Meeting planners who’ve handled the logistics for an incentive program know how challenging it can be to assemble the disparate pieces for a successful event. Between accommodations, transportation, multiple dining venues, meeting rooms, AV requirements and activities to appeal to a multifaceted group, fitting together the puzzle pieces requires a commitment of time and energy.
But cruise-based incentive programs streamline many elements of planning. And by assembling the disparate functions under one umbrella, logistics can be contained. 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. In May, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced that the number of cruisers in 2016 reached 24.7 million passengers, up almost 6.5 percent from 2015. CLIA is projecting a 4.5 percent increase for 2017, fueled by a growing supply of new and bigger ships.
Thirteen new ocean cruise ships will debut this year, according to CLIA. But 15 ships are already under construction for 2018, while in 2019 we’ll see 20 launched, including the first of three 298-passenger ships for The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. Already, 32 cruisers are on order for 2020 and beyond, including the first vessel from Sir Richard Branson’s new line, Virgin Voyages.
Those new ships are a key demand for meeting planners such as Kathy Fitzgibbons, senior travel buyer for Maritz Travel, a Maritz Global Events Company, which oversees about 45 cruise incentive programs annually, in addition to land-based events.
“We like to use the newest products out there,” explains Fitzgibbons. “It needs to be an incentive for the guest, and newer ships have a lot more to offer.”
For an incentive program planned by a leading financial company for next summer, Fitzgibbons chose Norwegian Bliss, the newest ship from Norwegian Cruise Line, launching in April 2018. The 4,000-passenger vessel will spend its inaugural season in Alaska, becoming the largest ship to ever cruise the 49th state.
“Norwegian Bliss has more dining options, more entertainment and a lot of great venues for kids, like a race track on the top deck of the ship. And Alaska is on everybody’s bucket list. At one time, it was a destination you did when you retired, but Alaska is more affordable now, and the activities and shore excursions have been structured more for active guests, with kayaking and hiking and mountain-bike riding and rock-climbing.”
Maritz Travel’s client has booked 100 cabins on each of six consecutive Alaska cruises aboard Norwegian Bliss, with spouses and children invited to share in the incentive. There will be one general session for the groups and two cocktail parties each cruise, but otherwise the trip is pure incentive. Each guest will receive an onboard credit to be applied to drinks, spa treatments or shore excursions, though Fitzgibbons says some of her clients opt for a beverage package to cover drinks from the outset.
“The beverage packages aren’t cheap, especially if you’re not a big drinker. But having beverages included is definitely a great incentive — it makes the cruise truly all-inclusive.”
Fitzgibbons says that Norwegian’s “Freestyle Cruising” operation — no fixed dining times or pre-assigned seating — normally would be a problem for groups, except that the line works closely with Maritz to accommodate their clients. “They value our business and work outside their normal policy. We don’t necessarily need it to be seven nights of a cruise, but three nights of the cruise they’ll dine together.”
Such flexibility is key to why Maritz uses Norwegian regularly. “It’s one of the first cruise lines we started working with — we’ve had a relationship with them for 30-something years now,” adds Fitzgibbons. “Not every cruise line out there has as dedicated an incentive team. It’s so much different than retail, and you really struggle if they don’t know the incentive business. We have a lot of special requests, with dining, with cabin locations, and sometimes with meeting space needs. But Norwegian has always been very helpful, and they really seem to want the incentive business, so it’s a very easy product to work with.”
Norwegian Bliss is just one of the new cruise options available to suit groups of all sizes.
Earlier this year, Celebrity Cruises unveiled its new “Edge Class” design, with four ships ordered that will debut starting in December 2018. The 2,900-passenger vessels are slightly smaller than Celebrity’s groundbreaking “Solstice Class” line, but will have innovative features such as Eden, a multifaceted group space ideal for gatherings, dinners and functions; a movable deck; and cabins with balcony-like spaces that convert from outside to inside.
Seabourn Cruises follows up the well-received launch of Seabourn Encore with Seabourn Ovation, another 604-passenger ship for the luxury line launching next May.
Holland America Line has Nieuw Amsterdam arriving in November 2018, the second ship in the “Pinnacle Class” series, following in the footsteps of Koningsdam, which launched in 2016.
MSC Cruises has two new ships out this year — both of them new designs. The 4,500-passenger MSC Meraviglia arrived in June, while 4,140-passenger MSC Seaside debuts in November. Both are targeted to the U.S. market and will be homeported in Florida.
Other cruise lines are spending millions to refresh their fleets. Silversea Cruises’ venerable Silver Cloud is in dry dock now, undergoing transformation into a 254-passenger luxury expedition ship. Primped with balconies and outfitted with 16 Zodiacs, come November Silver Cloud will boast five gourmet restaurants and an ice-class hull for voyages to Antarctica.
As part of its $170 million fleet-wide refurbishment program, Silver Explorer underwent a stem-to-stern remodel last spring. The all-inclusive luxury ship accommodates 144 guests for sailings to the Arctic, Antarctica and Africa to the Americas, French Polynesia and the Russian Far East. Incentive program participants can take advantage of onboard destination lectures, exploratory Zodiac excursions and interactive walks ashore, led by experts in their field — marine biologists, ornithologists, geologists, botanists, historians and anthropologists.
High-end Regent Seven Seas is having it both ways, having launched its newest ship, the $450 million, 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer last year while spending $125 million to renovate its three older ships, Navigator, Voyager and Mariner. A new Explorer-class vessel will build on the runaway success of Seven Seas Explorer. Scheduled for delivery in 2020, the new sister ship will retain many of the high-end features and amenities that have led to Seven Seas Explorer being hailed as the most luxurious ship ever built.
And cruise lines are pushing the frontier on interactive wearables that are sure to offer big possibilities for the meetings and incentive sector. In November, Princess Cruises launches its ambitious Ocean Medallion system aboard Regal Princess. The wearable devices are a technology platform to link guests to reservation systems aboard the ship, delivering a more seamless travel experience. In addition to replacing the traditional room key, waiters in restaurants will be pre-alerted to allergies or to a birthday; reservations for shore excursions and spa appointments will be integrated. By removing points of “friction,” Princess aims to make the cruise experience more personalized.
After debuting on Regal Princess, Ocean Medallion will go live on five additional ships through 2018: Royal Princess, Caribbean Princess, Island Princess, Golden Princess and Crown Princess.
Oceania Cruises continues its focus on culinary by adding La Cuisine Bourgeoise by Jacques Pépin to its two newest ships, Marina and Riviera. Limited to 24 guests, making it ideal for intimate networking, the affair is a seven-course meal paired with fine wines and served in La Reserve, a private wine-tasting room. “Cuisine bourgeoise is rooted in tradition and is one that shaped my childhood,” explained Jacques Pépin, master chef and executive culinary director for Oceania. “It is a cuisine to savor rather than admire or evaluate, it is simply happiness on a plate, and I am thrilled to share this with our guests.”
Pépin’s recipes are prepared throughout the ships, even in the excellent main dining rooms, and Marina and Riviera also each feature a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, where guests can embark on hands-on cooking classes. Limited to 24 students per session, the courses are ideal for group bonding.
In March, Carnival Cruise line will see the arrival of its 26th ship, Carnival Horizon, a sister to Carnival Vista, which started service in 2016.
“We are thrilled about the Carnival Horizon,” says Ann Sedgwick, CIS, Carnival’s division vice president for charter, corporate and incentive sales. “Like the Carnival Vista, she’ll bring new features and more choices for the guests, particularly in the dining and entertainment areas.” Sedgwick adds that Carnival will be hosting a variety of industry events during its U.S. inaugural season, and planners interested in learning more should contact CorporateSales@Carnival.com.
Although Carnival’s fleet does not have the multiple conference and breakout rooms found on some ships, Sedgwick says “all types of companies” have selected Carnival for their incentive programs. “We have found that meeting planners enjoy the ‘out of the conference room’ venues. Frankly, they are more comfortable for the participants and create a unique and memorable environment that you can’t find anywhere else. Our ships are truly multifunctional, and we work with the meeting planner to determine best size fit along with AV requirements for each particular program.”
One key segment that Carnival serves better than any other brand: the drive market. Carnival has ships spread across 16 U.S. home ports — more than any other cruise line — meaning regionally focused companies can save on the costs of flights.
“Our team works with decision-makers to match the perfect product and ship to their needs and expectations,” adds Sedgwick. “If Carnival isn’t a perfect fit for the program, we work closely with our sister brands to find something that is. We feel very confident that among the many diverse brands of Carnival Corporation we have something for every corporate program.”
Meanwhile, the ships built by Royal Caribbean over the last decade have been plumped with conference and breakout rooms, along with state-of-the-art AV equipment sufficient to hold meetings of various sizes, including trade shows.
A variety of venues was important for an April gathering organized by Mark Walker, senior global sales executive at Morris Incentives, on behalf of a multilevel marketing company in the fashion industry. With 2,682 attendees, the group needed a large ship, and Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas fit the bill. A true game-changer when it arrived in 2009, the 5,400-passenger ship was the largest cruiser at sea until last year, when Harmony of the Seas came on the scene.
“Cruise ships definitely have less meeting space than land programs, which can sometimes make it a little difficult,” explains Walker. “You have to be more creative on a cruise ship to find places for your private events and meetings, especially if you don’t charter. Royal Caribbean had to be very flexible in giving us their meeting space and general areas for our private events, and they were very good to work with in this regard. Most cruise lines would probably not have accommodated us the way they did. We took the entire theater for a couple hours on the sea days, and we took practically all the boardrooms for the week.”
The wide range of venues available aboard Oasis of the Seas goes well beyond the 1,394-seat main showroom. The ship’s 4,424-sf conference center accommodates 330 seated; Studio B, the ship’s ice rink, can handle receptions for 1,000, or 775 seated; six indoor bars and clubs can accommodate 100 to 250 guests; outdoor pool decks and bars can be privatized; and the ship’s unique “Central Park” offers a lushly landscape garden environment for receptions of up to 300 guests. All of these spaces can be easily researched on Royal Caribbean’s recently enhanced, interactive MICE website, RoyalCaribbeanIncentives.com.
“The ship was able to cater our events without a problem,” adds Walker, who used Oasis of the Seas for a seven-day Caribbean cruise. “We had a big welcome and farewell party on the boardwalk, and we also had coffee and pastry stations in the theater and in Studio B during the general sessions. The CSM’s onsite were amazing — they are the ones that we work with to execute all our meetings, private events, etc. They were super-patient, organized and nice to work with.”
Jeffrey Paul Broudy, president of United Incentives, used Royal Caribbean’s two-year-old Anthem of the Seas for a home furnishings channel incentive in June for 360 attendees. Broudy says that every incentive program has its own “signature.”
“Anthem of the Seas offered new and exciting ship design with state-of-the-art technology, as well as skydive simulators, bumper cars and extraordinary shows with professional set design. The ship was one of the first designed and built to feature high-speed Wi-Fi, a very desirable and competitive benefit considering that it supersedes land-based hotel complimentary Wi-Fi. Even with a small supplement to include Wi-Fi and the deluxe all-inclusive drink package, the program was extremely affordable and valuable to the guests. All combined to provide the optimal mix of onboard entertainment and ample time in Bermuda during the America’s Cup.”
Broudy noted that the entire conference center was allocated to his group to allow for a “program within a program,” to accommodate room gifts, training, meetings, and serve as staff offices. “The CSM along with the total land-sea events team worked together to ensure all of the receptions, events, business sessions and AV were seamlessly executed. We applaud the efforts and success of the entire team led by our onboard coordinator, Cornelia O’Nay, and our account executive, Danny Fernandez Nasar. However, all aboard were aligned to make the program successful and seamless. Royal Caribbean has come a long way delivering unique incentive experiences in the last several years.”
One advantage of staging an incentive aboard a cruise ship is that meeting room costs are generally waived, and most AV requirements can be handled by the crew, also often at no cost. But Broudy cautioned that it’s still important to plan carefully in advance for these events. “AV services tend to be siloed — projectionists and sound technicians are not cross-functionally trained and accountable. Surprisingly, this falls under the jurisdiction of the cruise director, so it’s worth engaging all parties in advance.”
He continues, “Ships are provisioned from their shore-side operations centers as mass-market products, while incentives are just the opposite. It is extremely important for planners to be aware of, and manage, the ship-to-shore communication of BEOs and venue utilization. Many times, the cruise line planner hasn’t used the ship or worked with an incentive, so they can’t easily determine the feasibility of requests from incentive companies. This is the weakest link in cruise programs compared to land-based programs, wherein the entire enterprise of CSM, hotel, DMC all work at the same location during the planning process. Accordingly, we tend to only work with cruise lines with whom we have maximum confidence.”
Tackling these kinds of logistics early on also is important to Karen Devine, president of 3D Cruise Partners. Devine is in the planning stages for a March 2018 annual sales meeting to be held aboard Celebrity Infinity. She needed exclusive use of the theater on several days for multiple hours.
“You may need to be a bit more flexible with your meeting and/or function needs relative to setup — i.e., theater style vs. classroom or U-shape, etc. Depending on the ship, you may be using space — such as the main show lounge — that is also utilized for other purposes. But I worked with the ship well in advance to identify space and ensured that it was confirmed in the contract.”
Devine noted the cost savings inherent with planning a meeting or incentive at sea.
“The beauty of the ships is that the space and AV on board — which can be extensive due to the large production shows offered on some of these ships — is complimentary. There are no meeting room rentals, no cost to use the sound booth, screens, the ship’s bands, staging, etc. — it’s all complimentary.”
And that adds up to the key advantage planners cited for cruise events compared to traditional land-based meetings and incentives: budget control. “A cruise can be 30 to 40 percent less than a comparable land program,” Devine adds.
“It’s better bang for the buck, absolutely,” says Kathy Fitzgibbons. “Clients ask me what it will cost for a general session on the ship, and they’re surprised to hear that the room is included — that’s a huge cost savings. If you do the beverage package in advance you’ll get a commission on the drinks. It’s definitely more of a value, and it’s an easier budget to control.”
Mark Walker concurs: “Cruise programs usually end up being less expensive than land programs — it is practically an all-inclusive experience. The food is included, there are fewer travel expenses, and lots of costs are included like AV, setup fees, etc. The price point is very good compared to land-based programs.”
Meeting facilities, room and board, and transportation under one “roof” and one contract. Combine that with a sleek bow piercing the waves, a never-ending canvas of passing scenery and all the creature comforts of a traditional resort close at hand — what’s not to like about meetings and incentives at sea? C&IT