Ocean Medallion: Smooth Cruising on a ‘Smart’ Ship

Quartz: John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer of Carnival Cruises, “previously worked for Disney, where he was instrumental in the creation of the MagicBand, a wristband meant to help reduce the aggravations of the typical Disney vacation … At Carnival, Padgett and his team quickly set out to create Carnival’s own version of the Disney MagicBand, called the Ocean Medallion. It uses AI to take the MagicBand technology to another level. Instead of just alleviating the ‘friction’ of typical travel experiences (lines, room keys, paying for things) it will use data to anticipate what you want to do, eat, and see.”

“The Medallion, offered first on Carnival’s Princess cruise line, is about the size of a quarter … It facilitates boarding and cuts down on wait times. It can be used to pay for things on the cruise, it unlocks the door to your room as you approach, and can be used on the ship-wide gambling platform. Carrying the Medallion means the staff knows your name and where you are. If you order a drink, they can come find you to deliver it. If you go to another bar on board, the staff already knows what you like. The Medallion also updates your information, keeping track of your likes and dislikes, what activities you enjoy, and what you consume. It anticipates other activities you’ll enjoy and the side trips you’ll want to take.”

“In many ways the Medallion is a beta launch of the first fully wired smart city. What it takes to make it work could one day be used on land. Padgett says the technology is innovative because the preferences you reveal are updated in real time. You order a Martini and every crew member on the ship instantly knows more information about you, and is that much closer to determining whether you might enjoy trying scuba diving—or just kicking back in your stateroom with an old episode of The Love Boat.”

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Music Deluge: Is More Less?

The Wall Street Journal: “It has never been easier to listen to vast quantities of music, discover new artists and create, distribute and promote your own tunes. But there’s a downside: It is harder for artists to break through the cacophony of today’s global pop-music machine. And some fans, already struggling to keep up with television, social media and other entertainment, are feeling overwhelmed.”

“The amount of music released globally in 2017 is roughly seven times the amount released in 1960, according to data from Discogs.com, a user-generated database of physical recordings. Nearly 150,000 new albums saw at least one physical or digital sale in the U.S. last year, according to Nielsen. While older Nielsen figures aren’t comparable due to data issues, they show the number of new albums rising from 36,000 in 2000 to about 77,000 in 2011.”

“Not long ago, record labels operated on a less-is-more strategy, seeking to avoid cannibalizing an artist’s album sales by putting out yet another one too soon. In the CD era, the costs of producing and distributing each album made it important to make higher-grossing albums to ensure profits. With streaming, those costs aren’t as high, and labels have a greater incentive to own, release and re-release more music … Mark Mulligan, a music-industry analyst at MIDiA Research, says distributors are making money based on quantity, not quality.”

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Eateries Experiment with Split-Menu Pricing

The Wall Street Journal: “When the Michelin-starred, Paris-based chef Joël Robuchon opened his high-end L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant in the Meatpacking District last November, he had it share space with his “elegant, yet approachable” Le Grill de Joël Robuchon concept. At the former, a main course can cost as much as $135 and tasting menus run $145 to $265. At the latter, there is a three-course prix-fixe menu for $65. All prices include tipping.”

“Agern, the Nordic-inspired restaurant in Grand Central Terminal that also offers $100-plus tasting menus, has taken another approach to pricing. In recent weeks, it has expanded its a la carte offerings—even going so far as to add a burger and chicken wings, albeit in gourmet-minded versions. The $26 burger, for example, is made with a secret-spice mix, according to chef Gunnar Gíslason, and is served on a bun seasoned with smoked salt and vegetable ‘ash’.”

“Ultimately, each restaurant may have its individual reasons for adopting lower-price models and approaches. But if there is a common thread, it is the increased emphasis on casual dining in our culinary culture, says Arlene Spiegel, a New York-based hospitality consultant. Today’s diner ‘doesn’t want the restaurant to tell them what to wear or how much to spend,’ she says. ‘They want to feel welcome whether they are in jeans or tuxedos’.”

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Ac2ated Sound: The Car is the HiFi

The New York Times: “Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car’s interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now. The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-pillars — the posts between the windshield and the doors — become your tweeters, said Dominik Haefele, the leader of the team that developed the technology.” He comments: “It’s a 3-D immersive sound, and you’re experiencing the music in a very different way. You’re in the sound. You feel it all around you, like you’re adding another dimension to it.”

“The key components are transducers — small devices that use a magnet wrapped in a copper coil to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Run current through the wires, and the transducer vibrates. Continental has figured out a way to implant transducers in a car’s interior and use them to turn interior panels into speakers.”

“The system, which Continental calls Ac2ated Sound, should begin appearing by 2021, Mr. Haefele said. He declined to name the carmakers that will offer it, although Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all big customers — and frequent adopters — of Continental’s technology.”

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The Grand Hotel in Kosovo: World’s Worst?

The New York Times: “The Grand Hotel in the Kosovar capital of Pristina is regularly reviled in internet reviews. Here’s a sample: ‘disgusting,’ ‘a ruin’ and ‘an absolute horror. Probably the worst I have ever been at.’ But the managers seem unfazed by the online abuse. They do not take web bookings and barely offer access to the internet; their hotel has no email account … even Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, usually an eager booster of everything his country has to offer, struggles to find anything nice to say about it … ‘I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big,’ the president said.”

“With 13 stories and three adjoining concrete blocks in a prime location, the hotel accommodates flocks of pigeons on the upper floors and has rented out its basement, once used as a prison by Serbian paramilitary thugs, to a health club. But it is otherwise deserted, a maze of dimly lit corridors that are littered with pigeon feathers, strung with cobwebs, lined with doors of dark wood and haunted by even darker memories of Kosovo’s past. Two floors have been reduced to rubble, the remnants of a remodeling program that ran out of money.”

Service is minimal to nonexistent, the marble lobby stinks of cigarette smoke and the green carpeting that covers most of the floors is stained and scarred. And then there are the cockroaches … The president, who has only bad memories of the hotel in the past and despairs at its current condition, harbors big plans for its future. ‘Perhaps we could build a Trump Tower there,’ Mr. Thaci suggested.”

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Nordstrom Doubles Down on Bricks

The Wall Street Journal: “Many retailers, beset by online competition and shifting consumer tastes, are slashing costs and closing hundreds of stores. Nordstrom Inc. is doing the opposite … It is revamping some of its 122 department stores and spending more than $500 million to gain a toehold in Manhattan. It has snapped up e-commerce companies including flash-sale website HauteLook and subscription service Trunk Club. And it has launched new concepts, including a store in Los Angeles called Nordstrom Local that doesn’t stock any clothes. So far, those efforts have failed to pay off in rising profits.”

“Nordstrom says it is different from its peers. It has fewer locations than rivals, and most are in the nation’s top malls, which continue to draw shoppers … While other department stores are retrenching, Nordstrom has shown a willingness to take risks. It is jumping into the competitive New York City market with a men’s store opening in April followed by a women’s store next year … At a store in Irvine, Calif., Nordstrom recently completed a test of a showroom that carried samples of 19 brands such as Rag & Bone and Veronica Beard in every size and color; they could be tried on but had to be ordered online. For shoppers, it solved the problem of visiting a store only to find their size sold out.”

“Other changes meant to appeal to customers are smaller. In November, the company unlocked the fitting rooms in its department stores … Although theft has increased slightly since Nordstrom made the change, executives say, the retailer is sticking with the new policy. ‘Analysts don’t like it,’ Jamie Nordstrom said. ‘But I’m thinking about the next 50 years, not the next quarter’.”

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Is Gucci Today’s Most Innovative Brand?

From a Wall Street Journal interview with Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion: “Without a doubt, the single most innovative brand of the moment is Gucci … Gucci has completely overhauled their e-commerce strategy and changed the way they communicate about the brand. They’ve embraced new channels like Instagram but also done beautiful events and interesting advertising campaigns.”

“They’re not doing any discounting on their main runway collection … We’ve kind of trained the consumer to wait for things to go on sale. Gucci’s stopped that. Fifty percent of their customers are millennials. Millennials are the drivers of success for the fashion industry now. Without engaging them, you can’t really operate a successful business today. Gucci has found ways of engaging with that consumer.”

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Hot Chocolate: Lap Up Luxury

The Wall Street Journal: “Gotham Bar and Grill is celebrated for its fancy fare, from foie gras to Dover sole. Starting this weekend, the Michelin-starred restaurant will spotlight a childhood treat: hot chocolate. The Manhattan restaurant will offer a $14 cup of steaming cocoa made with a chocolate sourced from Costa Rica … Dozens of restaurants, bakeries and chocolate shops throughout New York City are offering gourmet versions of hot chocolate. And they say they are seeing strong demand.”

“At Tetsu, the new Tribeca restaurant from sushi chef Masa Takayama of Masa fame, the $8 hot chocolate is flavored with a spices, including cardamom, cloves and star anise, and topped with a ‘toasted rice’ whipped cream. Customers can add a shot of exotic booze—chili-pepper liqueur, anyone?—for $4-$6.”

“By most accounts, the current New York City craze for gourmet hot chocolate was sparked by City Bakery, a fixture in the Union Square area that began offering a high-end version of the beverage when it opened in the early ‘90s, at the then seemingly outrageous price of $2.50 a cup … Restaurant-industry insiders and observers say the hot-chocolate trend speaks to a growing fascination with retro comfort foods done with a contemporary nod: Think artisanal mac ‘n’ cheese. It also dovetails with the gourmet-coffee movement that shows no signs of stopping.”

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Are You Smarter Than a Kohler Toilet?

The Wall Street Journal: “For some innovators, the next frontier is the room in your house most likely to have a lock on the door: the bathroom. Showcasing their goods at this year’s CES tech show, these companies acknowledge a need for privacy in that inner sanctum—then proceed to show off cameras, microphones and other sensors they’d like you to install there … consider a mirror that turns on motion-activated lights when you get up in the middle of the night, or tells you the weather in the morning. Consider setting the shower on to the perfect temperature just by asking, before you climb in. There are even ‘intelligent’ toilets in the works though how intelligent they’ll be remains to be seen.”

“Some startups see the bathroom the way others now look at the automobile: ready for an open-platform operating system of its own. CareOS—a subsidiary of a French firm which also owns connected toothbrush maker Kolibree—designed an entire health and beauty hub … While a camera in the bathroom sounds like something you’d want to cover with duct tape, CareOS chief technology officer Ali Mouizina says all of your data is stored locally. The system won’t even share it with any other smart home or media hubs in your house, unless you want it to. After all, he said, the bathroom is ‘a private place, a very special place’.”

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Amazon Has a ‘Basic’ Problem

The Wall Street Journal: “There is one major problem with the idea that Amazon will eat the entire universe … Amazon is good at identifying commodity products and making those as cheap and available as possible … But this system isn’t very compatible with big-ticket, higher-margin items. Could Amazon’s Lab126—famous for both the successful Echo and the failed Fire phone—ever produce something as premium as an iPhone or an OLED TV? Its success in electronics has come from driving their prices to the very bottom.”

“The same goes for Amazon’s other businesses. For example, could Amazon Studios, which has shown little ability to create hits, ever produce a franchise like Marvel’s Avengers or HBO’s Game of Thrones? … Amazon may be mastering commodity goods; its own Basics line went from about 250 products in 2013 to over 1,500 today. But making items widely available at low prices runs directly counter to the way higher-profit businesses work.”

“Consider the makers of high-end handbags, which limit who can distribute their wares and, as a result, who can buy them. Not surprisingly, many of those brands refuse to sell on Amazon at all … The bulk of our everyday goods and services may one day come from Amazon, and everyone from CVS to Uber should watch their backs. Even so, there will continue to be countless competitors that would never dream of branding any of their products ‘Basic’.”

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