More and more meeting planners are embracing the idea of conducting incentives and meetings at sea as they become aware of the substantial rewards: incomparable value, an ever-expanding variety and range of amenities and activities, and most of all the often exotic and exceedingly memorable experience.
These attractive advantages are just what the doctor ordered for Eldon Gale’s groups. As the director of events for Scentsy, a Meridian, Idaho-based candle warmer and fragrance company, Gale is eagerly gearing up for his next cruise in June — the third in the last 18 months.
Gale is arranging a seven-night Royal Caribbean cruise for 900 salespeople that kicks off from San Juan, Puerto Rico and includes such ports of call as St. John and St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; Antigua; St. Lucia and Barbados.
Gale left no stone unturned in planning the cruise. “I’m going down to San Juan and sail the trip beforehand to experience everything and know what to anticipate,” he says. “I’ve never seen the ports of call. I need to know what to expect when we get there. How long is the walk from the pier into the city? Are there things in the city they shouldn’t miss or things they should avoid? I need to know so I can tell attendees and executives so they can have a great experience.”
“I’ve never seen the ports of call. I need to know what to expect when we get there. How long is the walk from the pier into the city? Are there things in the city they shouldn’t miss or things they should avoid? I need to know so I can tell attendees and executives so they can have a great experience.” — Eldon Gale
Gale paid the same attention to detail in planning two previous cruises, and he visited ports of call in advance. Last year, he took a group of 1,000 salespeople on a seven-night Royal Caribbean cruise to ports of call in Mexico, Jamaica and Haiti. Gale’s group needs certain types of meeting spaces, and the ship’s theater was ideal for one event. “We met there for a few hours for recognition awards,” says Gale. “The space worked fine. Royal Caribbean makes it a point to have meeting space.”
Previously, Gale took 300 salespeople on a seven-night cruise to Alaska aboard a Celebrity Solstice-class vessel. The ship sailed from Seattle and stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, British Columbia. “At the ports, you can do almost anything within a 20- to 30-minute drive — off-road jeep tours, dog sledding, sea planes or walking on glaciers,” says Gale. “We gave them cruise credits to use any way they wanted.”
Why Alaska? “It was on a lot of our people’s bucket list,” says Gale. “Cruising is a good way to see Alaska because it’s so big. The group loved it. But Alaska’s weather is tricky. You have to be educated about what you are getting into and prepared for any weather scenario.”
Gale is among droves of meeting pros who are regularly rotating cruises into their incentive travel program mix. Why? The incredible value is a major factor.
The value of cruising is boosted by all-inclusive programs that often cost comparatively less than land-based programs. “The value proposition is a major thing,” says Jo Kling, president of Miami, Florida-based cruise event and ship charter specialists Landry & Kling Inc. “There are up to six brands in the cruise industry that are all-inclusive. You don’t have all of the miscellaneous after-bills that show up with a hotel. It’s much more manageable.”
Most all-inclusive packages include meals, meeting space and venues, cabins, activities, AV equipment, shows and entertainment as well as taxes and tips.
According to Kling, cruising’s value and the improved economy have sparked an upturn in corporate cruise budgets. “The budgets are back,” says Kling. “There is a regeneration of the classic incentive business the cruise world has always enjoyed so much. That is exciting for planners who are doing what they did on cruises during the days before the economic downturn.”
Cruise incentives and meetings typically have a lower per-guest cost than land-based events. According to cruise industry experts, cruises save 20 percent to 30 percent on a package of meals, entertainment, meeting space, presentation equipment and sleeping rooms. In addition, cruise contracts typically contain less restrictive cancellation fees and attrition clauses.
Daniel J. Young, CMP, the director of event planning and recognition for Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial, raves about the lower per-person cost of cruising. “The average per person cost for our Mediterranean cruise for 270 people was $6,500 per person for everything including airfare,” he says. “The next year we had a land program in Ireland that was close to $9,500 per person. Our cruise to Alaska was $5,700 per person, and Mexico was $4,700.”
Young cites several reasons why cruising is such a boon for planners and attendees. “They are easier and less time-consuming for planners to run. You don’t deal with a lot of food and beverage or meeting issues. We don’t book separate excursions at each destination with DMCs. That would be overwhelming. We wouldn’t cruise every year because people want to see other locations. But we add the cruise option about every three years.”
Young started rotating cruises as an incentive reward in 2008. “It was the Mediterranean cruise on the 125-cabin Silversea’s Silver Cloud,” he says. “It was seven nights, a full-charter buyout. It was the first incentive we ever did that scored a perfect five out of five in attendee satisfaction. They found absolutely nothing to complain about. From that point on, we decided to do more cruising.”
In 2011, Young set up a seven-night, full-charter cruise to Alaska aboard the Regent Seven Seas. The cruise scored a satisfaction score of 4.86 out of 5.0 among the 250 attendees.
Earlier this year, Young arranged a seven-night Scandinavian cruise aboard Silversea’s Silver Cloud, which included ports of call in Sweden, Denmark and Germany. “We used the ship as a floating hotel, staying two nights in a port” says Young. “A lot of planners go to a different port every day. They think it’s the best way to get the best bang for the buck. But I don’t think it’s the best use of time because you can’t experience the location.”
Young also is considering another full-charter cruise to the Greek Islands in 2018.
Another benefit of booking a full-ship charter is the freedom to tailor the events to match the company’s meeting objective. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line allows a company to incorporate its brand and logo into every aspect of the ship, from banners on the side of the vessel to ice sculptures, napkins and menus. Planners can customize itineraries as well as activities, parties and entertainment.
And at Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, planners can use the Carnival Corporate University to tailor teambuilding, communication and leadership programs.
Groups also are taking longer cruises, says Shari Wallack, president of Buy the Sea, a Plantation, Florida-based, all-inclusive resort brokerage company. “There is a willingness to book seven-night cruises in order to experience more exotic destinations. Years ago, shorter cruises were more in fashion,” she says. “Sparing time away from the office is always more of an issue than the budget. A land program in Europe tends to be more expensive than its cruise counterpart.”
River cruising has come a long way, too. “The hottest charter at the moment is the river cruise,” says Wallack. “Years ago, no one understood the river cruise industry. Now there is a big market for it. The only downside is that you can’t put more than about 180–200 people on a river cruise ship. The ships are small — but luxurious. They are like boutique hotels that happen to move.”
“A big trend is more restaurants,” says Wallack. “They are coming up with alternatives to the regular dining experiences.” Carnival’s recently christened Regal Princess features several dining options including Chef’s Table Lumiere, a private dining experience that surrounds guests in a curtain of light. Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, which recently received an $80 million makeover, features three new restaurants — Izumi Japanese Cuisine, Giovanni’s Table, an Italian trattoria and Chops Grille, a steak house.
The Carnival Legend, which recently set sail following a multimillion-dollar makeover, offers Bonsai Sushi and Redfrog Pub. The ship also features Hasbro, The Game Show and Waterworks Aqua Park.
Health and wellness programs are trending for land meetings, and cruise meetings are no exception. Celebrity partnered with Canyon Ranch, a leading spa and wellness brand, and now offers Canyon Ranch Spaclub at Sea facilities on 10 Celebrity ships. The Canyon Ranch facilities feature spa, wellness, beauty salon and fitness facilities. Treatments and services are tailored to guest preferences. Group classes and private consultations also are available.
Improved Internet access and other technology are also trending. Carnival recently introduced what the company hails as the cruise industry’s first-of-its-kind hybrid wireless network called WiFi@Sea. The enhanced high-speed service was launched during the last quarter of 2014 for ships sailing in the Caribbean and will eventually be available on all of Carnival’s ships in 2015 and 2016.
WiFi@Sea will integrate a unique combination of strategically located land-based antennas installed along cruise routes, Wi-Fi from a port connection and advanced satellites, forming an innovative network that is a first in the cruise industry on this scale. The “smart hybrid” network is designed to provide passengers and crew with faster and more stable Internet access throughout their voyage.
Regent Seven Seas has completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade to Internet systems on every ship. The cruise line also introduced unlimited complimentary Internet access for all guests sailing after January 1, 2015 for guests booked in Master, Grand, Seven Seas, Horizon, Mariner, Navigator and Voyager suites.
MSC Cruises has launched a new, interactive mobile app, which allows travelers to easily explore the fleet’s 12 ultramodern ships and the multiple destinations visited around the world.
The free MSC Cruises app is packed with easy-to-use functions, tips and information, from finding the perfect itinerary and shore excursions to 360-degree virtual ship tours in which users can view actual staterooms, restaurants, lounges, pool decks, the theater and spa.
Large and small cruise ships are catering to groups with meeting space. Royal Caribbean has at least 22 ships with conference centers. The cruise line’s Quantum of the Seas features the Royal Theater, a state-of-the art, flexible venue that accommodates 1,300 people.
There also is a greater variety of entertainment and activities. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class ships feature the Two70˚ entertainment venue. By day, guests can relax and enjoy the breathtaking 270-degree views and by night, the space evolves into an exciting entertainment venue that fuses technology with entertainment using robotic video arms, dramatic digital projection, and high-flying aerialists and performers. The ship’s North Star activity elevates guests 300 feet above the ocean, and the Sea-Plex entertainment venue features bumper cars, roller skating and more. Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas features the FlowRider surf simulator and a 3-D cinema.
Crystal Cruises offers Magic Castle, a magic show for small groups. Celebrity Cruises has partnered with 54 Below, a Broadway cabaret, to bring in New York theater performers.
Celebrity Cruises, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, recently signed a letter of intent to build two new ships under Project Edge. The two vessels will offer small-ship itineraries with large ship amenities. The first Project Edge ship is scheduled for delivery in fall 2018, with the second arriving in 2020.
Royal Caribbean International is building its third Quantum class smart ship, Ovation of the Seas, which will be delivered in fall 2016. Royal Caribbean also introduced two Radiance-class ships — Rhapsody of the Seas and Splendour of the Seas — earlier this year.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises will debut the 750-guest Seven Seas Explorer in summer 2016. The ship will feature one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios in the cruise industry. Regent also recently completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the all-suite, all-balcony ship Seven Seas Mariner.
Carnival recently christened two new ships — Regal Princess and Costa Diadema. In addition, Carnival’s P&O Cruises UK and Aida brands will each launch a new ship in 2015. Carnival plans to add an additional seven ships between 2015 and 2017.
The small ship cruise line Seabourn recently unveiled the names of its two new ships — Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation. The first will launch in late 2016 and the second in spring 2018.
Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation will maintain the line’s high ratio of space per guest, enabling highly personalized service by close to one staff member for each guest on board. With the addition of the two new ships, Seabourn will have the youngest and most modern ultra-luxury fleet in the industry.
Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation will be configured with one additional deck, newly expanded public areas, and modern design elements and innovations consistent with Seabourn’s reputation for understated elegance. The new 40,350-GRT vessels are expected to carry 604 guests each, based on double occupancy, and every suite will feature a private veranda.
Hospitality design icon Adam D. Tihany has signed on to design both Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation in their entirety. He will design all indoor and outdoor guest areas, including the multiple dining venues, The Spa at Seabourn, showrooms, casino and lounges, outdoor deck areas, and the popular Seabourn Square, the social hub of the ship with a club-like ambience.
What’s not to like about meeting at sea and rotating cruises among incentives? All-inclusive pricing makes budgeting and planning simple and less time-consuming. There is a range of ships — from large luxurious cruise ships to smaller deluxe vessels — that meet the needs of groups of all sizes. Planners can select from 3- to 10-day cruises as well as full-ship charters.
Gale described it best: “A cruise ship can be a city by itself with everything you need aboard the ship. You can do things you can’t do on land, and you still have the land stuff to do when you dock at ports.” C&IT