It was once difficult to imagine that cruise ships would compete with hotels for meetings and events. However, in recent years, cruise lines have overcome perceptions that meetings at sea are too expensive, lack space and offer less than hotels provide.
Planners now have everything they need for successful meetings at sea because cruise ship companies are building larger vessels with bigger and more flexible event, conference and breakout spaces.
According to Dan Meister, CMP, owner of Boca Raton, Florida-based Meister Meetings & Travel Corp., “Newer ships are bigger, offering more dedicated meeting space, as well as flexible restaurants, intimate entertainment clubs, larger theaters and even dedicated outside space that all can be used for groups at some point during a cruise.
“There are more cruise ships options than ever, from megaships to smaller ultra-luxury ships, giving more choices than ever along with new itineraries and destinations,” adds Meister. And the wide variety of activities on cruise ships is a main reason why Meister says he is “a big fan of groups onboard cruise ships.”
Shari Wallack, president of Buy the Sea, a Plantation, Florida-based company that helps incentive and meeting planners create group cruise experiences, has seen firsthand how cruise lines have expanded meeting space over the years.
“Cruise lines are aware that groups require function space for private events,” says Wallack. “Royal Caribbean Cruise Line has always been the biggest proponent of having dedicated conference space onboard. And, on the new Celebrity Edge ship, there is The Meeting Place, a flexible venue that can accommodate privately catered meals. Specialty restaurants on many of the newer ships have been outfitted with audio-visual equipment.
“In addition,” Wallack continues, “cruise lines are more flexible in allowing groups to use their large theaters for day and sometimes evening functions. One of my favorite venues is the AquaTheater on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships. It’s a 600-person outside palladium with a stage and two Jumbotrons. It’s an out-of-the-box venue. For example, the stage can open up and have high divers splash into the water after a CEO finishes a presentation and exits.”
“Newer ships are bigger, offering more dedicated meeting space, as well as flexible restaurants, intimate entertainment clubs, larger theaters and even dedicated outside space that all can be used for groups at some point during a cruise.” — Dan Meister, CMP
Adding more meeting space improves the ability of cruise ships to help planners achieve meeting goals and provides a greater diversity of experiences than land-based events.
Cruises offer several destinations in one package — their privately owned islands, the ship itself and ports of call.
Cruise lines are expanding destination options while remaining generally less expensive than hotels of comparable quality, giving planners-at-sea budget-saving options amid the current seller’s market for hotels.
More planners are realizing they can meet budget and attendee needs on cruise ships.
However, flexibility is required because cruise lines still lack hotels’ cavernous conference centers and meeting rooms, and the vessels program activities differently.
According to Eldon Gale, director of events, Scentsy, a Meridian, Idaho-based distributor of scent-based products, “You do need to be flexible and work with a cruise ship. If you try to dramatically change their actual programming to create something completely new and different just for your group, chances are you will meet with resistance. More than that, it really isn’t necessary.”
Gale adds, “Ships do their thing day in and day out, and they have it down to a science. Just go with the flow and trust that the things they do to entertain and delight their transient guests will work just as well for your group with very little effort on your part.”
Being flexible helped Gale to plan a successful incentive recently for 2,200 attendees aboard Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
“Because our group was so large, we divided it in half and held two rounds of all our events,” says Gale. “This included two back-to-back awards general sessions held in the ship’s theaters; two back-to-back welcome cocktail parties on the boardwalk; two back-to-back farewell dessert receptions in the onboard ice-skating rink and two dinners.”
Meister recently planned a Mediterranean cruise for 65 executives aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines’ Reflection. The goals of the meeting were networking, learning and fun.
“The group kept a dedicated meeting space throughout the cruise for impromptu and scheduled meetings and learning,” says Meister. “They enjoyed a dedicated area of the main dining room for early seating so guests could mingle and dine with different attendees within the dedicated area. There were also exclusive shore excursions and daily meet-ups on the ship.”
When attendees weren’t meeting in areas devoted to planned group functions, they networked with each other.
“It was interesting to see how attendees naturally got together on their own based on activities, games and facilities onboard,” says Meister. “We always had at least 25 people in the front row of the nightly show and another 20 in the Sunset Bar and Lawn Club on the top deck of the ship enjoying cigars. There was also a small group that met in the casino every night and another group that enjoyed Silent Disco.”
The cruise was a hit. “This was a well-traveled group, and they all really enjoyed this ship and thought this was one of their best trips,” says Meister. “I think cruising is perfect for groups and offers a little something for everyone.”
Meetings at sea can offer several benefits over hotels, depending on the needs of a group, its size, attendee makeup and goals.
The main advantage of at-sea meetings is they make it easier for planners to control costs and stretch budgets. Cruise ship meetings are typically 20 percent to 30 percent less than those of hotels and other land-based venues.
Meister cites an example of the savings: “We just priced a cruise incentive for Japan and China, and the savings were almost 40 percent less than doing the same program on land with country-to-country transfers and flights, etc.”
Cruises are cost-efficient mostly because they offer all-in-one pricing.
According to Meister, “Cruises offer incredible value over land programs by offering inclusive pricing for accommodations, meals, entertainment, transportation, beverages, etc. For all our cruise meetings and incentives, we always add another beverage package, pre-paid gratuities, Wi-Fi and often onboard credit as part of the cruise package — so guests receive more value and do not have to spend out of pocket.”
Gale also cites the advantages of all-inclusive cruise meeting packages.
“With most traditional meeting locations, you are working with a blank canvas, and you build from the bottom up,” says Gale. “Cruise ships offer you an incredibly diverse amount of options for dining, entertainment and activities that are already created and generally included in the base cost of your cruise fare.
“Even if there is the occasional surcharge, it is usually very reasonable and much less than you would ever pay on land,” says Gale. “Options like live bands, comedians, lecturers, cooking demonstrations, etc., are all onboard at all times. Your time on the ship is efficient and cost-effective.
“Realistically,” Gale adds, “if you did nothing more than what the ship includes in your base fare, your group will have a great time. This makes planning and budgeting a breeze because you contract a set rate, and there really aren’t any surprises.
“That said, once you start to customize, enhance or upgrade your events, you will pay surcharges, but they are generally surprisingly affordable,” says Gale. “It really gives you the flexibility to make it what you need it to be.”
Another plus of at-sea meetings: Attendees receive highly personal service because the staff-to-guest ratio is typically about three times that of most hotels and resorts.
Also, the self-contained environment of cruise ships encourages networking and tends to increase attendance at meeting functions. Wallack has seen how scores of meetings have benefited from cruise ships’ settings.
“You don’t have guests going ‘off-property’ when the ship is sailing,” says Wallack. “The crew can account for passengers at all times. A hotel never knows who is on-property and who isn’t. And consider that for evening events, dine-arounds and entertainment, your guests never need to be bussed to offsite venues. It’s all right onboard, and it can all be included in the cruise fare.
“Except for stops at ports, attendees are all onboard during their free time at the pool, spa, theater, casino, restaurant, etc.,” adds Wallack. “They are easy to find, and you know that no one has left to go elsewhere. It’s easier to get your group together for a meeting, party, meal or recognition event.”
Meetings at sea also offer wider generational appeal, which is important as groups become more age-diverse due to the growing millennial population, which now makes up nearly half of the workforce.
A recent study by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) notes that millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are cruising more than ever and rate the experience as better than resorts and other land-based vacations.
One-fourth of millennials have taken a luxury cruise within the last five years, a record pace, according to CLIA. And, the percent of millennials who say they “definitely will” book a cruise for their next trip increased to 70 percent in 2018 from 63 percent in 2017.
Millennials favor cruising partly because it offers the wide variety of activities and entertainment options they seek.
Groups can enjoy every type of show found in hotels and resorts, including Broadway-style performances featuring state-of-the-art sound, projection and light systems.
For example, Royal Caribbean’s, 18-deck, 2,775-room megaship, Symphony of the Seas, launched last year with unique activities, entertainment and services. These include the open-air AquaTheater, which showcases high-diving performances; the Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slide at sea; and the Bionic Bar with its robot bartenders. Several new food concepts are available in Symphony of the Seas’ 20 specialty and complimentary restaurants.
Symphony of the Seas also includes state-of-the-art mobile check-in technology that uses a combination of bar codes, beacons and facial recognition. Guests can check-in via an app and upload a photo to create an onboard account. After arriving, guests go through a security screening and then go to their staterooms.
The Symphony of the Seas also features seven distinct “neighborhoods,” each with its own unique décor and ambience. The neighborhoods are Boardwalk, Central Park, Entertainment Place, Royal Promenade, Pool and Sports Zone, Vitality at Sea and Fitness Center and Youth Zone.
Which activities did attendees of Gale’s meeting on Symphony of the Seas enjoy most?
“Goodness, the list is endless,” says Gale. “Pools, spa, rock climbing, zip lining, mini-golf, FlowRider (a surf simulator), sports court, ice skating shows, Broadway shows, concerts, comedy clubs, night clubs, parades, dance parties, dining, shopping and gym.”
Aboard Norwegian ships, the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Breakaway, respectively, offer Broadway hits “After Midnight” and “Rock of Ages.”
Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Epic feature “meals with amazement” — a unique dining experience featuring acrobats, aerialists musicians and audience participation. Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club and Headliners Comedy Club are also available on Norwegian Getaway.
Larger-than-ever cruise ships are driving an increase in meeting space size and flexibility options for planners.
Meeting space at sea has come such a long way that cruise ship companies now do something that was once unthinkable — tout their meeting facilities in a manner much like that of hotels.
For example, here’s how Celebrity Cruises describes its meeting capabilities: “Perfect venues for larger conferences, presentations and ceremonies, our impressive theaters are modern, multifunctional and fully customizable for audiences from 200 to more than 1,000. Several adaptable conference rooms accommodate events of various sizes — intimate gatherings, meetings for 60 attendees, banquets for 100 diners, even conferences for 220 guests.”
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a luxury four-ship cruise company, has a similar pitch: “From spacious conference and meeting rooms to state-of-the-art multimedia facilities, the six-star ships of Regent Seven Seas Cruises have been designed with full business capabilities. RSSC ships feature comfortable meeting rooms and multipurpose lounges to accommodate groups from 10 to 700.”
Regent urges planners to “think of our ships as floating conference centers furnished with sophisticated multimedia equipment to accommodate your business agenda.”
Some of the new megaships can carry up to 6,000 total passengers and accommodate groups of more than 1,600 attendees — even more for customized full ship buyouts, which allow planners to choose ports of call and cruise length. Another option is buying out a ship for an event.
Gale has watched cruise ship meeting space come a long way.
“When I did my first cruise ship event in 2011, we were on the largest ship in the world at that time,” says Gale. “That ship is still around but has been eclipsed by three others in the same category, and that’s just within the Royal Caribbean family.
“Cruise lines are much more aware of the value of large groups and are creating purpose-driven space that works for meetings,” says Gale. “Because it’s a ship, everything has to fill multiple purposes. If you are flexible, the variety of options is surprising.
“The number of new ships that join the marketplace each year is staggering,” Gale continues. “Each ship seems to be bigger and better than the previous, and each offers a new level of offerings that exceed the previous. Cruise ships are constantly innovating and pushing the limits of what’s possible — much more so than you get from a traditional hotel.”
Newer ships provide a variety of spaces for all types of meetings, events, incentives, board retreats, receptions, banquets, teambuilding, customer appreciation programs, new product launches and more.
There are dedicated conference centers with air walls, audio-visual and wireless capabilities. Most ships have theaters and some even have revolving stages.
For example, MSC Cruises’ four newest ships offer 1,600-seat pillarless theaters and dedicated meeting rooms, as well as lounges that can be converted into meeting space.
In addition, MSC’s new private island can host customized concerts and teambuilding events.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines offers state-of-the-art conference centers, theaters, lounges and outdoor spaces that accommodate up to 1,394 guests.
Cruise lines are rolling out new, meeting-friendly ships at a record rate.
According to CLIA, the industry launched five cruise ships in 2018 and will premiere 20 more this year. Another 32 ships will debut in 2020 and beyond. Additionally, Miami-based Landry & Kling Global Cruise Events says nearly 100 new vessels are expected to debut by 2025.
Gale is impressed by the amount of new ships coming on line.
“The number is staggering,” says Gale. “Each ship seems to be bigger and better than the previous. Cruise ships are constantly innovating and pushing the limits of what’s possible — much more so than you would ever get from a traditional hotel.”
In terms of meeting space, new cruise ships are light years ahead of where they were a few decades ago.
According to Wallack, “Years ago, groups held cocktail parties on the pool deck and formal meetings in a theater. Cruise lines have become far more flexible in allowing public lounge and restaurant usage. The ones who can think more creatively are the ones who win the business.
“Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships offer Studio B, a 775-seat stadium that doubles as an ice rink,” says Wallack. “We have held private ice shows there, as well as after-dinner ‘glow’ dessert parties for more than 1,000 guests.”
The latest cruise line developments include the following:
Celebrity Cruises, which operates 13 luxury ships sailing to all seven continents, has launched a $500 million fleet revitalization program called “The Celebrity Revolution.”
The plan will transform Celebrity’s entire fleet with reimagined staterooms and spaces, redesigned restaurants and more destinations. Also, every ship will include The Retreat, a new addition for all Suite Class guests that includes The Retreat Sundeck and The Retreat Lounge.
Also last year, Celebrity launched Celebrity Edge, the company’s first new ship in six years and the first of a new class of vessels in more than a decade. Celebrity Edge offers the cruise line’s most comprehensive entertainment lineup ever, performing more produced shows than any ship in the company’s history, all in technologically advanced main theaters.
Gale recently sailed on the inaugural cruise of Celebrity Edge, a 3,000-passenger ship, as it completed its first-ever transatlantic crossing and docked in Port Everglades.
“This ship is very cutting-edge and is a great venue for luxury incentives and meetings,” says Gale. “The ship is very modern and is beautifully designed with some dedicated meeting space, private club space, lots of nice-looking specialty restaurants for shows and nice areas on the top deck for outdoor events.”
Celebrity Edge’s sister ship, Celebrity Apex, will launch in 2020, and two additional Edge-class ships will follow in 2021 and 2022.
In other Celebrity news, Celebrity Flora, the first ship ever built specifically to sail the Galapagos Islands, recently introduced Glamping — a nighttime camping experience on the vessel’s top deck, allowing views of spectacular night skies.
Oceania Cruises’ Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena are undergoing the transformation of every suite and stateroom with new furnishings, fixtures, lighting and color palettes. The upgrades are scheduled for completion by 2020. Oceania, a leading culinary- and destination-focused cruise line, has added new vegan menus and more than 80 land tour options in several countries, including Australia, Asia and Europe.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently had the best single booking day in the company’s 26-year history, which was 32 percent higher than the previous one-day booking record in 2015. The record followed the opening of reservations of the first 10 voyages of Regent’s newest ship, Seven Seas Splendor, which launches in 2020 with 375 suites.
Regent Seven Seas has also completed a bow-to-stern refurbishment of Seven Seas Mariner, marking the final phase of the company’s $125 million upgrade program. The improvements elevated the elegance of Seven Seas Mariner to that of Seven Seas Explorer’s.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which offers more than 65 itineraries in 52 countries, recently held a keel-laying ceremony for its newest ship, the 4,000-guest Norwegian Encore, which will debut this fall.
The ship features Galaxy Pavilion, a 10,000-square-foot, indoor virtual reality complex, an open-air laser tag arena, and it’s the only company to offer a go-kart race track at sea.
In addition, Norwegian will premiere six Project Leonardo Class ships in 2026 and 2027. Each ship will accommodate 3,300 guests. Norwegian now has a total of seven ships on order through 2027.
Long gone are perceptions that meetings at sea are too expensive, lack meeting space and too complicated to plan. Gone also are stereotypes that cruise ship meetings are boring and confining.
In fact, meetings at sea offer a plethora of unique experiences. Most of all, at-sea meetings provide distinctive and memorable ways for planners to accomplish their goals for attendees. C&IT