Carnival Sets Sail for a Rich Web Experience
A conversation with Carnival Cruise Line's John Masseria
Warm sun, ocean breezes, blue water, exotic islands, gourmet food — what’s not to like about a cruise vacation? And no one has perfected the concept like Carnival Cruise Lines. Carrying well over 3 million passengers a year, Carnival is making a strong recovery from the economic downturn, reporting second-quarter revenues of $3.2 billion — up more than a quarter-billion dollars over the same period last year — and net income of $252 million. At the heart of Carnival’s industry-leading cruise marketing is carnival.com, a site that has evolved from basic information into a full-fledged e-commerce and social site, serving guests from booking to boarding and beyond. Benchmark recently caught up with John Masseria, Carnival’s manager of I/T engineering, to talk performance and user experience on the website of the world’s leading cruise line.
Benchmark: First, please tell us about your role and responsibilities at Carnival.
John Masseria: I have three groups that report to me. I have the Unisys Mainframe Systems Programming Group. I have the Unix and Storage Group, and I also have a Windows Application Engineering Group.I also have shared responsibility over the performance of our Internet websites — monitoring and understanding the performance of those websites. And when there are problems, assisting in the determination of the cause of a bottleneck or an outage.
Benchmark: Wandering around the Carnival website, there’s a lot of depth, a lot of content. It’s hard not to get a little bit dreamy about vacationing in the islands.
John Masseria: Well, good — that means we’re doing a good job. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
Benchmark: And it does it well. What are your biggest challenges in managing such a far-ranging site, no pun intended?
John Masseria: Well, the purpose of the site is evolving. It's becoming a true e-commerce website where there's more of an emphasis on doing business. And more and more applications have been added to carnival.com.
There's a lot of work going into the booked guest experience, so that once you've booked your cruise, you can go on the website and search for shore excursions and book those ahead of time. You can make reservations for spa treatments on the ship. The idea is that we present you with an Outlook-like calendar of the number of days that you're going to be with us, and then we help you fill that time with as much fun as possible.
We're in the vacation business — we're not in the travel business. We drop you off where we pick you up, so the travel is just a circumstance. The ship is a big part of the experience. Although the ports of call that we visit are another big part of it. We try to make your experience as much fun as possible.
So on carnival.com there's also a community site, carnival.com/funville, which is a place where you can go and blog about your cruise.
And if you're planning a family reunion or whatever, the people that are traveling with you can go to Funville and you basically plan your cruise.
Benchmark: That brings in the social media aspect.
John Masseria: Yes. But that being said, the biggest challenge is knowing how well the website is doing. Is it meeting the performance goals that we have set for it? That's where Keynote has helped us a lot.
And actually last year we subscribed to the Insight service, which really allows for a lot of the performance work that was done by myself and my team to now be done by Keynote. They actually do a better job because they have the advantage of seeing many sites in depth. They bring industry best practice guidance and help us track our SLAs and the performance of the website.
Benchmark: How dependent are you on third-party content for your site?
The problem with that is it's interjecting a third party into the main part of our Web page. So if they slow down, we slow down.
Benchmark: Where else do third parties come into play on carnival.com?
John Masseria: We also use Omniture Test & Targeting on the homepage. There are a couple of boxes on the middle of the page where ads are displayed —Carnival ads — and we use the Omniture platform to decide which ads are there.
Omniture knows, for example, the geography you're coming from, so they'll display a Carnival ad that we host ourselves — say if you're coming from New York, it might display the specials in New York, or if you're from Florida, the specials in Florida.
Benchmark: So you’re using Keynote’s external measurement agents. What kind of geography are you covering with your monitoring?
John Masseria: We primarily use the ten-city U.S. measurements. In addition to carnival.com, there are three other websites that Keynote monitors for us. Before your cruise, you have to register information we're required to send to the Department of Homeland Security —APIS [the Advanced Passenger Information System]. We call it 'FunPass.' So you go to funpass.carnival.com and enter your home address, your passport and other information — so you spend a lot less time embarking the ship because all that information is pre-registered.
In fact, it's very integrated with a new product that we're rolling out at our embarkation facilities. We have them in our Miami facility, which is our largest facility in terms of the number of sailings that we service a week. We have self-service kiosks, where if you've registered all your information on FunPass and you're a U.S. citizen or you're traveling from a country that's a visa-waiver country, you can basically go to the kiosks, swipe the credit card that you registered on FunPass, swipe your passports, and in less than a minute, a family of four can be registered and on their way to getting onboard.
Benchmark: Much faster than standing in line waiting for a human being to process the information.
John Masseria: Yes, and needless to say, that makes FunPass a critical part of the guest experience. We use Keynote to monitor both the availability of FunPass and also the performance — whether it's slowing down or whether it's able to meet the demands that we're putting on it.
But to your question on third-party content — fortunately we don't really utilize a lot of third party content. Where we do, there are some tracking cookies that we use, and from a performance standpoint we try to put those at the end of the page to minimize the impact on our guests that are using our website. The more you rely on a third party, unless you've got some good SLAs, and then a good way to measure and monitor those SLAs, you could be in for a rude awakening.
You can think your website is performing well, but then you have your customers telling you that, guess what, you're really not performing very well at all.
Benchmark: But you do some tracking using external services to see where your clicks are coming from — analytics?
John Masseria: Yes, we use Omniture for Web analytics, and that is an externally hosted solution that is a much easier solution for us to maintain than doing it in-house. It generates fewer headaches for us. Omniture does a good job of making sure that their service is up and running.
Benchmark: And your Keynote reporting alerts you if there are any issues with Omniture?
John Masseria: Yes. And they do have issues periodically. So it goes back to what Ronald Reagan said about the Soviets. ‘Trust but verify.’ And Keynote is our verification.
Benchmark: How has Carnival been faring in this tough economy? Have you changed strategy at all to deal with it?
John Masseria: It has been tough. As a company, I think we're doing better than our competition. You try to optimize as much as possible, and the Web is a very efficient, cost-effective way to do business.
So it's a two-edged sword, because when it's not performing, people worry. That makes Keynote more important because you want to know as quickly as possible that you have a problem so that you can do whatever needs to be done to get back to baseline.
But our ships do go out full. Cruise vacations are very cost effective. We sometimes joke that, for the cost of going on a cruise, you can't afford to stay home and go out to dinner just once a day and drive your car around.
Benchmark: There are certainly some good deals on your site.
John Masseria: This was said a few years ago, but we’re charging for cruises today what we charged 20 years ago, or even less. There are probably not a lot of other businesses that can say that. My first cruise was a Carnival cruise and I think I paid about $600 per person per week — that was over 20 years ago. And you can basically do that today. Not a lot of things have stayed like that.
Benchmark: And you’re sailing out of more ports today.
John Masseria: Yes, regional was a good strategy that we had. We sail out of Baltimore, Galveston, Charleston, New York and others. You don’t have to fly very far; you can just drive your car. It was definitely a very good business decision.
Benchmark: What about mobile? What are Carnival’s plans?
John Masseria: Mobile is on our roadmap. We are looking at solutions that do that. Actually we're looking at the company that Akamai just purchased, Velocitude. That's a great fit because we're already an Akamai customer. So if we can just flip a switch in an Akamai configuration and mobile-enable this Web property, that's going to make implementing this, at least from a technical standpoint, a lot easier.
We've been an Akamai customer for about four years now, and that's been a really smart move for us. We couldn't host the amount of Web bandwidth locally that we're able to do with Akamai.
My background and my area, I'm a technical guy. I want to really know how fast can the car go? How far can the car go? I'm always trying to push the envelope — can we make it faster? Can we make it more efficient?
So that's where Akamai fits in and Keynote fits in, because Keynote helps me keep Akamai honest.
Benchmark: So how soon would you say you’ll have a mobile site?
John Masseria: I think it should be a relatively quick implementation because these companies are very experienced at it. So I would hope that we would have something going within six months.
Benchmark: Do you envision having all or most of the main wired website functionality available on mobile?
John Masseria: That’s a good question. I think the problem, even with an iPhone, is that you’re still on a wireless carrier’s infrastructure. You’re not on your fast connection at home. Mobile has kind of taken us back to the days of dial up. There’s still the question of bandwidth on the 3G networks. And then also, even though you’re on an iPhone, it’s still not a 21-inch monitor. So the data needs to be presented in a format that’s better suited for the mobile device.
Benchmark: And it’s another thing to monitor, track and troubleshoot.
John Masseria: Right. Really to Keynote’s credit there, I’m very impressed with what they’re doing with MITE, their mobile product. Once we have a mobile presence, I do see us using both the MITE tool internally to test how does this page look on a iPhone, using their simulator, and how does it look on a Blackberry? And then running the service and actually monitoring the mobile experience. Because it would really be unfair to the mobile users not to also actively monitor it the way we actively monitor the website.
Benchmark: It would seem logical that when you’re on a cruise and want to see what time dinner is or you want to book a massage, you could just do all that through the phone while you’re on the ship.
John Masseria: Right. That's a natural progression. We were one of the first cruise lines to have WiFi onboard. Most of our ships today have WiFi from bow to stern. We were also one of the first cruise lines to have cellular service on the ship.
We have a new technology feature on our newest ship called the FunHub, which is a social networking portal onboard the ship, which can be accessed through onboard stations, through a guest's personal laptop, or via 10-inch netbooks which are available for rental.
The Web is really a good way to display that type of information. And then to your point, a natural progression is that, while you have your iPhone or your mobile smartphone, to be able to see that information also.
Benchmark: So what else are you doing to connect with your guest and potential guests online?
John Masseria: Well, we’ve just released an app on Facebook. If you go to facebook.com/carnival, there’s a Cruise Finder tab where you can find a cruise — you can select the month you want in the area of the world that you’re interested in. And it’s really the beginning of our booking process on Facebook.
Benchmark: Okay. So, the last and most important question — what’s your favorite ship and destination?
John Masseria: I have to say my favorite ship is the Carnival Legend, which is a Spirit class ship. It's not one of our largest ships — I think she's around 88,000 gross registered tons. But the thing I like about it is that she has an enclosed promenade in the front of the ship. My last cruise was almost two years ago and I have two young daughters — they were probably 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 at the time — and we enjoyed being able to walk around the entire ship.
And my favorite destination I have to say is the Cayman Islands because — well, I used to scuba dive, I don't anymore, but the scuba diving there is awesome. It's also a very beautiful island and the waters there are just perfect.
Benchmark: Yes, it sounds great. But it's not because you have bag-loads of money stashed in the Caymans?
John Masseria: No. Man, I wish I did, but I don’t have to check that box on my tax return.
Benchmark: One can always hope! Thanks for your time and insight, John, and best of luck with carnival.com and with that mobile site.
About John Masseria
John Masseria is a 20-year veteran of Carnival Cruise Lines, where in his role as manager of I/T engineering he oversees business-critical IT systems as well as website performance. Previously a systems engineer and consultant at Unisys Corporation and the University of Miami, Masseria holds a degree in computer information systems from Nova Southeastern University, where he is currently working on an MS in information security. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived in south Florida for almost 35 years.