Whether long and luxe or short and invigorating, incentive cruises offer corporate planners and their attendees a chance to experience a world where the only surprises are good ones.
“When a planner comes to me to say ‘we need to do something out of the box,’ I say ‘let’s look to see what’s in the box first,’ ” says Marisol Rangel, CMP, corporate meetings and events specialist with Aqua Global Events. The “box” can contain anyplace in the world that can be reached by ship. For 2017, it just so happens to include the Mediterranean for one of her recurring clients. Rangel has arranged some 15 incentive charters on Silversea Cruises, many of them for an East Coast corporate incentive group of about 260. The Silver Wind and the Silver Cloud, both of which hold 296 people, can perfectly accommodate her attendees, offering each a balcony room.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer; I always get better ROI on a cruise meeting than at a resort.”
— Sandra L. Barnhart
On their seven-night itinerary, the group will leave from Rome and return to Monte Carlo, with port stops in Sorrento, Amalfi, Portovenere, Livorno and Corsica. Attendees can spend a night on board before the ship leaves port, saving them the expense of a hotel room on the day of their flight.
Because Rangel’s attendees use Silversea’s charter option, they enjoy flexibility that groups on larger ships don’t, such as setting their own itinerary, staying late in one port and arriving later at another, choosing to dock outside of meeting times and holding a gala dinner. “My group can have a dinner on deck, which not a lot of ships can offer,” she says.
The group will hold one meeting in the theater-style show lounge with a guest speaker and will host a gala dinner in the dining room, which can accommodate a dance floor. The group needs to rent a sound system in addition to the one included with the charter to satisfy the dinner dance entertainer’s rider; it is Silversea that makes the arrangements beyond the rental fee: clearances, installation, disembarkation and clearing customs.
Rangel’s attendees rave about not only the high-energy, onshore excursions, which can include zip lining and helicopter tours, but also about the onboard culinary experience: choosing their own seafood during a buffet lunch with tour of the kitchen, for example, or cooking their own steak on a hot stone in the Pool Bar & Grill.
“If you have high-end clients, you can’t go wrong,” she says of the Silversea experience. “You know that nothing will happen. No one will complain.” The cruise is all-inclusive for the attendees, including drinks and tips; only the casino and the boutique shops require them, if they choose, to pull out a credit card.
“A cruise is really a less expensive alternative to a hotel,” Rangel finds. “When you are negotiating a hotel, there’s always going to be surprises later: menu, extra staff, things that would already be included on the ship. Once you’ve booked a program on a cruise, if you don’t change anything, you know exactly what you’re going to spend. Comparing apples to apples, it winds up being a savings. And no surprises.”
For all the benefits of chartering an incentive cruise, some planners find a set itinerary where attendees are a group within a group also has its advantages. In fact, for incentive cruises at Davie, Florida-based Team National, not chartering is actually preferable. “We like being on a ship with other people; a lot of people have joined our company having been on a cruise with our people,” says Dan Zintsmaster, vice president of events. “Cruise winners often become leaders and move up in the company.”
The direct selling company has offered incentive programs on Royal Caribbean for the past 15 years. “We do the three- to four-day cruises so they’re not out of the sales field for too long,” he says of the twice-yearly cruise incentives. “It looks a little overwhelming in the beginning, but once you get down to a routine, it’s one of the easiest, best-rewarding incentives we can do. We’ve done all-inclusives, but this one you see the hype, the excitement — land-based not as much.”
In November, he convened 1,500 sales contest winners on the Enchantment of the Seas, with an itinerary to CocoCay, Nassau and Miami.
Royal Caribbean sends a representative aboard with the group who already knows their agenda and routine — typically, a three-hour meeting in the theater or the ice arena where the CEO and owner can share experiences and galvanize the winners, and a bon voyage party toward the end. For the rest, the attendees are left to mingle freely. But it’s not that the group just blends in entirely, getting lost on the ship; he has colored T-shirts made up for them to announce their affiliation, and the cruise director sees to it that the group is mentioned in various contexts.
“When I do different events, I have to coordinate AV and food and beverage, whereas on the cruise ship, it’s all under one roof, done by one person ahead of time, all in your original contract. I really enjoy being able to have that one-stop shopping. Once I get them on the ship, we’re done. That makes it easy for me as a planner to know my budget,” Zintsmaster says.
And while he’s bullish on cruise incentives in general, he finds: “Royal Caribbean is higher-level than some of the others, with a nice range of cabins and options in a nice price range. You can upgrade to suite; you can have a small cocktail party in a suite. You can choose to leave out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami.”
Since his company holds biweekly contests, he finds cruises to be a scalable and essentially self-marketing sales incentive; the higher the sales once the cruise is already achieved, the more perks for the attendee: a stateroom with a balcony or view, a junior suite, the chance to bring additional family members.
“Royal Caribbean is great to work with. Their incentives team is awesome: hands-on and great. They can help with ground and air. We’ve had great luck, and they continue to make a great product that just gets better with new ships and retrofitted old ships.”
That the cruise industry has come into its high-tech own was never more evident than at this year’s CES, where for the first time, the keynote address was delivered by a travel industry executive: Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald. He extolled the virtues of the company’s new Ocean Medallion, a disc the size of a watch face that attendees wear or carry. The medallion links to the ship’s digital concierge system, Ocean Compass, through either one of the attendee’s own mobile devices or one of the ship’s. The complimentary Ocean Medallion is sent to the attendee’s home address, where he can key his dietary and entertainment preferences into the system, providing the crew with access to it for the duration of the cruise. The medallion acts as a de facto key card, check-in station, people-finder system, food and beverage delivery service to anywhere on the ship, and shipboard credit card, among other uses. Attendees can use the system to sign up for shore excursions and spa treatments, and to make dinner reservations. The Medallion Class Ocean ships also will have upgraded Wi-Fi and won’t actually cost more than other types of cruise ships in the fleet.
The combination of onboard sensors and the disc enables the ship’s system to essentially follow attendees around the ship; eventually, certain offshore areas — Port Everglades cruise terminal, some spots at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Princess Cruises’ private cays — will be wired for Ocean Medallion/Ocean Compass.
The new tech is the brainchild of a former Imagineer who developed a similar concept, MyMagic+ band, for Disney. The system will roll out in November on Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess, then on Royal Princess in January 2018 and Caribbean Princess in March 2018.
Separately, Carnival’s Hub smartphone app, which lets attendees keep apprised of onboard activities, chat with others on the ship and check out dining options, is being upgraded for more personalization and extended to the ships that don’t yet have it.
Royal Caribbean’s RFID-operated Wow bands also perform some of the same functions as the Ocean Medallion, namely, expedited check-in, key card, and credit card, and sister lines RC and Celebrity plan to revamp their current customer-centric phone app mid-year with more options and possibly to use voice-activated concierges on a new line of ships to debut in 2018, Celebrity Edge.
As exciting as first-adopting new tech can be, nothing is quite as incentivizing as a world-class meal. Indeed, Oceania Cruises bolsters its trademarked claim to purveying “The Finest Cuisine at Sea” by having master chef Jacques Pépin as its executive culinary director. The line’s Marina and Riviera ships showcase his namesake restaurant Jacques, which serves classic French cuisine and features a show rotisserie where the night’s offerings slowly turn on the spit. The foodie spirit extends to shore excursions: Culinary Discovery Tours offer attendees the chance to visit local markets in the company of a chef and, back on board, take a hands-on cooking class at The Culinary Center. La Reserve by Wine Spectator, also available on Marina and Riviera, offers a small-group chef’s table menu paired with wine.
Celebrity, too, offers chef-based shore excursions through its Chef’s Market Discoveries program on European and Caribbean itineraries. Solstice-class ships on the cruise line feature cooking demonstrations and tasting events through the “A Taste of Caribbean” package. Still more incentive groups will have the option of experiencing Celebrity’s gourmet offerings during the 2018–2019 season, with the return of Thursday-to-Monday sailings on the Infinity from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, Nassau and Cozumel. As a Millennium class ship, Infinity will offer “Taste of Film,” which pairs an outdoor film screening with the cocktails and foods that actually appear in the movie.
When it launches in April, the 3,560-person Princess Cruises Majestic Princess will have two restaurants helmed by Michelin-starred chefs: classic Cantonese restaurant Harmony, by chef Richard Chen, once of Wynn Las Vegas’ Wing Lei restaurant, and La Mer, by chef Emmanuel Renaut of Alpine France’s Flocons de Sel.
But as Michelin stars go, the 600-passenger Seabourn Encore, which had its maiden voyage in January, may currently shine brightest. Its partnership with chef Thomas Keller of Napa’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se has yielded at least two onboard eateries: The Restaurant, the ship’s main dining room and The Grill by Thomas Keller, a smaller, more casual space. The Ovation also will feature Keller offerings when it’s ready in spring 2018.
Certainly, it would be hard for the 750-person Regent Seven Seas Explorer to bill itself as the “most luxurious ship ever built” if it, too, were not consumed with proffering exquisite food. For now, this is also the only ship in the fleet to offer Gourmet Explorer Tours to various sites in Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco, France, Portugal, Monaco and Slovenia. The cruise line celebrates its 25th anniversary all year with 25 chosen voyages across a variety of itineraries and all four ships (Explorer, Voyager, Mariner and Navigator). Among the festivities: Attendees can enter the galley along a red carpet to attend a lunch buffet with fresh bread, carving stations, pasta prepared to order and desserts as they mingle with the chefs. These same 25 sailings will offer Silver Anniversary Tastings: vintage and other top-shelf wine and spirits seminars.
Silversea’s 597-passenger Silver Muse boasts white-glove dining at La Dame by Relais & Châteaux. Given that the cruise line touts it as “the highest expression of excellence of French dining that Silver Muse has to offer,” this restaurant promises to exceed even the La Champagne Relais & Châteaux that will also be on board when the ship comes online in April.
Silversea Expeditions has two new Culinary Expedition Voyages for 2017 on the all-suite, 132-guest Silver Explorer. In October, the “Epicurean Adventure along the Humboldt Current,” a 14-day trip to Peru and Chile, will introduce attendees to pisco sours and fine dining in a restaurant located among the ruins of an adobe pyramid and to a gourmet meal in a 16th century monastery, among other delights. On board, guest chefs and wine experts from South America will participate in the culinary director’s workshops.
On some cruises, enrichment activities aren’t just a happy offshoot but the central focus. Fathom cruises, for example, provide attendees the option to have “social impact” by providing community service as an offshore excursion in the Dominican Republic. While parent company Carnival Corporation is expecting delivery on 17 ships through 2022, among them the 3,934-passenger Carnival Horizon in March 2018, it plans to shutter its Fathom line in June and continue the CSR experience on some of its other lines.
Until then, six of the 704-person Fathom Adonia’s tours to the Dominic Republic also include a stop in Santiago de Cuba, and it offers several itineraries to Cuba through May 2017, with stops in Santiago de Cuba, Havana and Cienfuegos.
Over the past year, many Caribbean itineraries have come to include Cuba. Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas will be the largest U.S. cruise ship to stop in Havana when it does so for the first time in April on a five-night cruise from Miami, with a later five-night and seven-night trip from Tampa.
May also will see the start of Havana overnights on NCL’s all-inclusive Norwegian Sky, which offers five four-day cruises from Miami. Attendees will have a chance to experience Old Havana’s art and music, along with “people-to-people exchanges.” The itinerary also includes a stop on NCL’s private Bahamas island Great Stirrup Cay. Regent Seven Seas Mariner has two sailings in April with overnights in Havana, leaving from Miami and also stopping on the line’s private island in Belize, Harvest Caye.
One planner who’s found a way to make creative use of port stops for meetings is Sandra L. Barnhart, president and CEO of CruiseMeetings.com. For 2017, she’s working with a corporate group on a 76-attendee incentive at sea; she also often handles continuing medical education cruises and has often hosted groups on Celebrity. “We have found them very good to work with,” she says of the cruise line. “We have someone dedicated to us who handles our contracts. It’s really nice to have one person to handle the management.”
Celebrity also has a department dedicated specifically to handling planning at ports. “I’m dealing with a total of three people I know I can go to and they will handle everything I need,” she says of the line. “I won’t be sent down a phone tree. They’re very responsive; the same day I send a request. The service level makes my life a lot easier.”
For groups with certain needs, not chartering offers a challenge in that exhibit space is limited, and an awards dinner complete with speeches in the main dining hall is, obviously, untenable. For these situations, Barnhart has some go-to workarounds. For awards, for example, she plans a cocktail reception in one of the lounges, with either “freestyle dining” for the attendees afterward, or space blocked out in the dining room with set decorations and table assignments.
And while planners won’t always charter the ship, they can, in a sense, charter the port stops. Scheduled shore excursions aside, she often arranges events — teambuilding programs, barbecues, beach parties — in ports or on private islands. (Celebrity’s 2,886-passenger Silhouette, for example, stops on the private CocoCay on its western Caribbean itineraries.) “You can have something customized,” she notes. “Some ships will bring special entertainment to the port.”
And when she needs exhibit space, she’ll even plan an in-port exhibit day. In Nassau, for example, she planned a day in a hotel with music, exhibits set up and hors d’oeuvres. To deter attrition, she planned a drawing with the names of attendees who’d stopped by each booth to have their ballots initialed.
Barnhart has been involved in meetings on ships as either a purchaser or an organizer since the early 1980s, when ships didn’t have formal meeting space. But over the past 15 years, she says, cruise lines have adapted to the special needs of meeting groups with dedicated meeting space; even, on some ships, a conference center that offers a similar look and feel to a hotel ballroom.
But it’s on the balance sheet that the similarity ends. “The biggest thing is the controlled budget; no surprises. An organization goes in knowing what their end cost will be. Including meals, it is usually about the same as a resort would be for just the room.” Because cruise lines can source goods from any port worldwide, they can often pass along better deals, according to Barnhart. “So they can give away more and still make a nice profit themselves. You can negotiate all kinds of amenities for the organization: free cocktail party, etc.
“A resort is a lot more work, and your budget is always in question — they charge you almost by the individual bite,” she says. “For me, it’s a no-brainer; I always get better ROI on a cruise meeting than at a resort.”C&IT