RCL’s Denesuk Applies Artificial Intelligence to Cruising Innovation

New SVP of data analytics and AI sees “cities on the water” as ideal labs

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Matt Denesuk has the mind of a scientist and the heart of a poet. He brings both to his newly created post as Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president for data analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Data analytics & AI for the entire company is under his umbrella.

His specialty is harnessing complexity and putting it to good use. When he got his first look at Royal Caribbean, he realized he’d hit the mother lode.

“A lot of companies are complex in one or two ways,” Denesuk says. “We’re complex almost everywhere, and, therefore, full of opportunity. A cruise company is an ideal crucible for doing enterprise AI.  It’s not just selling the cabin. We’re selling a whole experience. There’s a lot for us to do to create a better guest experience and be more successful.”

Traditional AI, or machine learning, looks at past data, finds patterns and then assumes the future will be similar.  Enterprise AI, in contrast, deals with “messy” data that can’t be the sole input in a search for enlightening patterns, relationships, and predictions. It requires additional human knowledge and input to find efficiencies and other improvements.

“A lot of people think of AI as a magic thing. It’s not magic,” Denesuk says. “It’s just math applied to data that helps you make better decisions.”

Those decisions can improve processes for supply chain, revenue management, marketing, equipment management, and cruise booking — every process used on shore and at sea that can’t be refined by “mature” AI alone.

Denesuk and his team, which is growing aggressively through recruitment, are applying data analytics and AI across the enterprise. The approach translates into new processes that use crowd-flow metrics to optimize use of shipboard attractions, increase efficiency in water filtration systems, improve guest selection and scheduling of excursions, boost efficiencies in ship maintenance and fuel use, reduce food waste, and countless other applications that make the cruise better.

His path to RCL began when he was a kid in New Jersey, dreaming of being an inventor. (He now holds 22 patents.) Dad was a hair stylist in a high-end New York City salon, counting Liz Taylor and Twiggy – “If you’re old enough to remember Twiggy” – among his tony clients. Mom was a high school dropout who worked at home until Denesuk was about 12, and then took a job as a legal transfer clerk for a brokerage firm with an eye on sending their son to college.

“But they were both scholars,” Denesuk explains. “If you look at my mother’s night table, there are no romance novels. There’s, like, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. And my dad the same.”

At a time when computers weren’t common, his dad developed a system for winning bets on horse races, keeping his notes and analysis in thick spiral notebooks. “He was actually using analytics, but he had no formal training,” Denesuk continues.

“So they were both very analytical, very intellectual. They would always make sure that my brother and I got whatever books or tools we needed, even though they didn’t have much money.”

His grandmother chipped in, paying to send him to Harvard Summer School after his high school junior year. Next he was off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his bachelor’s, followed by a master’s and PhD from the University of Arizona.

His education was not confined to the sciences. In graduate school, for example, he was doing master’s program coursework for fine arts and poetry, but decided not to get the degree “because I was already getting a lot of degrees.” He wrote his own verse, occasionally presenting some at public poetry readings and submitting to poetry journals.

Encapsulating his team’s role at Royal Caribbean might seem an impossible task, given the breadth, depth and complexity of it all. But Denesuk, a wizard of data analytics and AI, manages it joyfully. The experience he’s gained over a lifetime of applying math and data to difficult scientific and business problems – in universities, research labs, corporate centers, and start-ups – is paying off.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “most of what we do is about predicting the future in a given set of scenarios so you can pick or design the best future possible.”

On top of that, he’s taken on another goal: earning RCL recognition as the premier employer for AI in South Florida, enough so that Miami becomes a hub for attracting and nurturing talent from near and far.

“My objectives here are fundamentally to help Royal Caribbean be more productive and effective,” Denesuk says, “and to make Royal Caribbean clearly the place to be for data analytics and AI in South Florida and beyond.

“I think we could be renowned as a world leader in enterprise AI, which I firmly believe is the leading edge of AI.”