Meeting planners who’ve handled the logistics for a meeting or incentive program know how challenging it can be to assemble the many and various pieces for a successful event. Between room blocks, transportation, dining venues, meeting rooms, A/V requirements and activities to appeal to a multifaceted group, fitting together the puzzle pieces requires a commitment of time, energy and money.
But cruise-based programs streamline many elements of event planning. And, by assembling the disparate functions under one umbrella, logistics can be contained and budgeting is more predictable. Meeting planners we’ve spoken to say that such bundling also usually leads to cost savings over comparable land-based meeting options.
No wonder a growing number of companies are finding that corporate events at sea sometimes offer an edge over traditional land-based programs.
“The No. 1 advantage of a cruise incentive over land is the inclusiveness of the product,” explains Karen Devine, CITP, CEO and founder of Chicago-based 3D Cruise Partners. With a background in hotel, DMC and cruise events, Devine founded her company 15 years ago and specializes in cruise solutions for the meetings industry. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a mass-market line or luxury. The food is included, some or all of your drink is included, A/V is included and there’s function space you don’t have to pay for.”
“The No. 1 advantage of a cruise incentive over land is the inclusiveness of the product.” Karen Devine
Devine continues: “And, you don’t need to worry about losing your participants. You choose the intensive itinerary and bring everybody together in a space and then let them go off on their own. If the client wants a more port-intensive itinerary, they can do that; if it’s more of a meeting group than an incentive, you can choose an itinerary with a couple of sea days.”
The advantages of a cruise aren’t limited to meeting planners. Devine says the participants love them.
“Your participants will unpack once, but they’ll wake up somewhere different every day,” she adds. “You’re giving them multiple experiences, even on a three- or four-night cruise.”
For an incentive program organized on behalf of a national flooring company last year, Devine worked with Silversea, chartering Silver Muse, the line’s newest ship, with capacity for 596 passengers. Featuring eight different restaurants, cabins that start at generous 334 sf, and with a high ratio of crew to passengers, Silver Muse is among the most luxurious ships sailing the seven seas. A twin, Silver Moon, will arrive later this year. “The client needed close to 300 cabins,” Devine says. “One of the beauties of Silversea was their ability to cut and customize a Caribbean itinerary.” The client wanted a five-night itinerary, rather than seven nights, as is customary in the Caribbean, and wanted to sail out of San Juan, an embarkation port that avails a greater variety of nearby islands than the Florida ports. “Of course, to do this, we needed to book about 18-20 months ahead of the operation, just prior to them publishing their schedule.”
She continues, “Something that Silversea excels in is the flexibility they show toward group and charter events — the willingness of the onboard crew to customize. The secret is the willingness of the client to allow the ship to do what it does best.”
Most cruise ships built today do not have a single space where all passengers can congregate — even the theater and main dining room are not usually designed to accommodate all passengers at once. This can be a problem for a chartering group that wants to gather all passengers at one time.
“Although Royal Caribbean ships have conference centers, most ships don’t,” Devine explains. “So you’re looking at using a lounge space or theater. Make sure they block that space — usually during contract.”
Devine continues, “One of things we had to do with Silver Muse was identify a space that fit everybody, and the only space was the top deck. The client had hired a decor and entertainment company that caters to ships to design an incredible, beautiful deck event. The challenge: What if it rained? Well, just as we were setting up, it poured. Somehow, we were able to move the entire event inside. But then, after the rain stopped, the crew moved all of the event decor back out onto the deck for an after-party, with all the centerpieces and florals.”
In terms of cost, how do cruise programs compare against traditional land-based events? Devine says the important comparison is bottom line.
“You can’t look at room rate against cruise fare,” Devine suggests. “Take it to the bottom line, look at the inclusiveness. A cruise includes all your food, all your entertainment and, in some cases, your shore excursions. There aren’t many hotel programs that are going to provide all that. On an apples-to-apples comparison, the cruise is going to win every single time.”
In its annual State of the Industry report, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced that the number of passengers projected to cruise in 2020 will reach 32 million, up almost 30% over the last five years, fueled by a growing supply of new and bigger ships.
That value-added proposition Devine cites is helping the industry sell an increasing number of cabins to the corporate and incentive market, according to industry insiders.
A record 25 new ocean cruise ships will debut in 2020, according to Cruise Industry News. These range from Scarlet Lady, the first of three 2,860-passenger ships for Virgin Voyages, to the inaugural ship from The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, Evrima. From luxe, Zodiac-equipped expedition vessels, like Ponant’s 180-passenger Le Bellot and its twin Le Jacques Cartier, to crowd-pleasing Carnival Cruise Line’s 5,200-passenger Mardi Gras debuting this fall. But with so many brands, where does one start?
“Choosing a cruise is like matchmaking,” suggests Jeffrey Broudy, president of Philadelphia-based United Incentives Inc., a company that has been in the group incentive space since 1984. “It requires a deep understanding of the clients and cruise lines culture, values, benefits, proximity and style. In essence, it is a decision to align brands.”
He continues, “In the incentive space, while there may be a meeting, the experience is a reward. It’s an exchange for extraordinary performance. Our goal is to actively engage our participants in a way that reinforces the brand promise of their sponsor. Even while surrounded by 4,000 of your closest friends, on cruises there is a greater sense of community, surprise and shared experiences that drives home the value of achievement.”
A recent project for dealers had Broudy seeking an aspirational destination, along with a cruise line that would amplify that experience. The solution? An Alaska itinerary aboard Celebrity Solstice last summer.
“The typical cruise features a good itinerary, embarkation port, pricing and accommodations,” Broudy says. “Based on timing, we needed a round trip out of Seattle — a ship with the facilities to have multiple private cocktail receptions and a large general session, and very strong F&B and CSM teams that understood the value of corporate groups. Once we identified the cruise lines with the physical requirements, we had to narrow down the choices based on the brand alignment. And nothing speaks to brand alignment as clearly as culture. Our experience is that Celebrity Cruises is a brand both humble and hungry, which aligns nicely to our client’s persona.”
Adds Broudy, “We didn’t want to charter a smaller ship and felt Celebrity Solstice would make our 700 participants feel special, heard and accommodated.” The 2,850-passenger ship offers six different restaurants, eight bars, and lounges ranging from a sunset perch to an ice-topped bar, plus a lush Canyon Ranch spa and sprawling fitness center. The 12-year old ship, which alternates seasonally between various regions of the Pacific, is due for an extensive renovation next year.
Unique elements of Broudy’s program for this global luxury brand included fitting in general sessions with heavy audiovisual requirements within the ship’s rigid structured entertainment program. “This effort requires a deep knowledge of tech and onboard equipment among clients, planners, cruise line operations and ship operations,” he says. “Another unique requirement we had was securing and scheduling a custom, invitation-only entertainment experience. Celebrity succeeded on both counts.”
Broudy continues, “One thing I love about Celebrity Cruises is how they reward a ship’s crew with cash bonuses based on the sailing’s total passenger satisfaction rating, as well as recognizing the individual crew members with rewards and recognition. In this way, all passengers are served well instead of those who are just tipping heavily. Celebrity Solstice is a great ship, and the customer-facing experience defines the cruise, not necessarily the ‘wow’ public spaces or gadgetry.”
He adds, “Participants come home and talk about how they felt. — a measure very much on the agenda for Celebrity Cruises.”
In 2018, Celebrity debuted the well-received Celebrity Edge, the line’s first new ship in six years. This spring, a sibling arrives — Celebrity Apex, another ship that will continue many of the design concepts that made the 2,910-passenger Edge a hit — innovative accommodations that meld indoor and outdoor living, a terraced pool deck, rooftop garden, and a ‘Magic Carpet’ on the right side that is a tender boat access and a dining option. Both Edge-class ships, like most of the Celebrity fleet, have dedicated meeting venues — in this case, the 1,970-sf Meeting Place, situated to provide ocean views. The space can be configured for general sessions, conferences, banquets or cocktail seating, and is equipped with top-notch audiovisual technology.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises is about to launch its second Explorer-class ship, Seven Seas Splendor, to be christened by godmother Christie Brinkley. The ship continues the opulence exhibited aboard Seven Seas Explorer, which arrived to much fanfare a few years ago. Splendor will similarly boast about a $5 million art collection featuring works by Picasso, Miro and others, lavish suites, including the 4,443-sf Regent Suite, and a Culinary Arts Kitchen with 18 stations for hands-on gourmet cooking demonstrations. A sixth Explorer-class ship will arrive for the Regent fleet in 2023.
Regent is but one jewel in the crown of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) round out the company’s complete inventory, for a total of 28 ships. Each of the lines cater to a unique audience, and Katina Athanasiou, Norwegian’s chief sales officer, works to match planners with the right brand and ship for their audience and budget.
A two-year, $100 million refurbishment of the entire six-ship Oceania fleet will be completed this year, when Nautica comes out of dry dock following a reimagining designed to create a more modern, sophisticated and airy feel. Also on the horizon: two new, $650 million ships, the Allura-class, have been ordered. The 1,200-passenger ships will be delivered in 2022 and 2025.
NCL’s largest ship ever, the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Encore, arrived last fall and, following a brief building hiatus, the line will have six new ships debuting annually again starting in 2022. During Norwegian Encore’s inaugural call to NCL’s private, 270-acre Bahamian island Great Stirrup Cay, the company introduced Silver Cove, an oceanfront lagoon with a Mandara Spa and 38 air-conditioned beachfront villas. The villas range from studios to one- and two-bedroom villas, each equipped with a full bathroom, daybed, club chairs, TV with on-demand entertainment and outdoor patio and lounge seating.
Terry Purcell, senior account executive, CIS, CIPT, MBA at Maritz Global Events, was tasked with overseeing an incentive program for a manufacturing group last year. The size: 1,650 attendees with a variety of ages — from young children to those at or near retirement. Fortunately, Purcell had two full years of lead time for planning, choosing Royal Caribbean based on a past successful experience.
“This group used Allure of the Seas 10 years ago and they gave the ship high marks,” Purcell says. “The newer Symphony of the Seas offered enhancements including specialty restaurants new Broadway entertainment, state-of-the-art technology, ice shows and activities that would entertain any age group.”
Symphony of the Seas is not quite a twin of Allure — the new ship is slightly larger, holding 5,518 passengers, the largest capacity at sea, meaning Purcell’s group represented about a quarter of the overall passengers. Symphony of the Seas has four conference rooms holding up to 369 guests, plus decks, lounges and three theaters with seating accommodating up to 1,411, meaning there were plenty of places for the participants to gather.
“Royal Caribbean permitted several buyouts of the Boardwalk,” Purcell says. “They provided exclusive ice shows, a private Broadway show, a performance in the Aqua Theater, plus exclusive use of the Solarium for receptions. This meant the group was together daily, so that leadership could express their thanks for their loyalty.”
Purcell says the exclusive access provided by Royal Caribbean even allowed ample time for branding each event, highlighting the sponsoring company of the incentive program.
Adds Purcell, “The attitude of the ship’s leadership was ‘All hands on deck,’ to assure that even the smallest detail was not overlooked. Since this program was in its planning stages for 24 months, there was seamless support, including from the corporate office, to assure no communications were lost between land/ship during such a long process.”
Devine says that such intensive planning, coupled with on-board research, is critical to a successful cruise event.
“It can be incredibly intimidating,” Devine says. “Where do you start? How do you even know where to start?”
She continues, “The most common comment I hear planners come back with ‘They wish they had known the onboard experience better.’ Some don’t do a site inspection. When you get on a ship and the ship sails away, you’re on a city by itself.”
Devine adds, “It’s ideal to sail, but people don’t always have the time for that. But you can do a day visit. Go on the ship when it’s in port — meet the people, see the spaces, have lunch, get a feel for the F&B and get an idea of the service level. Then, you can’t say you didn’t know what the ship was like. Frankly, push the buttons. If you see something you like, like a function space, or a special cabin, or something on the menu, ask for it. So much can get accomplished in a five- or six-hour day visit.”
Crystal Cruises offers eight ships across its luxury fleet, which includes: two ocean liners, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony; four river ships, Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel; one yacht, Crystal Esprit; and one expedition ship, Crystal Endeavor.
Want to take a river cruise along the Danube in Budapest or the Rhine in Amsterdam? Crystal’s river cruises offer tantalizing excursions in some of Europe’s most beautiful and historic cities. Enjoy the Serenity or Symphony on ocean cruises from Quebec City to Miami or from Rome to Barcelona.
In a nod to sustainability issues, Crystal has eliminated plastic straws across its entire fleet of ocean and river ships as well as Crystal Esprit. Crystal is also committed to preserving and serving the communities they visit. The cruise company has partnered with Clean the World, the toiletry recycling program that fights deadly illness in sanitation-challenged communities. C&IT