Once upon a time, designing ships with the meeting space, services, amenities and itineraries to accommodate groups wasn’t the highest of priorities for cruise lines. Those days are long gone.
Cruise lines are catering to meetings and incentives with new and refurbished ships that offer more flexible meeting and breakout space, services, amenities and technology. Groups have more options to charter ships and customize meetings and itineraries. There is a cruise package to fit every meeting and incentive budget.
Most important, cruise lines offer value through a growing variety of all-inclusive packages that include meeting space, meals, cabins, amenities, audio-visual and more. “Corporations can save up to 30–35 percent,” says Roy Duckworth, chairman, Global Enterprises Inc., a Burnet, TX-based meeting management and travel company. “People are looking for a bigger bang for their buck. They want more excitement, more options. The incentive market is finding they can do a better incentive with a cruise at a lesser cost, take more people, and it’s very enjoyable. They always want to do it again.”
The growing number of cruise ship options can make planning a meeting at sea a daunting task, especially for planners who haven’t done it before. Here are some basic pointers from cruise experts:
Don’t hesitate to ask. Ask detailed questions about the size, availability and flexibility of meeting venues and dining facilities. This is especially important for small groups that sail on the largest ships. Jo Kling, president, Landry & Kling, reminds planners: “There are ships of all sizes, service levels, and price points sailing all over the world. Besides accommodations, you’ll want to look at the ship’s meeting and function space and determine the capacities of public rooms. What about your itinerary? Do you need one or two days at sea to schedule your meetings? What destination would motivate and excite your group?”
Match event with the appropriate cruise. “There are different categories of cruise lines that can meet a client’s needs,” says Rebecca Jones, manager of event purchasing for BCD M&I. “Understand the wants and budget of a group and whether it matches ships in the luxury or contemporary market. The length of your program, length of the cruise, destinations and time of year also determine your options.”
Know your group. “Cruise meetings and incentives are special animals,” says Andy McNeill, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based American Meetings Inc. “We always survey potential attendees before we offer something. Some clients would never consider a cruise, and I know that so I wouldn’t offer it to them. Others are more adventurous or their attendees want to do something unique, and might find it to be an option.”
Onsite coordination. “Most large cruise lines designate an onsite conference-service coordinator for each ship, but be prepared — your conference service coordinator might be juggling a dozen or more other groups onboard. Depending on your group size and program requirements, consider adding experienced cruise staff and/or a cruise-savvy trip director to your team to help operate your program onsite. Request a private hospitality desk area and staff it with a team member who can answer questions and handle requests from your attendees,” says Kling.
Booking air. “Be aware of your ship’s departure/arrival times as well as customs clearance time, and book your airline flights accordingly. If your ship is sailing from a domestic port, remember that all passengers must be onboard and checked in at least two hours prior to sailing,” says Kling. —DR
That is the case with one of Duckworth’s clients, a company that sends a group on a cruise every three or four years. In April, the company sent 150 salespeople and executives on a six-day cruise aboard the Carnival Elation, which accommodates 2,052 passengers. The group departed New Orleans and stopped in Mexico at Progreso and Cozumel. Most of the time was spent at sea, says Duckworth. “The group chose that itinerary based on cost, the inclusive package and the time spent at sea. They wanted a captive audience, if you will, to do sales training every day. They didn’t want to spend most of the time, as many groups do, going to a different port every day,” says Duckworth.
The Carnival Elation offered plenty of meeting space. The group held its awards dinner in a 1,300-person capacity theater, says Duckworth. “We set up a main head table for all the senior corporate officers on the stage. The lighting and AV were provided by the ship at no cost. It worked very well. We also had training sessions during the day in a club that was used for comedy acts at night. It held about 200 people and was perfect for a group our size.”
Service was impeccable. The staff’s attention to detail was impressive, says Duckworth. He cites the wait staff as an example. “We talked to the maître d’ before the cruise to make sure they knew which people at which tables had certain food preferences or issues. During meals, if someone at a table had an allergy to saffron or was on a low-sodium diet, the people working the tables knew it. It was impressive,” adds Duckworth.
Duckworth said the group felt special although the ship carried individual passengers as well as two other larger groups. “Those groups had booked before we did, and we shared the larger meeting spaces with them,” says Duckworth. “In those cases, ships are very good at juggling groups’ schedules, meeting spaces and times. Our group felt the cruise line did a great job. We did a survey afterwards, and the results were extremely high.”
The Elation’s entertainment received superb marks. “They enjoyed the entertainment the most,” says Duckworth. “The ship had four venues that had great acts every night. They had singers, dancers, show magicians and comedians. I’m sure they will cruise again with Carnival.”
Indeed, cruise lines are stepping up their game. “Ships have improved over the last 10 years and are a lot more focused on meetings and incentives,” says Rebecca Jones, manager of event purchasing and industry relations, BCD M&I, a Chicago-based meeting, incentives and event solutions company. “They understand the value of that market segment — that we need function space for group dinners and gala events, dine-around opportunities, customization aboard ship and a memorable experience. They offer the right combination of cruise products, destinations and price points.”
Cruise lines also know the importance of helping planners nail down meeting specifics up front. “They are willing to confirm things at the contracting stage because they understand its importance,” says Jones. “For example, they will tell you the exact hours that you can have the theater for a reception and the ice skating rink for a general session. That wasn’t a big priority 10 years ago,” says Jones.
Groups that charter ships needn’t worry about scheduling events around passengers or other groups. “You can customize what you bring on board, how people are dressed, the décor, and food and beverage, as well as itineraries,” says Jones. “You can brand the ship by flying the company flag and putting logos on daily programs. You can even put your logo on the side of the ship and make it your own,” she says.
During charters, says Josephine Kling, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Landry & Kling Inc., specialists in meetings events at sea, “You can use any room on board at any time. You can do away with shipboard programming, or you can reschedule the elements you like every day. You can name drinks after your CEO or new products. You can also put signage all over the ship. And every crew member can wear a custom button, ribbon or hat welcoming you.”
Planners also can customize the ship’s itinerary and shore excursions. “As long as you start and end with where the ship needs to be, you can customize the itinerary,” says Kling. “Let’s say you like beaches. We can create an itinerary that includes more beaches than usual.”
Earlier this year, a company chartered an incentive cruise for 1,200 attendees aboard the 2,850-person capacity Celebrity Equinox. The five-night cruise started in Barcelona, Spain, and included stops in Italy at both Florence and Genoa, and Nice, France. The company has sent groups on cruises at least four times over the last 10 years. However, the cruise earlier this year was unique, says Ramon Santos, vice president of global events, Landry & Kling Inc. “This time the company combined four business units into one cruise. In the past, they would have one business unit on a cruise. A lot of companies are doing it. The beauty of it is that companies save lots of money, have a whole ship, get more meetings done at once and still incentivize people.”
During the charter, the Celebrity Equinox served as one giant meeting destination with multiple venues that the group used for pleasure and business. The group held a poolside welcome reception that included a live band and hors d’oeuvres. The pool was adjacent to an area that served a buffet. The next day, the group held its general session, and awards and recognition ceremony in the ship’s 1,200-person capacity Equinox Theater. After the session, attendees broke up into four business units for meetings in four locations including the Sky Conference Center, two lounges and a theater. Attendees also took their meals in the main dining room as a group and hosted dinners in the ship’s specialty restaurants, which feature French, Italian and Asian cuisine.
Santos raves about the service. “Although the ship had half of its occupancy, we still had the full complement of the crew cater to the group. We never waited for anything,” he says. “There were three or four different people working each table. Nobody had to stand in line or wait for anything. The ship was perfect for this group.”
Charters offer great flexibility for large meetings and incentives. For example, a direct marketing company recently chartered the Norwegian Sky for an incentive cruise to the Bahamas for 4,000 salespeople and executives from around the world. The cruise was divided into two sailings of three and four nights on the same ship. The Sky, which has a capacity of 2,450 people, went out for three nights with the first group, came back into port, and then returned to sea for four nights with the second group.
Both groups had the full run of the ship for meetings. “They conducted meetings every day of each cruise, using the main theater and every inch of meeting space” says Karen Devine, president of Mundelein, IL-based 3D Destinations. “They had a ton of breakouts. They used all six restaurants, the conference center and three or four lounges that provide entertainment at night. We set up a meeting space in the main foyer because it has an LCD screen and could receive a simulcast of the general session, along with the main theater, three restaurants and two lounges.”
Each group that sailed held an awards presentation on two different nights because the theater seats about half of the ship’s capacity. “There was also a reception for everyone on the pool deck, which was the only space that fit the ship’s entire capacity at once,” says Devine. “We used a lot more than the pool bars. We set up satellite bars and waiter stations all over the place. It went exceptionally well.”
Attendees also enjoyed the Sky’s 13 dining options including the specialty restaurants — Le Bistro French restaurant, Cagneys restaurant and Il Adagio Italian restaurant. “We took over three or four tables at each of the specialty restaurants every night for VIPs to host their guests. Otherwise, guests could use the restaurants at their leisure,” says Devine.
The company is no stranger to cruising and will do it again. “They do a lot of charters. They have different divisions that cruise, and they do it at least once a year because they love the flexibility and budget control that it provides,” says Devine.
Planners find that some corporate groups hesitate to take that first meeting or incentive cruise because they have never done it before and know little about how it works. However, after taking the first cruise, groups usually want to do it again. For example, a company recently sent 300 salespeople, executive officers and their significant others on a seven-day incentive cruise to Alaska aboard the Celebrity Solstice. The ship stopped in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan as well as Victoria, Canada.
It was the company’s first cruise. “I had pitched it to them off and on over the years,” says Tamra Sipes, CSEP, owner, Platinum Travel, Oak Harbor, WA. “Then, when they started thinking more seriously about it, we started going over different options. We went back and forth for three or four months, going through the numbers on the cost and savings, and showing how it could work for them. Altogether, it was a year and a half process.”
Aboard the Celebrity Solstice, the group held meetings, including breakouts, in the ship’s conference room. “The AV is top-notch and included at no extra cost,” says Sipes. “They have professional staff to help with meetings. We also used the theater and other areas of the ship. They will work with you so you can get your entire conference agenda comfortably scheduled.”
Onboard functions included a meet-and-greet cocktail party next to the Sky Observation Lounge, which features live music and dancing at night. They dined in a reserved section of the dining room. And for entertainment, they enjoyed a comedian, aerialists, acrobats and a cabaret show.
The incentive was full of Alaska-related activities. Experts on the region came aboard to give talks about the environment, animals and glaciers. One of the Celebrity Solstice’s officers explained how the ship navigates glaciers. On land, the group visited the Mendenhall Glacier located about 13 miles from Juneau. They rode the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which was built in the late 1800s during the Gold Rush and offers breathtaking views of glaciers, mountains and gorges. They also saw the “Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show” in Ketchikan.
Attendees also enjoyed a treasure hunt aboard ship. “It was a week-long hunt,” says Sipes. “People divided into at least four-person teams. The group finding the most items listed on a form won prizes. They had to search the ship and at some ports of call. It was a fun hunt, searching for silly things like a red sock, a potato and coasters from restaurants. We asked them to take pictures, which we presented in a slide show at the last meeting. We announced that their prizes were the things they found. They loved it.”
This won’t be the last time the group cruises. “They want to do it again, eventually. I sent them a survey, and the cruise got great reviews, better than most land meetings I’ve done,” says Sipes.
Last year an incentive group of 25 salespeople for a medical device company cruised the Adriatic Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea separating the Italian Peninsula from the Balkan Peninsula. “The client wanted something very unique for his President’s Club, and this is what we came up with,” says Andy McNeill, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based American Meetings Inc., a full-service corporate meeting planning company. “It was an incredible and unique itinerary. It was a seven-day cruise on a higher end ship. Because it was a smaller ship, they could pull into small ports and create a great itinerary.”
The cruise started in Rome and included Montenegro, Dubrovnik, two stops in Croatia, Slovenia, Albania and Venice. “We went to a small town in Albania where we saw a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring Roman ruins,” says McNeill. “That was very special because it was something that you would never do on your own. You had to take a 20-minute bus ride into Albania to a very rural area. We hunted for truffles in Slovenia and did wine tasting at an intimate vineyard, which we had to ourselves.”
Attendees found the experience to be memorable and special, says McNeill, who recommends such a cruise if it meets a group’s goals. “High-end ships provide a special experience. If you are looking for an affordable alternative, there are lots of options out there. You can always fit a client into the right price point,” McNeill says.
Most seaborne meetings and incentives aren’t full-ship charters but can be every bit as memorable. Last September, for example, Kling arranged a four-night cruise for about 400 sales staff and executives of a manufacturing company. The group conducted a new product introduction meeting aboard a Royal Caribbean ship cruising to the Bahamas, including Nassau and Coco Cay, the cruise line’s private island.
The group had ample space for meetings. “They had the general session and meetings in the main theater, and educated people on new products using a talk show format,” says Kling. The group also learned about new products via laptop presentations and from computer kiosks located in one of the ship’s function rooms.
Shipboard fun functions included a nighttime party on the spacious outdoor basketball court. The group brought aboard lighting, a sound system and outdoor furniture for the party before the cruise sailed from Miami, says Kling. In Coco Cay, the group enjoyed a buffet served in a thatched hut surrounded by picnic tables. Other activities included snorkeling, hang gliding, shopping, and playing beach games and volleyball.
Cruise ships are rolling out more meeting space options. According to Kling, “All cruise ships today want to have group capability, and many have purpose-built meeting rooms with doors that close. Some are multipurpose rooms that they use for other types of events as well. And some are large theaters where there are performances but can be used for group meetings or presentations. A theater might have two or three levels that seat up to 1,300 people.”
While ships don’t have huge ballrooms, they still provide breakout space. “Some newer ships have conference centers with air walls,” says Kling. “You can open the air walls and seat about 400 in that environment. They can be used for breakouts.” Large spaces for 400 exhibits are not available on ships. However, Kling says 20 or 30 or maybe even 40 exhibits of the tabletop type can be accommodated on a number of ships.
Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge, the godmother of the new 3,600-passenger Royal Princess, presided over the ceremony in Southampton, England in June. She released a bottle of champagne that smashed against the hull of the Royal Princess — the newest ship in the Princess Cruises fleet.
The Royal Princess is a new-generation ship, which features a dramatic multistory atrium serving as the social hub of the ship offering a host of dining and entertainment options.
Celebrity Cruises launched Celebrity Reflection late last year. Celebrity Reflection is the fifth Solstice class ship launched since 2008. The new ship features a dedicated multifunctional, reconfigurable conference center that accommodates 220 guests and serves as a ballroom and space for meetings, parties and functions.
Disney Cruise Line plans to offer new itineraries in 2014 including nine-night excursions to the Greek Isles. Next year, the cruise line will depart for the first time from ports in San Juan, PR, and Venice, Italy. The Disney Magic is undergoing a renovation this fall and will re-launch with new features for meetings and incentives, an enhanced Senses Spa & Salon and new dining options including Carioca’s and Cabanas. Last year, Disney Cruise Line launched the Disney Fantasy, the fourth ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet.
Carnival Cruise Lines recently re-launched Carnival Destiny as Carnival Sunshine after it received a makeover. The 3,006-passenger ship has 182 new cabins and additional restaurants. The ship also features an expanded water park, a new adults-only lounge and the largest pub of any Carnival ship.
Norwegian Cruise Line debuted its iConcierge smart phone app on the Norwegian Epic. The app allows guests to use their device to access guest information and service systems. Norwegian also is installing energy-efficient scrubbing technology on the 4,200-passenger, code-named ships Breakaway Plus, set to launch in 2015, and Breakaway Plus II, scheduled to debut in 2017.
Royal Caribbean’s 16-deck Quantum of the Seas, which accommodates 4,180 passengers, is scheduled to make its inaugural voyage in November 2014. The ship features a modern conference center and meeting rooms. Quantum’s sister ship, Anthem of the Seas, will debut in 2015.
The cruise industry is taking steps to ensure that all ships are safer than ever. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is educating planners about the cruise industry. “Many planners are interested but don’t really have the experience of what it’s like working on a cruise ship,” says Christine Duffy, president and CEO of CLIA. “We have engaged with Meeting Professionals International (MPI) to do education at their conferences to give planners a better understanding of what to expect. We also have focus groups aboard ships. I participated in one where some planners haven’t been on a cruise ship ever or in many years. They were amazed at the level of opportunity for meetings.”
Despite isolated incidents involving cruise ships, meetings at sea are safer than ever, and the cruise industry is doing even more to keep it that way. “We as an industry have implemented some things that are important for consumers, our travel agent community and meeting planners to be aware of,” says Duffy.
In May, CLIA announced a “Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights” outlining its members’ commitment to safety. This year, the industry also introduced a Preparedness Risk Assessment to review ship power system redundancies in the event of a power loss. Last year, the industry launched an Operational Safety Review.
Meeting aboard cruise ships provides value, flexible meeting space, a variety of activities, excellent service and memorable experiences — all of which keep groups coming back again and again. As Kling says, once they have tried meeting at sea “practically everybody repeats.” C&IT