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2011 RFID Journal Award Winner: Best Use of RFID to Enhance a Product or Service—RFID Delivers a Royal Payback

Royal Caribbean is installing self-service soft drink machines on its entire fleet of 22 cruise ships, keeping guests happy and generating explosive profits.
By Jill Gambon
Jul 11, 2011—One of Royal Caribbean International cruise line's most popular—and profitable—food and beverage offerings is a soft drink refill package. For a flat fee, passengers on its 22 ships who are lounging by the pool can have as many cups of Coca-Cola and other sodas as they like, without having to handle money. But guests complained they had to stand in line and wait for a bartender to pour the prepaid drinks.

Three years ago, ValidFill, a Sarasota, Fla.-based manufacturer that provides the cruise line's refill mugs, told Royal Caribbean it had a potential solution: a self-service drink dispenser that would use radio frequency identification to control access to the soda. Special plastic cups with RFID tags embedded in the bottom would activate the drink dispenser, allowing qualified guests to help themselves and eliminating long waits at the bar.

Although Royal Caribbean was not using RFID elsewhere in its operations, the idea sounded promising to Bob Midyette, the company's director of fleet beverage operations. "We did not know how to accomplish the self-service objective," he says. "When RFID and its capabilities were presented to us as an early, trailblazing option, we thought it was perfect, although not perfected." (Royal Caribbean has since launched a real-time location system that uses Apple iPhones and Wi-Fi-based RFID tags in wristbands or badges to let guests find members of their party on board a ship.)

ValidFill had a prototype of the RFID-enabled drink dispenser, but no experience designing equipment for marine environments or navigating the regulatory thicket facing the cruise line, which is based in Miami and regulated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Still, with a potential solution in hand, the two companies decided to move forward: ValidFill would fund development of the system, and Royal Caribbean would provide the regulatory and environmental expertise, as well as a ship where they could test the equipment.

The design of the drink-dispensing system had to meet a number of unique requirements. To withstand exposure to the elements, for instance, the dispensers—which are located on the open pool decks and exposed to salt air, high seas and nightly power washing—had to be constructed of a higher-grade stainless steel than typical machines. In addition, all the materials and components—right down to the types of screws—used in the drink dispensers were subject to strict CDC rules.
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