Five-star service, built-in entertainment, better control of costs and that ever-elusive element of focus that a captive audience provides — these are some of the key reasons meeting planners cite when discussing programs based on cruise ships.
In addition to an ever-changing backdrop of sea and sky and a daily roster of new ports to call upon, the sea can provide a solid alternative to land-based events.
“We love what a cruise-based meeting offers,” says Ashlyn Jones, corporate event planner for Lifeplus, a referral marketing company in the health and wellness sector. A multitude of entertainment, a wide variety of dining options and cost savings that help stretch a budget were among the reasons she cites for setting her incentive programs for top distributors at sea.
“There is no comparison for us,” Jones adds. “Believe me, we have run the numbers and we have participated in many site visits at land-based locations, and you just can’t beat the cost of hosting a meeting at sea.”
The company’s incentive trip earlier this year for 750 Lifeplus distributors was held aboard Norwegian Bliss, the newest ship from Norwegian Cruise Line, launched last year. The 4,004-passenger vessel is spending winter in the tropics and summers in Alaska, making it the largest ship to ever cruise the 49th state. Bliss is also set to get a twin, Norwegian Encore, which debuts this year in November.
“We are a loyal client of Norwegian Cruise Line and have been sailing with them for many years,” explains Jones. “Norwegian Bliss offered everything that we needed to make this event a huge success — freestyle dining, the entire Haven, a private-access enclave for guests staying in suites, and beautiful staterooms throughout. The itinerary was perfect for our group, as well as the entertainment offered onboard.”
For incentives, groups have a choice: charter an entire ship or share the sailing on a cruise with the general public. Lifeplus opted for the latter route.
“We have never had any issues with sharing our sailing with the public,” Jones says. “We take advantage of our days at sea to host meetings and receptions so while everyone else is lounging at the pool, the majority of the Lifeplus group are involved in meetings or breakouts in some of the public spaces that normally don’t open until the evening. Because this was a recognition event, we hosted receptions every evening, as well as two meetings in the Bliss Theater. We really did not encounter any cons with the planning of our receptions or meetings in comparison to a land option — you just have to be creative.”
She adds, “By working with the Charters, Meetings and Incentives team as well as the ship’s team, we were able to create some really fun environments for this event. We planned for months on the receptions and broke up our group into different evenings they could spend with the founders and senior management of Lifeplus. Spice H2O, an open-air bar, was a perfect location for these receptions. The venue allowed for beautiful views and stunning sunsets, and with the tech booth located right above, we were able to take a group photo each night of that reception.”
Jones calls the technology and signage available aboard Norwegian Bliss “top notch,” offering everything the group needed to host receptions and meetings. The ship’s tech team had all the cabling and attachments needed to run presentations and videos for Lifeplus.
The dining on this mega-ship was another plus for the group.
“Norwegian Bliss offered so many dining options — complimentary as well as specialty restaurants,” Jones says. “You can’t get that on land. You would have F&B minimums that need to be met. Sailing on a cruise ship means complimentary dining is already built into the price.”
Having done multiple events with Norwegian, Jones does not use a third-party meeting planner for arrangements. “We have developed a good relationship,” Jones says. “But if this is your first time planning and you don’t know where to begin as far as organizing the logistics, I would recommend working with a third-party planner.”
A third-party planner with more than 35 years of experience in group cruises and charters, Joyce Landry, CEO and president of Landry & Kling Global Cruise Events, identifies four ways cruises beat land-based events for most groups.
“No. 1, the meeting facilities are an advantage, because there are no room rentals,” Landry says. “You can meet in a customized meeting room, or turn a theater or large lounge into a meeting area. The A/V equipment and the staging all exists, and it’s all included.”
Dining is another area where cruises come out ahead.
“On a ship, a planner doesn’t need to agonize over what to serve each night because everything is available to you, with a full menu and multiple choices,” Landry explains. “You don’t need to worry about special diets or meal restrictions — the ship accommodates all of that, which makes it very, very easy.”
She continues: “A ship is different from a banquet room, as there’s more waitstaff on board. In a hotel ballroom recently, I counted one waiter for every 30 people — three tables of 10. On a ship, you’ll have one waiter for 12 to 15 people, so it’s roughly half as many people they’re serving, plus a wine steward, as well as a head waiter and maître d’. On a luxury ship, there’s even more.”
Third, she adds, cruise ships are packed with entertainment, diversions and amenities.
“Every ship has some version of a spa or health club,” Landry says. “There are nightly shows, live music in the lounges, and if your group is family oriented, there’s usually a full range of children’s programming — you won’t have to bring it aboard. If you would like to have theme parties, you don’t need to spend money to bring in décor — they have lounges that are themed in different ways, and the décor and lighting and music is already there. Fourth is security, which is no small thing today. You want your people to be really secure. Ports are very much like airports, and the security you have is similar to an airport. Luggage is screened, passports are checked, room cards are scanned to board — it’s far and away more extensive than what you would get doing a program at a hotel.”
Landry cites other, more subtle ways that a cruise-based event works well. Take a multinational program, for example, drawing attendees from around the world.
“The language capacity on these ships is amazing,” Landry says. “The variety of different nationalities on a single ship can be as many as 40, with 40 different languages spoken in addition to English. If you have a particular group of people with a language need, and you alert the cruise line in advance, they will assign those speakers to your group.”
When it comes to sharing a ship with other passengers versus chartering, Landry says different groups have different needs. Generally a charter will be more expensive, especially if you are not filling every cabin.
“We delve deeply into the client’s requirements and try to find the best ship for them,” Landry says. “Some people come to us asking for charter, and sometimes what they want to do, whether it’s a particular destination or time of year, or maybe they want large staging facilities, and we can’t make a ship just appear out of the blue. So, something that started out as a charter we end up making a group booking out of, sometimes it’s vice versa.”
There are also issues of timing: One ship might be the right size and level of service, but it might not be positioned where you need it — a ship like Norwegian Bliss that sticks to North American ports can’t easily be repositioned to the Mediterranean for a charter.
But the advantages of chartering the entire vessel can be advantageous.
“It becomes your ship, so you have the ability to customize the experience; a lot of flexibility,” Landry says. “You pay a price for that, because you have to pay for every cabin. But there are times where it makes total sense — for instance, maybe you want every attendee to have balcony rooms, some ships are predominantly balconies. You could also take one ship and turn it into two groups. We chartered one ship for eight days and did two back-to-back, four-day cruises, one down to San Juan and then back to Miami, carrying 600 people each way.”
A back-to-back charter was ideal for Kathy Fitzgibbons, senior travel buyer at Maritz Travel. Her client, a Fortune 500 company, had a group of 300 and wanted a full charter.
“We love to charter whenever possible,” Fitzgibbons says. “It gives us the ability to customize the onboard programming, entertainment and décor. The guests can wear logo hats or apparel where and when they want; we can fly the client’s flag, hang banners — the list goes on and on. It gives the guests such an amazing opportunity to network with each other, which is what it’s all about.”
Solution: Windstar Cruises’ smallest vessel, the 74-cabin, four-masted sailing ship Wind Star, chartered in February for two seven-day Panama Canal itineraries.
“The Windstar ships are a great fit for an incentive program,” Fitzgibbons says. “All the cabins are consistent in accommodations, which means everyone is equal, which is a requirement for my client’s incentive program. The price point and ability to work with Windstar to customize the program is key. This client charters with Windstar on a pretty regular basis, and when we do an itinerary that may need some tweaking, based on the client’s vision, Windstar is so accommodating.”
Fitzgibbons adds, “We love the size of the Windstar ships. There are no crowds or lines ever. On this particular itinerary it was primarily about accommodating their general session, awards banquet and multiple cocktail parties. The charter gave the host the ability to easily walk around at dinner to visit with everyone and to use the microphone to address everyone during dinner. The deck barbecue that they do on every cruise, weather permitting, is always such a fun night with exceptional cuisine. Since Windstar is so small the client utilized all of the spaces. The main lounge and dining room work perfectly to accommodate everyone together.”
Windstar Cruises encompasses a fleet of six ships, including two additional sailing ships accommodating 148 and 300 passengers. In recent years, Windstar purchased the three smallest yachts in the Seabourn Cruise Line fleet, each carrying 212 guests and featuring oversized cabins that start at 277 sf, about double the size of typical cruise cabins.
But change is ahead for these 212-passenger ships, as Windstar is investing $250 million in the next year to not only renovate the yachts, but to extend each of them by 84 feet, adding 50 new cabins and two new dining options to each of the three ships. The first to undergo the upgrade and expansion this fall is Star Breeze, which will re-emerge in February next year, carrying 312 passengers — still svelte enough to fit into the smaller ports in which Windstar specializes.
Fitzgibbons says the all-inclusive nature of cruises provides better budget control and a great value. “Activities are built-in, without extra planning or costs, there’s no charge for meeting rooms or the A/V onboard the ship, and no extra costs to guests for health club or entertainment, or dine-arounds.” But she adds that it’s important to be familiar with the ships you are considering.
“Know which cruise lines want incentive business and are flexible to work with,” Fitzgibbons says. “Understand the ship’s various function spaces, the capacities; the A/V available. Look at the meeting requirements and see how that works with an itinerary. If the group needs to have a lot of meetings and you have a very port-intensive itinerary, then perhaps look at another itinerary or holding the meeting on land. Your guests are not going to be happy if they are sitting in a meeting while the ship is in port in some beautiful historic city or some exotic destination.”
Landry concurs that not all clients are ideal for a cruise-based meeting or incentive, noting that if a group requires primarily single rooms, it will cost more, because cruise pricing is based on double occupancy. You may even have to pay a premium on double occupancy because cruise lines count on revenue from add-ons like spa packages, beverages and the casino.
“The types of meetings where the room requirement builds up also don’t work,” Landry adds. “If it might be 200 rooms for a couple days, and then goes to 300 rooms — that won’t work, you can’t have people getting on and off. The cabotage laws restrict people from doing this. And there are restrictions and limitations in certain ports, so requirements for a speaker or an executive to come in for just a night and then leave are difficult.”
There’s no question the industry overall is booming, and cruise lines are increasingly focused on the meetings and incentive markets, polishing their wares for an exacting audience.
In February 2020, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will debut its second Explorer-class ship, Seven Seas Splendor; an additional sister will join the fleet in 2023. But Regent is only one piece of the trifecta of cruise lines operating under the banner of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which include Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line — three distinctly different operations catering to all price sectors of the cruise market, in all regions of the globe, with 29 ships.
At Oceania, the line’s Regatta-class ships are going through a renovation designed to create a new sophisticated and modern look. Oceania Cruises also announced plans for two new, 1,200-passenger ships, dubbed Allura-class, scheduled to arrive in 2022 and 2025.
Visiting more than 400 destinations and all seven continents annually, Seabourn competes with Regent for the high-end market, starting with its three all-suite, 450-passenger Odyssey-class ships. Unique among many cruise ships, all guests can be accommodated for a meeting or presentation in The Grand Salon Theater, or in The Restaurant for gala dinners.
Two equally deluxe 600-passenger ships were added to the Seabourn fleet in 2016 and 2018, Encore and Ovation. Meanwhile, Seabourn’s next venture is a pair of ultra-luxury, purpose-built expedition ships that will launch in 2021 and 2022. The 264-passenger ships, a perfect size for charters, will take guests to even more remote places than currently found on the exotic Seabourn schedule.
Silversea Cruises also has a collection of intimate luxury ships, ranging from the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos to the line’s newest ship, the 596-passenger Silver Muse. Several ships are currently on order, including Silver Moon, a sister to the popular Silver Muse, and Silver Origin, a purpose-built ship destined for the Galapagos Islands — both arriving in 2020.
Royal Caribbean International acquired a majority stake in Silversea last summer, providing the parent company with a pure luxury play within its family of cruise lines. The Royal Caribbean brand itself represents a fleet of 26 ships, including several of the largest at sea, carrying up to 5,600 passengers. In contrast to vessels, the ships themselves are often the destination.
Royal Caribbean’s main theaters seat up to 1,411 guests, while other venues include ice skating rinks, “neighborhoods” like Central Park replete with thousands of plants and trees, and conference centers that accommodate up to 400 seated. Royal Caribbean is the only fleet with dedicated conference centers on every ship. The line also works to accommodate planners desiring shorter programs. Three-, four-, and five-night cruises out of Miami and Port Canaveral visit Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s newly revitalized private island in the Bahamas, which came online for cruisers this year.
Royal Caribbean International’s second-largest brand is Celebrity Cruises, which revealed Celebrity Edge last fall, the line’s first new ship in six years. Delivered in May this year, the 100-passenger, purpose-built Celebrity Flora is designed specifically for cruising the Galapagos Islands — and for rewarding top performers. Flora also places an emphasis on corporate responsibility — the ship is built with dynamic positioning to ‘anchor’ without anchors and solar panels to supplement electricity; past Galapagos Celebrity guests have planted over 38,000 trees.
For Suzanne Markarian, director of planning and purchasing at Landmark Incentive Marketing, the 2,170-passenger Celebrity Infinity proved ideal for a 110-person incentive trip earlier this year planned for luggage manufacturer Holiday Group.
“Celebrity Infinity was an upgrade for this group from some of the previous years and it was priced competitively for their budget,” Markarian says. “The dates and schedule matched the client’s promotional schedule for their incentive program. It offered excellent accommodations and entertainment, and the client loved the seven-night itinerary and the Key West and Cozumel ports with two full days at sea.”
“Celebrity’s proposal phase with Donna Chung, corporate sales associate and Patrick Bralick, corporate sales manager, has always been seamless,” Markarian adds. “We have worked together for several years and they know us and our customer expectations. As a team, they are always quick to respond to any RFPs and contracting questions. The skills and responsiveness and customer service in the operations and pre-cruise phase is just as professional, and makes working with Celebrity a breeze.”
Holiday Group had cabins in a close group block, along with a section of the dining room. A group block at the same dinner seating helped ensure that there were opportunities for group integrity and to allow company executives to visit with their customers.
Markarian continues: “We used the Constellation Lounge for gatherings and cocktails before dinner, which the participants loved since they could regroup with friends and colleagues after a day at port or sea. We also arranged for two private cocktail parties with entertainment.”
Earlier this year, Celebrity Infinity received a full upgrade that updated the ship’s interiors throughout, including: décor lightened in the main dining room, a complete overhaul of the spa and the transformation of Michael’s Club into the Retreat Lounge, an exclusive hideout for guests staying in suites.
“Do your research and work with a cruise line that fits your needs and philosophy,” says Jones, from Lifeplus. “It’s really important to me to research each ship that we plan on sailing with. I will sail on it several times before the actual event so I can look in detail at each space, the flow of how our meetings function, and meet with the onboard staff to discuss F&B, reception setup and meeting spaces. It’s the friendships that you build on the shore side, as well as the ship side, that will really make your event shine.”C&IT