By Dan Daley
Special to InfoComm International
“Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?” sang Frankie Ford in 1959. Back before the jet age, ocean liners were regarded as a standard means of intercontinental travel. But in recent years, pleasure cruising — where the journey often eclipses the destination (if there even is a destination) — has taken off. The Cruise Lines International Association projects that 24 million passengers worldwide will embark on cruises this year — 33 percent more than in 2009, when the industry was pinched by recession.
So it may be no surprise that the distinction between AV experiences on land versus at sea continues to blur as consumer expectations evolve. Cruise ship discos, theaters, lounges, and concert halls rival their landlubber counterparts for SPL and low-end punch. That’s made it easier for cruise ships to cater to corporate events. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates 15 ships and was cited as Number One in the “Best Entertainment” category of CNN’s 2014 cruise line rankings, aggressively markets entire ships for corporate events.
Cruise ships are competing with theme parks and Las Vegas destinations for corporate clients and consumers. That’s driving innovations such as the skydive simulator and a bionic bar aboard Royal Caribbean’s new $1 billion cruise ship Quantum of the Seas, which it dubs “the smartest cruise ship in history.”
Events at sea will eventually encompass virtually everything you might find at a hotel or other venue (Grease, Hairspray and Chicago have all done recent stints at sea). But the sea is still the sea and it ultimately makes itself known. AV will adapt.
‘Like Nowhere Else’
Paul Riley, manager, entertainment technical, at Royal Caribbean International, says the most obvious issue for AV on cruise ships is environmental: the corrosive effects of salt and moisture. “We’ve had manufacturers come to us and tell us how well their AV products do at places like Sea World or outdoors in Las Vegas,” he says. “But at sea, it’s like nowhere else, and it can be caustic for AV.”
Riley cites a particular manufacturer’s PA speaker, used in the ship’s pool area, with an enclosure that utilizes fiberglass construction, which helps make it resistant to corrosion and rust. However, the back of the speaker grill is covered with a low-grade stainless-steel mesh, a component that would hardly rate notice on land but at sea it could corrode quickly and diminish the carefully sculpted esthetic that’s a huge part of the shipboard experience. Riley says they worked with the manufacturer to upgrade the quality of the steel. In other instances, a product might be perfectly adapted to the harsh ocean environment, but the bolts used to install or fly it are not.
“You have to check every aspect of every piece of equipment, and make sure every bit of the hardware can stand up to the salt and moisture,” Riley cautions.
This adds a layer of consideration when making AV decisions for ships: vetting a product’s International Protection (IP) Rating. IP is an IEC standard that classifies the degree of protection provided against the intrusion of elements such as dust and water in electrical enclosures. It’s expressed in a two-digit value in which the first digit applies to solids and the second to liquids. An IP54 rating, for instance, would indicate a product is protected from limited dust ingress and water spray from any direction, while a more desirable IP68 rating denotes total immunity to dust and the ability to withstand immersion in water over a meter deep. The standard aims to provide users more detailed information than vague marketing terms such as waterproof or water-resistant.
Other solutions for creating sea-friendly AV experiences include AV systems in which the main components can be closeted while their control is handled remotely. Riley says many ships are fitted with a Yamaha O1V96 audio mixer that’s racked in a climate-controlled locker with positive air pressure to keep salt and humidity out, while an Apple iPad is used to wirelessly mix the sound for the pool-deck stage.
Riley says that as the industry has grown — Royal Caribbean had nine ships when he started with the company in 1999, compared with 24 today — AV systems and product manufacturers have begun to see cruise ships as a distinct market category. In that time, ships have come to be virtually indistinguishable from large hotels when it comes to hosting events, and the AV technology they use reflects that. Riley notes that his company makes AV technology purchases with current touring-rider specifications in mind, and that they can accommodate rentals, with sufficient lead time (neither PSAV nor Masque Sound has invested in boat deliveries yet). Some AV product manufacturers, such as Meyer Sound, which has sold sound systems for Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Cunard’s Queen Victoria, have been actively leveraging this niche.
But the explosion of AV technology on cruise ships has put a new premium on training for the cruise staff that must operate and maintain systems. That’s created an opportunity for companies to make connections among cruise lines, freelance AV specialists and some media-technology academies.
“Technology-wise, the ships are the same as you’d find on land — the cruise lines are investing heavily in state-of-the-art sound and video systems, on rigging and lighting equipment, in control and show-automation systems,” observes Jorge Morales, managing director and founder of CruiseTek, a Miami-based company that specializes in what its website calls “the entertainment technical placement market,” seeking to match workers with AV systems skills to the ships that need them.
Morales, whose cruise line clients include Royal Caribbean, says that although AV skills and systems are similar at sea and on land, working events at sea takes a certain temperament that’s critical. It takes a certain type of person, he says, to be able to interact with colleagues, supervisors and guests in a closed environment for days or weeks at a time, where going home at night often means a small, shared cabin on a lower deck.
“In addition, you need a very well-rounded set of skills, because you’re not going to get technical assistance to come on short notice,” Morales says. “You need to be able to repair and maintain the equipment you use more than the typical AV operator in a club or theater on land might need to.”
Noelle Sipos spent two decades as a manager of cruise programs and two years ago founded Cruise Career Partners in Miami, which also acts to fill a range of employee positions for cruise lines. Of a dozen shipboard categories Sipos manages, two — production and performance, and technical theater — specifically suit AV workers. To that end, Sipos holds virtual job fairs for 90 area state and for-profit colleges and universities that offer theater-technology and related training, including Daytona State College, which has been expanding its media-production program; the huge Full Sail University technical school near Orlando; and seven of SAE Institute’s campuses regionally.
“Careers aboard cruise ships are exploding,” she says. “That includes those working on the audio and video systems, because the amount of entertainment and events on-board has increased dramatically.”
Sipos agrees that the long stays at sea are off-putting to AV professionals with families, but counters that they’re no more so than what touring specialists have to contend with. Nonetheless, she sees recruiting through schools as the best solution. “What we need to do is find the people who have the skills but are young enough to see this as an adventure,” she says. “We need to get them before they get a white picket fence.”
Cruises have come to be an attractive first job out of school for many tech-academy graduates. Full Sail University has had an informal relationship with a number of South Florida-based cruise lines for several years and has placed a number of graduates of its show production and live event programs with them. There are plans to expand the relationships. According to a Full Sail spokesperson, “We are in the process of adding a new dimension to our relationship, where Royal Caribbean will come in three or four times a year and will do mini seminars about advanced maintenance and troubleshooting that is necessary for equipment on their ships. There will also be opportunities for students and graduates to do hands-on training on specific gear that is used on the Royal Caribbean ships.”
However, says Riley, few people are ready for the level of event production that high-end cruise lines have attained right out of school; they’ll generally start as stagehands and learn more advanced systems while on board. He says Royal Caribbean has a number of sources for new technical talent, including trade expos such as the InfoComm show.
“On the ships you’re working with very advanced equipment and on shows with high production values,” he says. “It’s a good way to build an impressive resume.”
This column was reprinted with permission of InfoComm International and originally appeared here.