There are plenty of compelling reasons to consider a meeting or incentive trip at sea. “From the immersive exploration experiences at each destination to the spacious comfortable suites onboard, from the exquisite cuisine at all restaurants to the expert personalized service at every turn, your attendees will be able to experience the ultimate memory-making travel reward with every luxury included,” says Katina Athanasiou, CITP, senior vice president of charters, incentives and events for Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Add the image of blue-green water and the thought of salty sea air ruffling your hair, and booking an excursion on a cruise ship or charter vessel may seen like a no-brainer.
But organizing an event at sea has some major differences from doing one on shore, and planners need to be aware of them before they dive headlong into floating excursions. Unlike a meeting at a hotel, it’s vital that everyone arrive on time or they will literally miss the boat. Motivational speakers and trainers can’t fly in just for their session, which can limit programming choices. And most ships don’t have the same function and breakout space offerings as hotels, which can cause some headaches.
However, many of these difficulties can be overcome with some knowledge and advanced planning. “The most important thing is being open minded,” says Freddy I. Muller, vice president, charter and incentive sales for Silversea Cruises. “You’re not going to be working with a square box most of the time.”
“Cruising is something that’s relatively new. This goes on the leisure side and the meeting and incentive side.”
Freddy I. Muller
Whether you are putting together your first or fiftieth floating meeting or incentive trip, there are a few things that can make the experience easier. Don your sailor cap and get ready to set sail on an excursion through the world of planning meeting programs and incentive trips at sea.
“Cruising is something that’s relatively new. This goes on the leisure side and the meeting and incentive side,” Muller says. “One thing that’s helped build the popularity of cruising is the fixed cost and added value. If you were to compare a five-star cruise to a five-start resort, you could expect to save about 30 percent.”
That’s because many cruise lines offer all-inclusive packages for people participating in meetings and incentive trips. On a Regent Seven Seas trip, according to Athanasiou, packages can include all meeting space, A/V equipment and technology services, unlimited Wi-Fi, unlimited shore excursions, pre-paid gratuities, onboard daytime activities and evening entertainment.
“Attrition is much more lenient on a ship than a hotel, which is great for incentive programs when you don’t know how many winners you have until your program is complete,” says Gary Bertolucci, account manager with the meeting and incentive trip firm Gavel International. “The beverage packages are great. Everyone can drink what they like where they like. It’s not based on consumption if you do a package. That’s very helpful for controlling costs.”
Besides saving money, the all-inclusive nature of cruising events makes them easier for planners. “It’s a one-stop shop,” says Jerilyn Giacone, director, charters, meetings and incentives for Crystal Cruises. “If they go to a hotel that’s not all inclusive, they have to piece together hotel, meals, entertainment and more.”
Meetings at sea may prove less distracting than gatherings in other locations. “A benefit of having your corporate event at sea is that your attendees tend to participate in most to all of your functions because there isn’t the opportunity to wander off for competing experiences, like there is at a hotel,” says Athanasiou. “Also, on a ship, you know exactly who is on board at all times, so this offers more security, both for your event as a whole and for sharing confidential information with your group.”
Giacone adds, “Once planners get their group on the ship, there’s such a great opportunity for relationship building and bonding, whether it’s between their clients or their employees who have won the award,” she says. Whether they’re participating in activities on the ship or sharing the adventures they’ve had on off-shore excursions over dinner, attendees have plenty of shared experiences to talk about.
There’s another reason to consider hosting incentive trips or meetings at sea: People love them. “The evidence is in the repeat programs we get,” Giacone says. “We have companies that come to us multiple times and tell us that participants were motivated by a cruise. They worked hard for it.”
From a pure entertainment standpoint, there’s a lot to be said for meetings at sea. Depending on the ship, the list of activities can read like that of a full-service resort with casinos, nightclubs, live music, dance performances, spas, fitness centers with exercise classes, pools and lounging areas, educational lectures and cooking classes.
The entertainment available on a cruise ship is only part of the equation, however. The opportunities for on-shore excursions are often equally, if not more, appealing to participants. “One of the great things about an incentive trip at sea is you can give your winners a great variety of destinations in a one-week period,” Giacone says. “You can see lots of different cities — more than you would ever be able to do on a land program, or that would cost a lot more to do through a land program.”
Bertolucci says it’s important to get on land occasionally. “We like to do something to get groups off the ship on certain days and nights by doing private excursions or private events somewhere,” Bertolucci says. “That can be dinner in a palace if you’re somewhere in Europe, or a beach buyout during the day, where you buy out a beach club and have activities and team building.” Organizing groups for activities such as boating, jet skiing and volleyball also provides great opportunities for networking.
Cruise lines are even offering a way for participants to get involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs on their trips. Celebrity Cruises recently started sailing on their new Celebrity Flora ship, which was built specifically to sail in the Galapagos Islands. “We designed our new ship with dynamic positioning to ‘anchor’ without anchors and solar panels to supplement electricity, and our guests have planted over 38,000 trees,” says Lisa Vogt, associate vice president, incentives, meetings and charter sales for Celebrity Cruises. Also available is the first-ever cruise ship glamping experience, which offers participants a chance to camp out under the stars on the top deck.
Massive ocean liners loaded with thousands of leisure travelers aren’t the only option for companies hosting meetings and other events. Many cruise lines have ocean or river ships small enough that a single company can buy them out entirely. “The level of customization and branding opportunities are immense and the comfort and security of knowing 100 percent of the guests are your attendees is immeasurable,” Athanasiou notes.
A full-ship buyout may sound prohibitively expensive, but it isn’t always the case. Giacone works with a company that typically takes 100 people on its incentive program and needs 50 rooms. They typically bought a group room block on an ocean ship, but one year, she crunched the numbers and discovered they could buy out a river ship with 53 rooms for just a little more upfront cost. What made the difference, she noted, was that the river ship package included the cost of shore excursions, while the ocean ship did not.
An added benefit to doing a full ship charter, Bertolucci says, is that it’s easier to keep the group together and focused. There aren’t other people to strike up friendships with or activities planned for times when people are scheduled to be in meetings and classes.
Cruises may be all fun and games for attendees, but they do present a few challenges for meeting planners. “Ships have limited real estate, so to speak,” Giacone says. “There’s limited space for meetings. Also, you can’t fly in speakers because the ship is always moving.”
To deal with that, it’s important to be flexible, she says. “Be prepared to think creatively, and be open to new ideas and maybe a different way you can program the incentive experience. Maybe we can’t do it the same way as a hotel, but we’re really open to working with planners and providing solutions. If you need to do a banquet and we don’t have room on a ship, we can help arrange a banquet during a shore excursion. Or can you do an awards cocktail reception instead of a dinner?”
Because the ship is going to leave on a certain day, make sure you bring participants in the night before or two nights before and do land events at a hotel prior to leaving,” Bertolucci says. In addition, create a backup plan for how to handle late arrivals.
Bertolucci once worked with a client who had 30 people arrive in Miami after their cruise ship had left because they were delayed by bad weather. As soon as they knew some participants were going to miss the boat, he booked them hotel rooms in Miami and began working on how to connect them with the ship. The firm was able to get everyone a flight to the Cayman Islands, the ship’s first port of call. A staff person traveled with the late guests and helped them get settled at a hotel on the island. The staff person also arranged for activities to keep the group busy. “They had a blast. Two days later they didn’t even want to get on the ship because they were having so much fun,” he says.
Ensuring people make it onto the ship is one thing; making sure items such as welcome packets, room gifts and program décor get onboard is another. “Incentive programs tend to have large shipments of program materials,” Athanasiou says. “The items not needed immediately can be shipped to a secure storage facility and loaded onboard the ship on the first day of the cruise. Items needed in attendees’ suites upon arrival can shipped separately and loaded on the cruise prior, allowing housekeeping to deliver them to guest suites prior to embarkation.”
Another aspect of meetings at sea that requires careful planning is guest documentation, Bertolucci says. Anytime participants have to travel to a foreign country to board the ship, it’s important to look into what visas or other documentation they will need to enter that country. Keep in mind that with incentive trips, winners may not know until late in the game if they’re going and may not have enough time to get travel clearance. Factor this into all timelines, and consider whether the cruise’s launch point might cause complications for certain participants.
Since resort hotels don’t move, they can typically offer similar amenities and offsite excursions anytime. That’s not the case with cruise lines, which may travel on certain routes only at certain times of the year. Companies typically publish their scheduled cruises for the next 18 months to three years, so planners can see when ships are planning to go to the destinations they want. If a desired destination isn’t being offered on the timeline you need, be prepared to be flexible, Giacone says. There are many destinations that offer desirable and similar traits, including warm weather and interesting destinations. A group may find they like the new route even better than the one they originally wanted.
As an alternative, remember that custom charters might be an option for groups that strongly desire to travel to a certain destination.
Anyone planning a meeting or incentive trip on a cruise line for the first time should travel the route on their own first. “Do a site visit on the same itinerary and make sure you know how the ship works,” Bertolucci says. “It’s very different than a land program.” Taking an independent trip will help you get to know the ports of call too.
When possible, look for a cruise line with staff that specializes in meetings and events and can speak the planner’s language, Muller says. Also look for one with tools to help with planning. “We provide a timeline, and it’s a document that really sets the tone and lets the planner know when and what information we need,” he says. The timeline helps trigger logistical questions such as when the event will take place and when the cruise line needs rooming lists, as well as bigger conversations about things such as dietary needs and assistance with onshore excursions.
Event planners who have never had a meeting or incentive trip at sea might ask the cruise line to connect them with professionals who have. “We’re always willing to introduce you to another planner who has done a cruise program with us to trigger conversations and talk about best practices and what they learned on their last voyage,” Muller says. Those conversations can be just the ticket to success with cruising events. C&IT