in the long term. Part of that business model is the residual value of the equipment when they're done with it. 

“So we have a policy of not rotating our products on too regular a basis unless something comes to market that's groundbreaking technology and we have to implement it. Even then we often give our customers a route to upgrade their current product rather than have to invest in a whole new system. So in terms of the timeline for new-build projects, that's not too much of an issue. 


Ship to shore

One major, obvious difference between cruise ships and other venues is distance: The equipment and the people running it must be able to hold up because flying in replacements, help or both isn’t cheap or easy.

Mohnke says ease of use for technical staff is a key trend because they’re responsible for multiple systems, including audio, video, data and comms.

“As traditional AV workflows also migrate towards IP, we at Riedel see at least two approaches to tackle the transition,” Mohnke says. “The first is installing plug-and-play systems that can be operated by any technical staff member aboard.

Riedel supplied communications and signal transport technology for the Royal Caribbean International ship Anthem of the Seas

“The second is highly automised IP workflows. These systems need to be operated by IT staff that have an in-depth knowledge of IP, while at the same time having a certain dedication to the rock-and-roll business. With our broad portfolio of solutions, we’re able to address both demands.”

Other considerations include troubleshooting during construction and keeping maintenance times as short as possible.

“It’s crucial that support be available both on-site and remotely, and that it be available on short notice,” Mohnke says. “With our tech hubs around the globe, we’re able to offer 24/7 remote support for cruise lines in need.”

Drydock projects can pop up unexpectedly and have impossibly tight turnarounds.

“A vessel could be charging around Australia one week, and at the drop of a hat they've decided to bring it into Portland, Oregon,” Wakelin says. “I get a call from my customer in Miami: ‘We need a theatre design, and you need to deliver it in two weeks,’ which is what's just happened.

“If there's a reason to bring it in — let's say an engine, gearbox, mission-critical, life-safety stuff — then suddenly they'll throw a load of money at it to upgrade various other areas of the vessel, and you've got 14 days to turn it around.” 

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