Insurance and financial companies have been taking incentive groups to the high seas for decades, simply because cruises are proven motivators for agents to reach their sales goals.
But despite their effectiveness, cruise programs remain less frequent than land-based incentives: At some firms they might be deployed once every three or four years, while at other companies cruising enjoys a few years of popularity before falling off for many years.
The obstacle to more frequent usage certainly isn’t cost, as cruise lines offer attractive, all-inclusive pricing that competes with hoteliers of comparable quality. Nor are cruise incentives more difficult to plan, as the cruise line itself often will be the only vendor a planner needs to deal with for all aspects of the event. Rather, the obstacle to more frequent usage seems to be psychological: Booking cruises regularly can be perceived as repetitive, despite the fact that the ships are visiting different destinations and ports.
That insight comes from Shari Wallack, president of Plantation, Florida-based Buy the Sea, a cruise and all-inclusive resort brokerage company that has long been a resource for incentive planners. Insurance and financial companies “will repeat a hotel product. For example, if they’re Ritz-Carlton clients they’ll do a Ritz in California, in Spain and in Hawaii and not feel like they’re repeating anything,” Wallack observes. “But with a cruise, even if I gave them a totally different destination, it wouldn’t matter because it’s still a cruise. It’s as if the cruise in and of itself is the destination.”
In reality, a cruise experience can be as varied as a resort experience, and even more so due to the opportunity to explore several destinations. Brett Barrowman, vice president conference and travel management with American Fidelity in Oklahoma City, notes that with a cruise, attendees “get to see different places they might not be able to see on their own, whereas with a land-based program to San Francisco, for example, you just see San Francisco and the surrounding area.”
“We’ve gotten really good feedback with them being able to see four or five different ports on a trip versus just one destination.”
— Katie Reavis
Barrowman has been working with Buy the Sea to plan Royal Caribbean cruise incentives in May and June, to the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean, respectively. Katie Reavis, event coordinator with the National Agents Alliance in Burlington, North Carolina, offers evidence that attendees appreciate the variety Barrowman discusses: “We’ve gotten really good feedback with them being able to see four or five different ports on a trip versus just one destination.” Indeed, there is a greater likelihood a cruise will promise the well-traveled agent an experience with an unfamiliar destination.
Moreover, the itineraries companies are considering today range well beyond the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. “Financial and insurance companies are naturally conservative, and lately we have had more requests to keep programs closer to home,” Wallack reports, “which is why we have seen more interest in cruises to Bermuda and Alaska than what is typical. Other cruise destinations that have garnered interest are Tahiti, Norway, Iceland and the British Isles. Additionally, Croatia continues to gain in popularity for clients looking for a less traditional Mediterranean destination.”
Attendee demographics can inform the destination choice and the itineraries within those destinations. For example, American Fidelity’s June cruise is geared toward mainly domestic-based sales reps of widely varying ages. “The Caribbean cruise would appeal to a multitude of age ranges, 30s to 50s to 60s,” says Barrowman. “The one going to the Baltic Sea area is for our Latin American division, and it’s a totally different dynamic.” These agents are more incentivized by a destination that is more of a cultural and scenic departure from their home countries, and they will experience that with stops in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm, among other ports. “We’ve gotten a lot of excitement, especially once we rolled out the registration and they see all the ports of call,” says Barrowman.
Of course, it’s vital to generate excitement for a cruise throughout the entire qualifying period, and just like CVBs and resorts, cruise lines are ready to provide planners with quality marketing materials. “All the ships now have beautiful brochures that you can include as marketing pieces or even videos on YouTube so you can send out links,” notes Jana Stern, AVP, director of meetings and events, Voya Financial, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company is set for a Regent Seven Seas cruise to Alaska in 2017 after a successful Greek Isles program with Regent in 2014, prior to which the group was in Hawaii for a land-based incentive. “As a teaser for the Greek Isles cruise, on the last night of the Hawaii program we gave them some Regent-branded tchotchkes,” she adds.
National Agents Alliance, which conducted a Greek Isles incentive with Norwegian last year, has actually been able to produce its own marketing materials with site visits to the ship. Says Reavis, “We take full advantage of a site inspection, so myself along with our CEO and someone from our in-house media team go on the ship ahead of time and create promotional materials for ourselves. We take some photos and do some videos telling them, ‘You don’t want to miss this’ and highlighting some of the ports of call.” Supplementing a planner’s own marketing efforts is the general advertising the major cruise lines often do. “Our people realize ‘Hey, we’re going to be on Oasis of the Seas,’ and there’s a commercial for it. We get some free advertising and hype, if you will,” says Barrowman.
Related to the marketing push is the reassurance that planners may have to give for those with little or no cruise experience. These potential qualifiers may have concerns ranging from the size of the cabins (a concern that a quick onsite video can allay) to the possibility of motion sickness. Clearly all ships have staff trained in assisting ill passengers and signage for emergency procedures, but that preparation may need to be stressed for those new to cruising.
In terms of security, ships are superior to hotels, Wallack asserts. “To get on a ship, you have to be a registered passenger, unlike a hotel where anybody can walk in and go to the bar or restaurant,” she points out. “Second, if you book a cruise and the cruise line subsequently feels it’s not safe to go to that destination, they will reposition the ship. With a client who books a land program (and later discovers there is a safety issue with the destination), all of a sudden they’re scrambling to rebook that somewhere else.”
The flexibility in destination that cruises offer is accentuated when chartering, a trend that is “certainly continuing,” says Wallack. “With smaller ships, clients are able to navigate intimate harbors and visit less crowded ports of call, making the entire experience more customized and unique. Chartering allows a company to chart its own course and stay overnight in one or more ports to allow the passengers to truly experience the destinations without feeling rushed. We see this predominantly in Europe where our clients are hosting elaborate onshore dinners and gala events, and extremely creative and adventurous excursions. These overnights make for a much more relaxing experience for the passengers.”
Charters also are very promotable to potential qualifiers: Planners can stress that the ship will be the group’s exclusive home, and a luxury one at that, since a chartered ship is typically more high-end than the mega ships holding thousands of passengers.
Silversea’s stellar reputation as an all-suite luxury cruise ship line makes it ideal for ship charters. The voyage can be customized including ports of call, duration of time in port, and daily scheduling. Also, Silversea offers the flexibility to arrange special events, design tailor-made tours and even create menus that include favorite dishes. Silversea Cruises’ intimate ships include: Silver Explorer, 130 guests; Silver Galapagos, 99 guests; Silver Discoverer, 120 guests; Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, 294 guests; Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, 388 guests; and Silver Spirit, 540 guests.
On the other hand, the mass-market ships are richer in entertainment programming and dining options. “We prefer bigger ships that have more to offer our attendees to do at night,” Reavis says. “Our group tends to be younger, with the average age around 35, so we definitely need the shows and the comedy clubs.” The slew of onboard diversions on these ships also makes things easier for the planner. “As a meeting planner I don’t have to entertain them,” says Amy Ingalls, senior meeting and event planner with Transamerica Life & Protection in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has booked mega ships such as Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas. “From the casino to entertainment such as synchronized diving, they do all of that; I don’t have to coordinate it, sign contracts or do site visits.”
There also is a certain excitement that comes with experiencing one of the largest ships in the world. “The downside,” says Barrowman, “is that you can get swallowed up by 5,000 or 6,000 people onboard, but we think we’ve figured out a way to identify our people, utilizing wristbands. One of the worst things is to have a recognition program where nobody recognizes you,” he quips.
Another point to bear in mind is that, while mega ships do have a great diversity in venues, planners will not have exactly free rein over those venues for group gatherings, as they would on a chartered ship. “Your choice of times for using a theater or other venues is limited, so book it early,” Ingalls advises. “You also have to do some planning in the back of your mind: You’re not going to get into the theater for a rehearsal four hours prior; you get a two-hour window to get into that theater, do your rehearsal and your program. It’s not like a hotel where you can block the space for a 24-hour hold for three days. So you really need to have everything organized and be flexible.”
Ultimately, the decision to eschew the chartering option can come down to cost. “No. 1 is budget,” says Wallack. “Once a client tells me their budget, I know whether they could even look at a charter, because the ships that can be chartered are far more expensive than buying a cabin or group of cabins on a mass-market ship. No. 2 is how sure they are of the number of participants.” Chartering a 300-capacity ship only to end up with half that amount of qualifiers, for example, would be a waste of funds, and to end up with more than 300 qualifiers would be a problem. “We have one financial client who typically has about 240 passengers. The ship they charter holds 297, so they know they’re not going to use 25 cabins or so but they’re OK with that, they have the budget,” Wallack relates.
Planners who find that chartering isn’t practical may yet be able to create a sense of exclusivity for their group via private events. “We have done amazing private events for clients on large ships,” says Wallack. “A good option in that respect is the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Sea that has dedicated conference space. There are four venues on that ship that will each hold at least 1,000 attendees for private parties.”
Aboard the 2,402-capacity Norwegian Jade, the National Agents Alliance incentive group bought out The Haven, an all-suite area at the top of the ship that created an exclusive feel. “All of our attendees were able to come up to the courtyard area where we did a cocktail reception. Only people in The Haven can get up to that part of the ship, so it made them feel very special,” Reavis recounts.
Some degree of exclusivity also can be created with the group shore excursions offered on a non-chartered cruise, by keeping attendees together within the larger group of passengers. Utilizing Regent Seven Seas’ tour of Rhodes, for example, the Voya Financial group was able to stay together on two tour buses reserved for them, Stern relates.
The excursions offered also can be customized for a group; alternatively, a group can use a local DMC to design and execute the tour. There are certain disadvantages to the latter option, however. “The biggest challenge,” says Wallack, “is that you could be hitting four countries in seven days, and you may have to use three or four different DMC companies. So sometimes it is easier to work with the cruise lines, but there are many cases where our partners will use their own partners they’ve used before for land programs to create experiences. When a DMC is really necessary is when you’re doing something like an evening gala (at a port-of-call venue), which is not the specialty of a cruise line.”
A trend in interactive shore excursions is taking hold, Wallack observes. “Companies are looking for more hands-on activities as opposed to traditional tours. For example, excursions that take passengers to local markets to learn about the regional products and cuisine are popular. Oceania’s Marina and Riviera ships house elaborate onboard cooking schools, so passengers can literally source products in town and come back onboard to create their own meals.”
Additionally, CSR activities at ports of call are increasing, she reports. Groups can visit orphanages or do a Habitat for Humanity project at a city on their itinerary, for example.
Given the diversity of potential experiences both onboard and onshore, it is far from repetitive to add more cruises to the rotation of incentive destinations. Itineraries, even for non-chartered vessels, are rich in variety, and the options in ships, entertainment, dining and shore excursions are growing every day as cruise lines seek to spark the interest of new clientele.
Celebrity Cruises plans to acquire Galápagos Islands tour operator Ocean Adventures and its two ships, the 48-guest ship M/V Eclipse and the 16-guest catamaran M/C Athala II. As a result, Celebrity’s guest capacity in the Galápagos will expand by 65 percent.
The Regent Seven Seas Explorer, touted as most luxurious ship ever built, embarks on its maiden voyage this summer. The all-suite, all-balcony 750-guest luxurious ship calls on iconic destinations throughout the Mediterranean from Saint-Tropez and Ibiza to alluring Venice and Cinque Terre.
The 596-capacity Silversea Muse debuts in 2017. The addition of the all-suite accommodations Silver Muse will expand Silversea’s fleet to nine ships.
Carnival Vista, which debuted May 1, offers nearly 30 dining and bar venues showcasing diverse flavors from around the world as well as a wide variety of bars, lounges and watering holes including the line’s first on-board brewery. I&FMM