With incentive travel programs flourishing again and planners always on the lookout for something new, different and special, cruise ships are increasingly becoming a go-to option. By offering a wide range of ship sizes, itineraries and onboard amenities, there is literally a ship that is right for every budget and attendee demographic. And with many budgets remaining tight, incentives at sea also offer tremendous value.
“The big thing that appeals to me as a planner is that cruise programs are easy to do,” says Barb Orvis, senior meeting and event planner at Voya Financial in Minneapolis. “They are also basically all-inclusive. So that means I get good value. And that’s obviously important when budgets are tight or if you’re looking to get a big bang for your dollar.”
“The big thing that appeals to me as a planner is that cruise programs are easy to do.” — Barb Orvis
Orvis has been using cruise ships as venues for 15 years, with her most recent program in 2012 using Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, out of Barcelona, Spain, for a five-night Mediterranean itinerary that included Monaco, Rome and Majorca. This June, she will do a seven-day river cruise program with AmaWaterways along the fabled Rhine River from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland.
The favorable value proposition that cruise programs offer has always been a factor in the appeal of cruise programs for her, Orvis says. “But at the same time, I do think one thing the cruise lines have done to make cruising more attractive is that they have added even more value over the years,” she says. “For example, the spas are bigger and better now. The onboard amenities, such as specialty restaurants and activities, are more varied. And now, almost every day you hear about some brand new ship that is coming online and offering something new and different.”
The bottom-line value derived from a cruise program also is a major factor for Amy Ingalls, senior meeting and event planner at Transamerica Life & Protection in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
She has planned several Caribbean and Alaska cruise programs, ranging in size from 200–650 attendees. A particular favorite was a program aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. “That ship and all of the amenities it offers were major factors in our decision to do our cruise programs,” Ingalls says. “The wide range of entertainment options, dining options, ports of call…the list of reasons why we like Allure of the Seas goes on and on. We’ve used other cruise lines for incentive trips, too, and they are always a positive experience for the qualifiers.”
In fact, she and her qualifiers like cruise programs so much she is planning another Alaska cruise for next year.
“Cruise programs are a great value, for not only my convention budget, but also for the attendees’ budgets,” Ingalls says. “It is easy to understand what is and isn’t included. And I’ve had some attendees tell me that they have walked off the ship with a zero balance.”
She also likes cruise programs because of what they offer attendees. “For some of our first-time qualifiers, a cruise program was also their first time out of the country,” she says. “And the fact that they can go to multiple countries on a cruise ship, makes the experience that much more memorable.”
Ingalls says she marvels at the reaction she gets from attendees who experience a cruise program for the first time — a unique manifestation of the wow factor. “One of my favorite parts of a cruise is when attendees first step foot onboard the ship,” she says. “Their eyes are wide open, and ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ follow. Then this huge rush of energy comes over them, and they scurry around to discover every corner of the ship.”
Her attendees also tell Ingalls they consider a cruise a huge reward. “They love it,” she says. “Stop and think about how many people in this world have ‘take a cruise’ on their bucket list. I have helped hundreds and hundreds cross that off their bucket list.”
One of the key reasons why cruise programs are steadily gaining awareness and popularity among planners is the ever-growing range and diversity of options, both in terms of type of ship and itinerary, says Jo Kling, president of Miami-based Landry & Kling, Events at Sea, the industry’s leading provider of cruise program planning services.
The offerings and itineraries vary from cruise line to cruise line and even within the same cruise line, different ships offers different experiences that can be perfectly tailored to an individual group, Kling explains.
At the same time, land-based options in ports of call offer an ever-increasing array of options. “Not only are there more and more things to do onboard cruise ships, but there are more and more things to do onshore,” Kling says. “For example, Windstar now offers complimentary events ashore, such as an evening of entertainment with music or something culturally exciting like fire dancers. Or you can do things like a wine-tasting in Italy.”
The long recession and meeting industry slowdown of 2008–2010 also served as a catalyst for increasing planner awareness of the unique advantages and benefits of cruise programs, Kling says.
The simple fact that sleeping rooms, food and beverage, onboard entertainment and ground transportation for shore excursions are also included in a single price has greatly accelerated interest in and the use of cruise programs over the last several years.
“Every planner is looking for real value now,” Kling says. “And nothing else out there delivers better value than cruise programs. And that’s true even for companies that do have a large budget. Even then, you still get a lot more for your money on a cruise ship.”
The other factor that is making cruise programs more popular for planners relates to the attendees, Kling says. “And that is based on the focus, the immersion, the unique experience that attendees get on a cruise ship versus a land-based program. And those things also contribute to attendee engagement, which is one of the hot terms now in the meeting industry. And what is more engaging than being on a cruise ship?”
A related and equally important benefit is that a cruise ship gives attendees a real VIP, red carpet experience, Kling notes. And that is especially important for incentive programs, she says, because motivation and recognition are core elements of the program.
“The other thing is that with a cruise program, you get to go to a number of exciting destinations and not just one,” she says. “And that by definition makes a cruise program a unique experience compared to a land-based program. And although you’re going to multiple destinations, you only have to pack and unpack once.”
“In terms of when and why we look at cruise ships, our incentive programs rotate the kinds of destinations we do,” Orvis says. “We do not do the same thing back to back for the same group. We always try to mix things up and keep the programs exciting. So that means that every two or three years, we choose a cruise option for the programs I do. But other divisions within our company also use cruise ships for some of their programs.”
When planning a program, Ingalls analyzes the relative advantages of a smaller ship versus a bigger ship. “In general, we tend to prefer smaller ships because our groups are smaller,” she says. “But on the other hand, a bigger ship gives you more space and more dining and entertainment options. And if you’re going on a seven-day program, on a bigger ship you also get the advantage that home office people do not have to be in such close quarters with your attendees all the time. There’s plenty of space to move around and be on your own, and not feel like you are always running into and talking to the same people every day.”
Two other important factors that often convince planners to use a cruise ship versus a traditional land-based program are the exceptional quality of the food and entertainment.
“The food experience you have on a cruise ship simply cannot be matched by most hotels, and especially not on the tight budgets so many planners have since the recession,” Kling says.”
And each year, she adds, cruise lines offer more and more specialized dining experiences, such as sushi bars and fine Italian restaurants. “And on a ship from a line like Norwegian Cruise Line, you might have as many as 25 different restaurants.”
The ever-growing list of specialty dining options also means that many ships now offer what is, in effect, a built-in onboard dine-around program, Orvis says, adding that larger ships offer more restaurants and dining options that meet the specific preferences of individual attendees. Larger ships, she says, also offer more options for a small group to do a buyout of a specialty restaurant for a special event such as an awards banquet or cocktail reception.
The entertainment aboard a cruise ship is every bit as spectacular as the food. “And the choice and range of options you have on a cruise ship is just completely different from a hotel, where you have to choose your entertainment and then book it and then pay separately for it,” Kling says. “On a cruise ship, the entertainment is also included in the price and we are talking about Las Vegas-quality entertainment, and Broadway-style shows or extravaganzas like Blue Man Group.”
And the astonishing offerings seem to become more exciting every year.
For example, Kling says, Holland America’s new Koningsdam will offer a “Music Walk” with three distinct entertainment experiences that include a partnership with Lincoln Center, a B.B. King Blues Club and Billboard Onboard, which will deliver a live interactive music experience.
Celebrity Cruises will unveil 18 new shows in 18 months, created exclusively for Celebrity They will feature elements of drama, dance, comedy, musical theater and concert-style performances. The shows include Elyria, an energetic, late-night production, where guests are transported to a witty, mischievous, dreamlike world.
Celebrity also will present 10 engaging entertainment experiences on every ship such as Side Show, an interactive and vintage circus theme party and Night of the Dragon, which features the delicate beauty of Asian culture mixed with pop music.
Princess Cruises has announced a partnership with award-winning Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, who will oversee creative development of four new musicals.
Norwegian Escape will feature two Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals including the smash hit “After Midnight,” which recently completed its Broadway run.
“Those are just the most recent examples of the kind of sensational entertainment you can get on a cruise ship,” Kling says. “And those options are included in the price, and planners don’t have to do any work to arrange them.”
As a result of burgeoning demand for new cruise ships from both individual travelers and groups, the major cruise lines also continue to develop and build new ships, each more spectacular than its predecessors. The major lines also regularly introduce new itineraries.
Royal Caribbean will introduce four innovative new ships between now and 2018. Anthem of the Seas will sail for five-night itineraries from Bermuda starting next spring. Harmony of the Seas will sail for seven-night itineraries from Barcelona to “the best of the Mediterranean” next June and then move to South Florida for seven-night Caribbean cruises beginning in the fall of next year. Ovation of the Seas will sail from China, with the itinerary of a fourth new ship to be announced in the future.
OB3 technology, the fastest Internet speed/bandwidth at sea today (land speed) is now available on both Oasis and Quantum class ships, according to a Royal Caribbean spokesperson.
Royal Caribbean also boasts a number of unique venues for private events including the Main Theater for up to 1400 guests; Studio B for up to 900 attendees; Boardwalk neighborhood — an open-air area suitable for receptions — for up to 1,500 guests; the Solarium, a semi-outdoor event venue for receptions for up to 1,200 guests; and conference centers for up to 400 participants.
Royal Caribbean will debut “Mamma Mia” on Allure of the Seas and “We Will Rock You” on Anthem of the Seas.
Some of the most unique activities at sea can be found on Royal Caribbean ships. Great options for teambuilding include IFly (sky diving), Flowrider (surf simulators), rock climbing, zip lining, ice skating, mini golf and much more.
Customized VIP and Group Shore Excursion experiences also are available in all of Royal Caribbean’s ports of call.
Disney Cruise Lines also has announced major news. In mid-May, the Disney Magic arrived in New York City as part of a transatlantic crossing to kick off a summer season in Norway and Europe. In the fall of next year, Disney Cruise Line will return to New York for a limited time with sailings to the Bahamas that include a visit to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. New seven-night Caribbean cruises from Miami and a return to Galveston, Texas, will round out the season.
On October 7, 2016, the Disney Magic will sail from New York on an eight-night Bahamian cruise that includes stops at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay in Nassau, Bahamas; and a stop in Port Canaveral, Florida, which is located just one hour from the Walt Disney World Resort.
On October 15, 22 and 29, 2016, the Disney Magic will sail from New York on seven-night cruises that stop at Castaway Cay and Port Canaveral.
On October 2, 2016, the Disney Magic will sail from New York on a five-night cruise to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. In these charming Canadian ports, guests can soak in splendid natural vistas, explore historic sites, visit quaint cafés and shops, and browse Canada’s oldest farmer’s market.
And for the first time ever, in 2016 Disney Cruise Line guests will provide a season of seven-night voyages from Miami to the Eastern and Western Caribbean. On November 20 and December 4, 2016, the Disney Magic will sail from Miami to the Western Caribbean, with stops in Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Castaway Cay.
In the summer of 2016, luxury cruise line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which includes Norwegian Cruise Line as well as Oceania Cruises, will debut its much-anticipated new, 750-passenger, all-suite Seven Seas Explorer, which is touted as “the most luxurious ship ever built.”
The Regent Seven Seas Explorer will debut a new restaurant, Chartreuse, akin to a chic Parisian fine-dining restaurant. In addition, the first Culinary Arts Kitchen will feature 18 fully equipped individual cooking stations arranged in three rows on the ship’s 11th deck.
According to Katina Athanasiou, vice president of charters, meetings and incentives for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, all of their ships are available for full charters for meetings and incentives. Regent Seven Seas ships could be considered as “floating conference centers,” as they offer everything needed for meetings, from state-of-the-art, multimedia facilities and conference rooms to wireless Internet access and audio-visual equipment. A full-ship charter allows planners to customize every detail including the company’s logo on all materials, entertainment, menus, onboard activities, shore excursions and even the itinerary.
As an added bonus, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is the only brand that offers free unlimited shore excursions in every port of call in every destination.
Carnival Cruise Line returned to the Port of Baltimore. The Carnival Pride’s year-round schedule from Baltimore includes a wide range of departures, from five-day Bermuda cruises to seven- to 14-day voyages visiting destinations in the Caribbean, The Bahamas and Florida.
“We are thrilled to be returning to the Port of Baltimore, which is such a fantastic cruise departure point for people in the mid-Atlantic states, the Northeast and beyond,” said Christine Duffy, Carnival president. “Carnival Pride has just undergone a massive enhancement program that added a variety of great new features which, when combined with the wide range of itinerary options, makes the ship an excellent vacation choice for consumers and a great selling opportunity for our valued travel agent partners,” she adds.
Carnival Pride recently underwent an extensive multimillion-dollar dry dock that added a variety of the line’s Fun Ship 2.0 innovations, including new dining venues such as Guy’s Burger Joint, BlueIguana Cantina and Bonsai Sushi, exciting bar concepts such as Alchemy Bar, RedFrog Pub and the poolside RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar, as well as new entertainment choices. A massive WaterWorks water park featuring Green Thunder, the fastest and steepest waterslide at sea, was added, as well.
Carnival Cruise Line will debut in 2016 the new Carnival Vista, billed as the “largest and most innovative ‘Fun Ship.’ ”
Embodying Carnival Cruise Line’s motto of Fun For All, All For Fun, the new Carnival Vista will offer a variety of amazing, one-of-a-kind onboard features when it enters service next spring.
Costa Cruises’ new 1,130-cabin vessel Costa Deliziosa will debut at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale during the 2015-2016 winter season and sail a series of 10-night voyages as well as shorter cruises to the Western and Eastern Caribbean. Costa Deliziosa’s series of six 10-night sailings will include visits to Nassau or Freeport, Bahamas; Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; Roatan, Honduras; and Cozumel or Costa Maya, Mexico. The ship features four restaurants, 11 bars, three pools, a 4-D cinema, golf and Costa Cruises’ signature Samsara Spa.
Given the ever-expanding list of options planners have, one key to a successful cruise program is analyzing the vast array of choices and matching the ship and itinerary to the demographics of the group and the goal of the program, Kling says. “There are so many choices now that a planner has to start by looking at things like the range and interests of his or her group,” she says. “And you also have to look at the organizational goal for the program. Then you start to look at your options for making a particular ship and itinerary support your demographics, interests and goals. Those are the real keys to success.” I&FMM