Meet John Padgett, Carnival Corp's Chief Experience and Innovation Officer

Kymberlie Mcnicholas · July 8, 2019 · Short URL:

Wrapping the physical world with a digital stage at sea


(Editor's note: Register early for Reinventing the doctor on Sept. 12 at UCSF. Speakers include Keith Rabois, Partner at Founders Fund. REGISTER HERE.)

The idea of ‘always on’ and ‘always connected’ is now at an entirely new level – at sea. Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Experience & Innovation Officer, John Padgett, has led his team to create a new era of enterprise innovation, demonstrating it's possible to create disruption from above, not just below. While many large organizations struggle to innovate at a large scale due to messy, multi-level hierarchies that prevent nimbleness, Padgett did what so many told him was impossible. He was able to execute on CEO Arnold Donald’s vision to exceed guests' expectations and to build all the software and hardwire ideation, design, and development in-house. So, while many vacation companies are struggling to stay on trend, Carnival has found a way to set the trend and with merely a few lines of code, continue to stay ahead of the competition. But to do so, they also look for partners to up their game.


  • Carnival is focused on expanding the cruise vacation market through guest experience innovation and original experiential media content development.
  • Personalization is the driving force behind most innovation at Carnival.
  • The majority of software/hardware design and development is done in-house.
  • Changing people is the toughest aspect of innovation. It takes daily encouragement to inspire adoption.
  • Data collection is the key to future innovation to improve the guest experience even more.
  • When it comes to true innovation, people will always say it's impossible to accomplish. Stay true to your principles and you will be successful.

KM: We know you are head of innovation for the cruise company, but what does that mean in terms of your daily tasks?

JP: Our CEO, Arnold Donald, has articulated a very clear vision for the Carnival Corporation – to exceed expectations, and to leverage our scale.

Within the Guest Experience and Innovation team, we’re specifically focused on expanding the cruise vacation market through guest experience innovation and the development of original experiential media content that is accessed on national TV, on digital platforms, online and on mobile devices. We’re helping Guests see the world and make connections with its people, places and cultures. By helping potential Guests discover the world along with us, we’ll make even more people interested in vacationing with Carnival Corp.’s World’s Leading Cruise Lines.

On the experience innovation front, our most recent work has revolved around the design, development and launch of the MedallionClass Experience, currently available on Princess Cruises. On MedallionClass ships, we’re maximizing guests’ vacation time with our Ocean Guest Experience platform - the world’s first Experience Internet of Things (xIoT) – and the OceanMedallion, a wearable device that connects guests to a network of sensors and readers across a cruise ship. A MedallionClass vacation delivers game-changing personalization that enables crew members to anticipate the needs, wants and desires of each guest and curates their unique likes and preferences to maximize their experience. The Medallion eliminates the need for guests to carry cash, credit cards, IDs, keys, maps, schedules, while offering sophisticated way to find, food, beverage and retail on demand, an array of interactive gaming, and more. 

KM: Does Carnival do any technological development internally or do you mostly partner with innovators and simply buy and implement their products? What's the balance -- building on your own, buying product, acquiring? Examples?

JP: I like to say we do whatever is necessary to transform the guest experience. We have amazing internal talent, and we work with some incredible innovation partners. And while the vast majority of our innovation design and development is done internally, if there’s a great piece of technology out there that can advance the mission of the corporation in terms of guest experience, we’ll explore it.

KM: Do you ever acquire or have you ever acquired or have a thought in the future to acquire a startup with a great technology?

JP: We’re really not in the acquisition business.

KM: How do you think up what's new and next in innovation that you want to develop or buy, and implement? Do you mostly see it in other industries? How much of an influence are other industries on your ideation for the cruise ships? Anything you can't find anywhere else that you are implementing on your cruise line?

JP: We’re in the experience business, so we get our inspiration from all over. We have an incredibly diverse team with remarkable backgrounds and rich experience. The team understands our CEO’s vision, and they’re encouraged to tee up ideas and concepts they come across that they believe will have practical application to enrich the guest experience.

KM: How tough is it to go from ideation to execution in such a large travel company? What are the checks and balances that must be made in order to make things happen? Any advice for other people trying to innovate within their large organizations?

JP: We’re fortunate to have a visionary CEO. Arnold has made our goals abundantly clear and been incredibly supportive on the resource front. You have a have a clear vision. And it will probably seem a bit incongruent, but for us, innovation has never been the goal. Innovation has simply been a tool to deliver on strategy. Doing something digital is not better.  Different is seldom better, but Better is almost always different. Better is hard. Changing people is even harder.  That’s why it’s important to be also realistic. You have to encourage people to constantly push the boundaries – which is easy the first day, the first week, the first month. But it's harder as the months and years build. You have to encourage your team to gain ground every day. And you should also get everyone involved – everyone from the CEO to the Stateroom Host delivering the experience.

I think what you’re seeing is a transition into an era of Enterprise Innovation, which can be amazing.  When you combine the scale and financial resources of a successful enterprise with the passion and commitment to change the world that previously was just found in start-ups – you create an incredibly powerful new combination. But make no mistake about it - Enterprise Innovation starts at the top.  And for us that is Carnival Corporation’s CEO Arnold Donald.

KM: What is the innovation that you spearheaded which you are most proud of in your career - the OceanMedallion? I'm guessing you are going to even exceed that in building smart cities aboard ships from Princess Cruises? Or is that the main foundation leading the way in your smart city? (maybe describe OceanMedallion in your words a bit first)

JP: Walt Disney once said it’s fun to do the impossible. And boy was he ever right. Everything we’ve done with the MedallionClass experience to transform cruising, people have said was impossible to accomplish.

  • “You’ll never reach mass adoption” – more than 99.5% of guests sailing on MedallionClass cruises are opting into the Medallion
  • “The cruiser demographic isn’t interested in technology” – guests from 4 to 94 are loving the our MedallionClass enhancements – from the interactive, anywhere wagering to being able to order a snack, drink, or suntan lotion from the comfort of their poolside lounger.
  • “You can’t run the ship’s network from the cloud” – we can and we are.
  • “You can’t deliver pervasive internet connectivity to guests for an affordable price” – MedallionNet is receiving unprecedented scores and accolades from guests who are enjoying unprecedented connectivity to do everything from Face-timing the grandkids back home to managing that inbox to signing important contract thousands of miles from shore.
  • “People aren’t willing to share their data” – Guests are seeing first-hand how sharing insights about their likes, wants and preferences, both stated and gleaned based on their location, can improve their experience and maximize their vacation time.
  • “Even if it could work, you can’t install an extensive IOT solution on an existing ship” – We can and we do install our xIoT infrastructure to convert ships – any ship – of any size, of any vintage, into a MedallionClass ship over the course of a 12-day dry dock, in any shipyard, at any time. 75 miles of cables, more than 7000 sensors, more than 4000 portals

But probably more than anything else is that we’ve stayed true to our principles.  When we embarked on this project, we knew that THE most critical element of all of this technology, is that it’s NOT about technology.

Technology is normally presumed to replace people and face-to-face connections. But the Medallion does something different. Instead of replacing personal connections between passengers and human staff, the technology is being used to turbo charge those connections. Our goal is for technology to disappear from the entire equation and empower next level human interactions.

KM: What are the key unique innovative elements of your new smart city? What does this mean for passengers?

A ship is the ideal stage for IoT. Onboard our cruise ships you’ll find a lodging, food and beverage, entertainment, recreation, gaming, navigation, banking, transportation, telecommunications which means the entire guest experience is uniquely within our control and our ability to connect these elements together.

Think about a ship as just a couple of hundred-thousand ton mobile device that can stage unlimited experiences in every dimension.  Our experience platform wraps the ship with a digital platform to enable any and all experiences in a ubiquitous way to the Guest.  This eliminates experience engagement challenges, eliminates friction and maximizes engagement.

Persistent connectivity is key. When a guest's Medallion is within our Experience IOT Ecosystem, all of their desires and needs can be anticipated. It’s intuitive, but not disruptive. Personal, but not invasive. Wrapping our physical world with a digital stage and providing ubiquitous portals to all Guests is a game changer. Information gleaned from Guest engagement into the experiential ecosystem is processed using computing power on the edge that collects and redeploys those guests insights in real time.  Through this xIoT Platform we’re creating an entirely new level of intelligence that is continuously being reinvested back into that specific guest’s experience.

It also enables a number of game-changing guest benefits:

  • Keyless stateroom entry
  • Hassle-free payment
  • Enhanced guest service
  • Anywhere onboard wagering
  • Interactive, location-based adventures
  • Turn-by-Turn onboard Navigation
  • Locate Friends tool
  • On-Demand Service

KM: What size companies do you mostly work with in building this smart city?

JP: All sizes.

KM: How do you see the smart city evolving? Where is the white space you still see in this space where entrepreneurs need to jump in and innovate so you can evolve the current smart city you've developed, even further?

JP: The opportunities afforded through troves of guest data that we can re-invest in real time is priceless. Over the long term, we’ll be able to better anticipate and address guest challenges, as well as continuously improve the guest experience.

KM: What's the best approach for entrepreneurs to pitch you on their technologies? Anything special in the subject line of emails? Cold calls? What gets your attention?

JP: I think the best opportunity is for anyone interested in working in or with the experience economy is to trial the product, to take a MedallionClass cruise and to truly understand what our guests are experiencing and how their products, services or innovations can further enhance that experience. And also to be very aware of the principle that we’re not in the business of innovation for innovation’s sake … but to empower next level human interactions.

KM: Conversely, what's the wrong approach? Any examples of the wrong way to pitch you? Any examples of bad pitches?

JP: If it doesn’t improve the guest experience, don’t even bother.

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