Setting SailSeptember 1, 2015

Discover the Whys and Wherefores of Meeting at Sea By
September 1, 2015

Setting Sail

Discover the Whys and Wherefores of Meeting at Sea

Celebrity Silhouette.

Organizing a corporate retreat or offsite meeting? From the world’s oceans to quaint fishing harbors to inland lakes to rolling rivers, there are plenty of uncharted waters and ports of call for groups to explore onboard cruise ships, sailing vessels, river longships and more. These vessels offer unique accommodations and amenities for your group to work some and play some. Adept at accommodating groups as small as 10 and as large as a few thousand, these full-service craft are a great way to make the next business meeting or event you plan, a truly memorable one.

Unique Venues

When you think about cruise lines, what comes to mind? Luxury travel, certainly. Exotic ports of call, definitely. And the ships themselves: Huge, luxurious liners, with fine restaurants, pools, salons, fantastic nighttime entertainment, staff that attend to your every whim, allowing attendees to enjoy every event facet of their experience.

Recently Gregorio Palomino, CDMP, CEP, CMP, creative executive officer at CRE8AD8, partnered with a corporate planner at a Texas-based technology distributor to plan a meeting/incentive-based cruise for 2,400 attendees. In planning this meeting aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, Palomino needed to make it a two-part affair, with 1,200 attendees onboard one week, and the remaining 1,200 attendees attending the following week — each engaging in a five-day cruise to Nassau, two private island stops and Cozumel. “This company wanted something different than the typical hotel or tourist destination,” Palomino says. “They wanted to expand their options beyond the land.”

“Going out to sail is a bonding experience similar to going on a road trip. When you’re sharing a limited space with the same person for several hours, you’re bound to learn a thing or two about them.” — Jessica Greenwalt

One of the great advantages of hosting a meeting at sea is that ships mostly provide all-inclusive options for corporate events — everything you could want has been attended to, and nothing has been overlooked. These vessels also are equipped with some of the most advanced audio-visual equipment, which can be utilized for events and meetings onboard.

Palomino utilized the cruise ship’s onboard meeting space for his large group.

“The cruise line is great at helping with the space needed, but if your group is larger than 100, you’ll always want your own planner to be with you as the cruise line may not provide a dedicated event manager throughout the cruise,” Palomino says. Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas offered six usable meeting/breakout spaces, plus a restaurant, theater and general areas that could be privatized.

“Since the entire company was coming on board the first or second week, we had two chances to modify and execute the events,” Palomino says. “Some of the space where it was more of a general session, we used the theater in waves and then broke out to the other meeting spaces for more specific topics on each person’s role in the company.”

According to Palomino, some of the unique attributes of hosting a meeting or event aboard a vessel is that all entertainment and dining is included, reducing the cost and need for additional entertainment options.

“The ship met needs on various levels,” Palomino says. “We needed private dining, group dining, activities, meeting space, plenty of balcony cabins and suites, plus the ability to get us the same program in back-to-back weeks. The ship offered us many concessions such as 24/7 dining options and beverage packages. The ship also had enough activities for at least 1,500 at any given time, so no one was going to miss a thing.”

There are hundreds of reasons to have a meeting at sea, but one of the biggest is that you can focus on the meeting itself and not the transport, entertainment, meal options and other factors that detract from the purpose.

“The cost is comparable to doing something on land as it can cost anywhere from $1,000–$3,500 per person,” Palomino says. “This ship was more accommodating for this size group. Each cruise line offers something different. There’s no wrong choice, but every ship may or may not be the best fit for a group.”

Ann Sedgwick, Carnival Cruise Line’s divisional vice president of charter, corporate and incentive sales, agrees. Because so much is already included in a cruise, ease of planning and the tremendous value are among the many benefits of hosting corporate meetings and incentives onboard.

“Planners should remember that the largest costs of a meeting such as accommodations, meals, meeting rooms and AV equipment are already included in the price of a cruise,” Sedgwick says. “In addition to having rooms, meals and activities readily available, being at sea makes the experience even more memorable for the participants.”

According to Andrea Giraldo, manager of special events at CruiseOne & Cruises Inc., inclusiveness of cruise line pricing, where meals and most entertainment is included in the booking price creates a streamlined cost for attendees. “Additionally, built-in excursions and entertainment options create great opportunities for teambuilding and networking events, to add a more engaging aspect to any event onboard,” Giraldo says.

Carnival works very closely with meeting planners in determining the specific event needs, and then they customize the event to make it productive and memorable.

“For example, we recently worked with a company that always had held an awards dinner. While this is a very common request, we suggested an awards reception ceremony followed by the gala dinner,” Sedgwick says. “They loved it, and so did their attendees. It allowed for them to really upgrade the overall experience and make the recipients feel even more special than they already did.”

Going Big, Going Small

While cruise ships are exceptional venues, some planners need smaller vessels to meet the needs of attendees. Jessica Greenwalt, CIO and co-founder of CrowdMed, a platform that solicits the wisdom of the public at large to solve difficult medical cases online, recently hosted a meeting aboard a 35-foot sailboat.

“We invited other health tech founders and tech experts with experience in building partnerships,” Greenwalt says. “Since we’re constantly working on partnerships, we wanted to learn from these folks. Rather than organizing one-on-one meetings with everyone, we thought it would be nice to bring everyone together and sail around the bay.”

Greenwalt says that by bringing everyone together at once — rather than arranging individual lunches, dinners and drinks — they were able to have discussions with a group and solve problems as a group.

“On a beautiful day, sailing is a relaxing experience that loosens everyone up and makes people feel comfortable to share deeper thoughts on a topic than they would have in another environment,” Greenwalt says. “Boat meetings tend to be longer than other meetings, which can be both a benefit and a drawback. Going out to sail is a bonding experience similar to going on a road trip. When you’re sharing a limited space with the same person for several hours, you’re bound to learn a thing or two about them. Everyone who went on our sailing trip loved it. We made valuable connections and got a lot of great advice. Our guests appreciated our departure from an ordinary business meeting.”

David Hartman, meeting and incentive travel specialist at Key Largo, Florida-based Cruise Planners, frequently uses cruise ships for many of his corporate clients for conventions, incentives, regional events and client/member appreciation. Hartman recently worked with planners at CKO to orchestrate an event for the company’s kickboxing membership cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas.

“The CKO cruise is a membership trip where local gym members, gym owners and parent company executives have a chance to spend time together and share their passion for kickboxing,” Hartman says. CKO Kickboxing is a franchise brand with more than 50 locations in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas.

For Hartman, when working with corporate planners who are interested in cruise ships, the itinerary and type of ship are critical.

“The best and newest ships travel on seven-night cruises or longer, which is often too long for most corporate meeting clients,” Hartman says. “Shorter itineraries are available, but then sufficient meeting space is a concern and needs to be verified prior to booking.”

The size of the group also is a key factor. Cruise ships are not for all groups depending on the size and timing of meeting space required.

“Small to medium-size meeting groups are ideal for most cruise ships,” Hartman says. “Large groups require a balancing act between ships with available space and blocking the space for enough hours to satisfy the client. Most larger meeting spaces on cruise ships are also public venues, and meeting groups need to be flexible with their meeting time request and total hours.”

Karen Shackman, president of Shackman Associates in New York, says that in a company’s quest to find new and unusual venues to hold meetings and events, an ocean cruise or even a river journey aboard a vessel is definitely an out-of-the-box option.

“For meetings, groups are given their own specific areas, and generally the meeting and food and beverage component complement each other in terms of location,” Shackman says. “For events, a cruise provides a unique opportunity for guests to enjoy both the outside and the inside of the ship.  Different levels of the vessel can play to different themes for the event, and there is an opportunity for those who wish to enjoy what the destination has to offer.”

Shackman recently orchestrated a 10-boat flotilla on the Hudson River for a destination meeting group that ended up at the Statue of Liberty, where attendees were treated to an amazing fireworks show. They also organized a cruise from lower Manhattan to Liberty State Park, which included character performers reenacting life as immigrants coming to Ellis Island.

“There are several vessels in New York which we have used as creative alternatives for standard meetings, where there is also a higher networking requirement — so that the focus is not only on the meeting at hand, but an opportunity for guests to enjoy some highlights of the destination,” Shackman says. “In New York City, we generally propose a dinner or lunch cruise to every client. We believe it is important for clients to appreciate our city from all perspectives — and a perspective from the water is an important one for an appreciation of the scope and majesty of the city.”

For her clients, Shackman incorporates networking components into meetings at sea — so that the focus is not only on the meeting at hand, but also is an opportunity for guests to enjoy some highlights of the destination while getting to know other attendees.

Koncept Events partner, Hillary Smith, CMP, CSEP, says that hosting a meeting at sea forces a group to stay focused and stay together. Having no distractions and no escape can sometimes increase the interaction and networking value.

“The space challenges can also be used as an opportunity to shake up a stale, predictable agenda and create more engaging and intimate meeting environments,” Smith says.

Anthony Ragucci, director of events for Entertainment Cruises, Boston division, hosts many national conferences on ships every year. These events are typically full-ship charters, and they enable the client to customize their cruise times, menu, bar and décor.

“With most full-ship charters, clients choose signature food station menus. When clients host private full-ship charter events, they also receive two forms of live entertainment, several bars for guests to enjoy their favorite cocktail and of course, the best views of Boston,” Ragucci says. “We host numerous meetings every year and corporate meeting business is a primary focus of ours.”

Fly-Cruise Combo

Cruises are seen as first-class, all-inclusive journeys for corporate and incentive groups, and today’s fly-cruise itineraries make planning far simpler than in years past. In addition, many of today’s cruise companies are making significant strides in ensuring the travel aspect of cruising is streamlined and stress-free. They recognize the value of having your own sanctuary at sea with inclusive luxury amenities. One type of vessel attracting interest within the corporate meeting and incentive channel is the MSC Yacht Club — offering a unique “ship within a ship” concept. According to Beth Lindsley Elwood, manager of North America corporate and incentive sales at MSC Cruises, the MSC Yacht Club is an exclusive, private enclave of 69 butler-serviced suites located forward on the ship, on the upper most decks, which offer the best views.

“With key-card access only, guests enjoy VIP accommodations and service with 24-hour concierge service, a private restaurant, pool, pool bar/buffet area and lounge,” Lindsley Elwood says. “Beverages are included in all MSC Yacht Club areas. This is perfect for including a group of MSC Yacht Club suites or even chartering all 69 suites for complete exclusivity and privacy.”

Offering the wow factor is paramount for MSC Yacht Club and other cruise companies.

In fact, meeting the unique needs of corporate clients is the focus of Bruce Setloff, vice president of global charter sales and special projects at Crystal Cruises.

Recently Setloff worked with a corporation to help plan a combined meeting and reward incentive trip for the top sales leaders from a European automaker. This well-known luxury automaker chartered the entire Crystal cruise ship just to have the exclusive rights to the programming and onboard operation of the vessel.

“I noticed a feeling onboard that the guests were really excited to know every facet of this company’s new model automobile and noted everyone could not wait to show up for all of the meetings held onboard,” Setloff says. “The guests walked around the ship with a great sense of being proud to work for a company that always went the extra mile for them and did not do the same old thing every year. This was really a great marriage of a company not only having the perfect meeting but also a perfect venue to host it.”

Unique Challenges

To best work with the cruise line in securing meeting and event space, an event planner should consider the attendees of their group, the scope of the meeting they are planning and identify the most suitable options for networking or excursion events.

Of course, hosting a meeting or event onboard a vessel offers its own set of challenges — the primary concern being the lack of sufficient Internet access. However, many cruise lines are addressing this issue. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines recently announced its new social media Internet packages are available on more than half of the line’s ships with fleetwide implementation scheduled by the first quarter of 2016.

From emails and texts to tweets and Instagram posts, travelers want to digitally share and stay connected while onboard. While the perception may be that a cruise does not offer a chance to be accessible, the Cruise Lines International Association reveals that cruise lines have introduced a host of Wi-Fi capabilities and offerings on cruise ships making it easier than ever before to stay connected at sea.

The size of the group and purpose of the trip are key elements in selecting the right kind of vessel for a meeting. If your group is looking for a party, there are many options. However, there also are yachts available for rent to smaller groups looking for a unique corporate retreat.

As Shackman explains, the idea of hosting a meeting or event on water also can vary because some yachts and boats can accommodate incentive travel or brainstorming groups, and others are ideal for breakout sessions for 10 or fewer executives. Also, if groups want to be on the water in colder weather, some vessels provide huge windows so anyone can get great views from the warm interior.

When organizing a vessel-based meeting or event, departure port and the duration are both important but for many groups, they also need to be creative in programming and space usage. “For example, there isn’t a hotel pool or grand lawn that can accommodate the welcome reception, so meal functions must be approached with a fresh eye and open mind,” Smith says.

And once onboard a cruise ship, event planners need to have everything for their event with them, as options for last-minute additions can be a challenge.

“This can be easily overcome with detailed planning leading up to the event and working with a travel professional and the cruise line staff to determine what a group will need onboard,” Giraldo says. “There are many aspects of cruise line events to determine what cruise line and what ship are right for a group to host their meeting onboard, from cruise itinerary and length of sailing, to entertainment onboard.”

On larger vessels or longer cruises, you also can create your own activities on the ship, with the help of the cruise director who has done numerous events and come up with creative ways to utilize the ship.

“Whether it’s a group of 50 or 5,000, we’ve done them all,” Palomino says. “Most ships have the ability to do special things for groups depending on the event management company you select.  It’s all about relationships.”

New & Noteworthy

Planners seeking a more immersive and memorable experience in the Caribbean for their groups will be pleased to hear that Celebrity Cruises’ new “Evenings Around the World” shore excursions are designed to help groups experience the Caribbean — instead of just seeing it. At least three dozen Caribbean cruises will have access to more than a dozen new nighttime activities and events such as bonfires, live music, boat parties, wine-tastings and more.

Carnival Corporation recently launch­ed a new brand called fathom, defining a new travel category dubbed “social impact travel,” which will offer consumers authentic, meaningful, impactful travel experiences to work alongside locals as they tackle community needs. What sets fathom apart is the long-term, systematic partnership approach with its partner countries paired with the unique business model that allows for sustained impact and lasting development. Beginning in April 2016, fathom will embark on seven-day voyages from PortMiami aboard the MVAdonia, a 710-passenger vessel redeployed from Carnival Corporation’s P&O Cruises (UK) for the start-up of the new operation.

Norwegian Cruise Line recently announced exciting and exotic new itineraries for the brand’s fall/winter 2016/2017 deployment, including cruises to Asia onboard Norwegian Star, with itineraries departing from Istanbul, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney and Auckland — marking the line’s return to the Asia and Australia regions for the first time since 2001–2002 and first-ever visits to the Gulf and India.

Renowned for elite culinary enrichment programs, Oceania Cruises will continue to set the bar high in 2016, as it announces the upcoming launch of Culinary Creations Land Tours. The expanded collection of tours will be available beginning spring 2016 in parts of Europe and South America. The events will take place on select cruises aboard the Nautica, Marina, Riviera and Sirena.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises tailors every aspect of a corporate meeting or event, recognizing customization and flexibility is paramount. Customized charters about Regent Cruises including complete customization of your program and itinerary, unlimited branding opportunities, facilities to host teambuilding activities and events, and tailored shore excursions. C&IT

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