Meetings at SeaSeptember 1, 2014

How Cruise Programs Are Winning Over Attendees and Making Life Easier For Planners By
September 1, 2014

Meetings at Sea

How Cruise Programs Are Winning Over Attendees and Making Life Easier For Planners
The newly refurbished Silversea Discoverer is designed for exploration.

The newly refurbished Silversea Discoverer is designed for exploration.

In the wake of the economic downturn, planners are still having to do more with less or uncover “new,” exciting destinations without traveling far from home. Many find that cruises fit the bill and then some. While cruises offer a clear savings over land-based itineraries due to their all-inclusiveness, which includes not only the rooms and F&B of an all-inclusive resort but entertainment, labor and activities as well, they also showcase the latest food and entertainment trends.

Earlier this year, Cruise Lines Interna­tional Association (CLIA) named growth of millennial guests one of the top trends in cruising, which is in line with one of the main shifts the meeting industry has encountered in recent years. To cater to this change, Norwegian Cruise Lines has added “Next enhancements” to its ships, balancing traditional entrées with trendy dishes such as mojito shrimp ceviche. On the Norwegian Getaway, dinner excitement goes up another notch with the world-class, magic-filled Illusionarium, while guests can enjoy Broadway productions “Burn the Floor” and “Legally Blond,” performances by Grammy award-winners and delectable treats from Cake Boss Buddy Valastro.

Cruise lines also are changing their experience in port to expand their entertainment options. Carnival Cruises is creating a first-of-its-kind experience that allows guests to enjoy concerts from such performers as Chicago, Lady Antebellum and Jewel in port for 90 minutes in the main lounge before the ship debarks. VIP tickets include an artist meet-and-greet and photo.

Silversea Cruises, already known for its immersive and inventive excursion options, is adding new off-the-beaten-path tours that allow guests to arrive on one ship, take a multi-day excursion, and depart on another. New options for 2015 will include a two-day bush-walking safari in Africa and one-night overnight in overwater bungalows in French Polynesia.

Opportunity Is Knocking

“The trend of corporate meeting groups cruising together is gaining more and more interest,” explains Christine Duffy, president and CEO of CLIA. “Hosting a meeting or corporate gathering on a cruise ship offers an experience for attendees that is intriguing, cost effective and highly efficient. Cruising delivers the greatest value proposition as well as the highest guest satisfaction rating.

“For groups of all kinds, cruising offers many advantages including a cost-effective way of producing a meeting that doesn’t look and feel like every other meeting, and exceptional value,” she says. “The all-inclusiveness of the typical cruise ship product is hard to match in a land-based venue. In addition to accommodations, meals and entertainment, cruise ships offer their conference centers at no extra charge. Most lines also provide standard audio-video equipment on a complimentary basis. Cruising provides the opportunity for great networking and teambuilding opportunities, and you have a captive audience.”

While some companies and their meeting planners are still waiting to dip their toes in the cruise meeting pool, others have been happily reaping the benefits for decades. “I love cruises because we want to do a meeting but also something fun,” says Gayle Warren, CMP, global events manager for Lehi, Utah-based Natures Sunshine Products. “I’ve probably done a cruise every year if not every other year. They’re our go-to for meetings. Everybody loves to cruise. If it’s an incentive, we think, ‘What will they want to do? Let’s send them on a cruise.’

“We had a very good experience this last cruise we did in April. We took 300 or 310 people on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, and the ship was awesome,” she says. The largest cruise ship in the world when it was built, the Allure of the Seas accommodates 5,400 guests at double occupancy and departs from Fort Lauderdale for predominantly seven-night Caribbean itineraries, though it will turn to Europe in 2015. It has been named the best cruise ship by Travel Weekly for its signature experiences, such as the Tony Award-winning musical “Chicago” and the first Starbucks at sea. “We brought independent distributors that sell our product and earned the trip through sales and recruiting. We chose the top 200 accounts, and the top 20 got to be in the nice cabins and suites.

“I do know that our return on investment was very high,” Warren explains. “I’ve been doing these events for 18 years, and I remember saying to my co-worker, ‘Did we get complaints at all?’ and she said, ‘No, I didn’t. Did you?’ It was a great experience for us as well as attendees! We did a group photo in the AquaTheater, and people were smiling big time. There were lots of happy faces. It was clear they’d had a good experience.”

Jo Kling, president of Miami, Florida-based cruise event and ship charter specialists Landry & Kling Inc., has seen a significant shift in the last year alone in corporate bookings as more planners experience the mindset shift Warren describes. “We’re seeing more receptivity to the cruise concept,” Kling says. “Corporate incentive buyers who have been hearing for years about the exceptional experiences created during a meeting or incentive at sea — they’re finally getting it! When you pull away from shore, something shifts. Being physically separated from the shore and your normal way of life, opens you to new possibilities.

“The continuing corporate pressure on controlling meeting and travel budgets and the preference of today’s incentive qualifiers to have more memorable travel experiences rather than having more electronics, jewelry and things lead quite naturally to high-end ships and river boats where the staff to passenger ratio allows for more individualized service, more physical space, fewer lines and more refinement,” she continues.

“There is more focus on the luxury lines and river cruises for corporate programs because their great delivery of value. Special price promotions that corporate buyers become aware of demonstrate the great disparity in group pricing, which does not benefit from retail price promotions, so the value of the luxury brands is greater, with more truly ‘included’ elements.”

More Bang for Your Buck

The all-inclusive nature of cruises is one of the main draws for planners. “It’s the biggest selling point, because they can budget for travel lodging, F&B and entertainment all in one,” says Vicki McGowen, president of Reno, Nevada-based McGowen Marketing, who is currently planning a cruise with Celebrity Cruises for a group of airline pilots. “It makes it much more attractive for potential attendees because they know exactly what it’s going to cost, but it’s a more unique experience because you can visit three different ports of call.

“This trip is exclusively to Bermuda because it’s an attractive destination and a fun place to spend three days at the same port because you can do and see so much and come back to ship and have a wonderful dinner and show without the cost of Bermuda,” she explains. On its Bermuda routes, Celebrity operates the Celebrity Summit, a Millennium class ship that holds up to 2,158 people. Incorporating Solstice class features, including additional lounges, world-class deejays, top Las Vegas entertainment, Broadway-style cabaret and more, Celebrity Summit caters to groups looking for high-value entertainment.

“This is really the way to see Bermuda. Hotels there are $350 a night minimum. One time an attendee had to go to the airport there, and the airport hotel was $800 a night. With a cruise, your food and your lodging and entertainment are right there yet you can go out and spend the day on the golf course or at the beach or doing some shopping.”

For a four-night incentive trip for a company in the home furnishings industry, Julia Vetsikas, CMP, senior account manager for Philadelphia-based United Incentives Inc., planned a cruise to Nassau and Key West with one full day at sea for 1,000 guests. While planning an incentive of that size would typically be a big-ticket item for the company, Vetsikas turned to a sea itinerary rather than land one to offer attendees more in terms of sights and entertainment while saving the company on event expenses.

“The trend in incentives for both the trip winners and the hosts is to minimize the winners’ out-of-pocket expenses,” she explains. “Cruises offer an economical way to host a group in a contained environment. The out-of-pocket expenses for the winner are low, since meals and entertainment are included. They get to visit multiple destinations without having to worry about transportation between the ports. Guests appreciated the quality of the ship and food, and that their out-of-pocket expense was relatively low.

“The trend in incentives for both the trip winners and the hosts is to minimize the winners’ out-of-pocket expenses. Cruises offer an economical way to host a group in a contained environment.” — Julia Vetsikas

“For the company, the costs are also controlled, and they have lots of opportunity to host their guests aboard the ship,” she says. “Since our group was so large, we had to be creative and Celebrity did a great job of accommodating us. My client appreciated the numerous hosting opportunities — nightly dinners, private cocktail receptions or excursions in port — because this all equaled to a lot of face time with their best clients.

“For our private events, Celebrity offered a variety of entertainment options to choose from,” Vetsikas explains. “We held a sales meeting for 800 people in the Celebrity Theater. We held two back-to-back welcome receptions in the Solarium. A highlight was a private after-dinner dessert reception in the Reflections Lounge. Our grand finale was a private cocktail reception for the entire group on the pool deck. We hosted all 1,000 guests, and Celebrity did a great job of transforming the space to make it feel special.”

Non-stop Networking

As much as incentives are about rewarding employees and corporate events are about effectively using the time you have employees together to produce productive results, one of the key aspects of face-to-face meetings is spontaneous networking interactions. Meeting planners are increasingly finding this networking element to be one of the biggest benefits of cruising.

“I think in the meetings industry in general, it has been a trend to focus on collaboration,” says Tracy Judge, CMP, director of business development, meetings and incentives at La Jolla, California-based Cadence Travel Management. “I’m seeing it across the board whether land or sea, and it’s a great opportunity for cruises because of their opportunities for collaboration.

“In incentives you’re trying to keep people together,” she says. “You’re bringing in the top salespeople from your organization, and you want them to spend time together, and collaborate and learn best practices so they go back into the field and do even better than they have. In Hawaii at a huge resort, people are all out and about. Or when you’re in Las Vegas, people just vanish,” says Judge.

“On a cruise, there’s meeting space and you can do activities together, but you’re not forced to be with people. They have the opportunity to be on their own or with their guests, but it’s much easier to bump into one another. It’s about the balance of collaboration and personalization.” That’s why, Judge says, the excursions offered on the cruise are important as well.

Judge’s team works with companies to determine the right balance between time at sea for focusing on business or networking and time in port for attendees to make individual plans and have fun. “Usually it depends on the length of the program. For a four-day, three-night cruise in the Caribbean, one day at sea is plenty,” she says. “If you’re on a seven-day cruise, you’ll have two, but you don’t want to trap them on the boat because you want them to have the itineraries they want, so they can come back from an excursion and do a dinner.”

Judge’s team recently planned a three-night Caribbean cruise for 100 employees of a start-up that typically gravitates toward all-inclusive resorts. “It’s hard to get the schedule right when you have a salesforce all around the country and you’re taking the whole team, but the Caribbean ones are really reasonable, because the ships are large, and there are a lot of options in terms of patterns, whether Thursday to Tuesday or Friday to Wednesday, so it’s easy to plan. It happens to us every once in a while that there’s already a big group in there, but I don’t see that happen actually that often.”

During land-based meetings and incentives, it’s not unusual to have several other groups at the same hotel, let alone sharing your event space. “Many times you get to a hotel and find out that someone next door in the banquet room is having a dinner dance at the same time and their music is louder than yours,” says McGowen. “On a cruise, we’re usually the largest group, we pretty much own the space, and we don’t get interference from other groups. We run into each other on the ship and see each other everywhere. In a city you get up and everyone disperses all over Boston or Chicago. Here they enjoy the close proximity, have lunch with this person or go to a show with that one.”

For her cruise with Royal Caribbean, Warren found that “the whole cruise was one big networking opportunity for attendees. It was one of the most positive comments I received from all the attendees. There was I think one other smaller group, but we didn’t even notice them. We loved the conference center in the ship. The opportunity for meetings during the cruise was there all the time, and we had a lot of pop-up meetings where we could just go in.” Even without booking out a ship, being the only large event going on in a space affords your group a level of privacy and interactivity that can’t be replicated on land.

Easy for Attendees and for Planners

In comparison with traditional land-based meetings and incentives, meetings at sea have many powerful differentiating factors, but one that is often overlooked is the savings in terms of time and energy these meetings create for planners. “Meetings at sea provide exceptional ease in planning. Depending on the line, group sales departments, dedicated group planners and shipboard meeting and incentive staff make planning and implementing a meeting or group program at sea an extremely easy, one-stop process,” explains Duffy.

While a great planner can put on a fun and fascinating meeting or incentive that delights attendees (almost) anywhere, one of the biggest selling points of a meeting at sea is that someone else has already collected the options for you and will often help plan them.

“It’s totally different when I have an event on the cruise ship,” says McGowen. “You have general sessions in the theater, your social space in the lounge and you have lovely dining rooms and all the dining is together. The entertainment is spectacular and built into the budget, and they have entertainment every night. I don’t have to go out and hire entertainment. Staterooms are assigned in advance. Attendees know where they’ll be on the ship, what tours they’re going to go on and who they’re going to dine with.”

Warren took advantage of the opportunity to book priority seating for all the shows, picking three that she knew her group would enjoy and booking VIP seats ahead. “They thought they were treated royally. I talked to a few people to see what they’d like to do, but if you know your group, you’ll know what they like. I knew they’d enjoy the three headliners, so I picked show times according to the dinner seatings.

“For daytime activities, we pretty much just figured the cruise line does it so well, if it’s not broken, you know,” says Warren. “Once you’re on the ship, you can bring minimal staff, because attendees are taken care of, all their meals are there, and what more could they ask for in terms of entertainment.”

McGowen agrees. “My last few cruises have been on Celebrity, and they’re right there with me the whole time,” she says. “They’re bringing me the easel for my welcome banner before I even ask. I don’t know when they take a break, but I think the customer service training on a ship has a higher standard, maybe because it’s a smaller world than the hotel industry.”

Now’s the Time

In 2012, CLIA created a meetings, events and incentives task force, which is made up of 15 cruise line members who promote meetings at sea and focus on developing a strong relationship with the meeting and incentive industry. Cruises are adding more, well-equipped purpose-built meeting space to both new and existing ships, and reaching out to meeting planners with special packages.

While many planners find their site selection process eating up an increasing portion of their time as hotels return to a seller’s market, cruise lines are in the midst of an ongoing campaign to increase their meeting and incentive business, which puts planners in a very favorable negotiating position. But though meetings at sea offer an especially cost-effective choice for planners now, as the word spreads, that may change down the line.

Though ships are adding meeting facilities, most can still only accommodate one large or a few small groups per sailing. So as the trend to take meetings at sea picks up steam, it might be time to hop onboard. C&IT

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