Meeting planners who’ve handled the logistics for a meeting or incentive program know how challenging it can be to assemble the disparate pieces for a successful event. Between room blocks, transportation, dining venues, meeting rooms, AV requirements and activities to appeal to a multifaceted group, fitting together the puzzle pieces requires a commitment of time, energy and money.
But cruise-based 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.
And the cruise industry is booming. In its annual State of the Industry report, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced that the number of passengers projected to cruise in 2018 will reach 28 million, up five percent from last year, fueled by a growing supply of new and bigger ships.
Fifteen ocean cruise ships will debut in 2018, according to CLIA. But even more are already under construction for launches next year, and the first of three 2,860-passenger ships for Virgin Voyages is due in 2020. In all, a record-setting 106 cruisers are on order through 2027, according to Cruise Industry News — an order book value of more than $64 billion.
A growing number of cruises are being sold to the corporate and incentive market, according to industry insiders.
“Within our own organization, and in speaking with our friendly competitors, we’re beyond busy,” says Pam Kressley, corporate sales manager for global corporate, incentive and charter sales at Royal Caribbean International. “The economy is good and companies are feeling good about meeting differently. Once companies get in new, perhaps younger leadership they tend to be much more open to trying something different.”
Jerilyn Giacone, director of corporate meetings, incentives and strategic alliances for Crystal Cruises, says the line now has a team to handle leads and RFPs. “We are growing at a great pace and gaining more and more interest in what we are bringing to the luxury marketplace. With the growth of Crystal over four luxury brand experiences — by ocean, river, yacht and customized jet charters and air/cruises — it is vital that we focus our attention on the charter and incentive business.”
And Katina Athanasiou, vice president of charters, meetings and incentives for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), asserts business is definitely growing. “We have always had a fantastic team dedicated specifically across all three brands to the corporate market, and over the last 24 months, it’s been growing faster than during the last eight years.”
One planner for a U.S.-based insurance firm who organizes cruise-based events for her company identifies a key factor favoring meetings and incentives at sea as the “contained audience.” “Everyone has to be onboard the ship to sail each evening and therefore you have all of your attendees available for networking,” she explains.
For an event last September that drew 386 attendees, this insurance company chartered Silversea Cruises’ 540-passenger boutique vessel Silver Spirit. The planner said that her company was focused on the destination — the Greek Isles — rather than a specific ship or cruise line.
“It was the ship that was going to be in the area, and the destination was more important to us,” she says. “We hadn’t used Silversea previously but the price point and ship size were an ideal fit for this program. We tend to use smaller luxury cruise lines, as we like to charter the ship for exclusivity. It’s also nice as then we can tailor the ports.”
Silversea had an existing, set itinerary departing from Istanbul, but reworked it at the insurance company’s request. “We changed the embarkation port from Istanbul to Athens due to the issues Turkey was facing at the time. We were also able to select which ports we wanted to go to and which ones we wanted to avoid. This allowed us to stay longer in some ports to enjoy the nightlife and also to avoid busier days in port with other ships.
“Santorini is no fun when there are too many ships so we switched dates with another port,” she suggests.
The plans included a short meeting that was held in the ship’s 320-seat Show Lounge. “The meeting is not mandatory, and we never expect the whole group to attend, so while the theater didn’t accommodate the entire group, we were fine. The technology has improved tremendously over the years, so the quality of the presentations and sound are better. It’s a natural setting for a meeting with the existing stage and theater-style seating.”
The planner says her company has been doing cruise meetings for a number of years and uses a DMC for all activities and arrangements on shore. They also don’t utilize a third-party, using the cruise line’s liaison for support and guidance.
“We love to charter, as the ship will arrange special onboard events and meals,” she adds. “One night they put together an elaborate buffet on the pool deck with all the décor and lighting; it was fabulous.”
The planner says one downside of scheduling incentives on a ship is that one typically can’t book dates more than a year or two in advance, after deployment schedules have been established. But otherwise, the flexibility of the onboard staff is key to making meetings at sea work.
“If they say no in the preplanning phase before the cruise, you can typically get what you want once you’re onboard. The hotel director is your best friend. They run the entire ship and can get you almost anything you need.”
As the industry evolves, so do the ships. The spotlight usually lands on the megaships steaming out of shipyards — Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class Symphony of the Seas, which debuted in March, is currently not only the largest in the line, holding 5,400 passengers (at double occupancy), but the largest cruise vessel in the world. It will be eclipsed by another Royal Caribbean ship coming in 2021. But the smaller, more upscale end of the industry is growing just as fast, with new builds by Silversea, Ponant, Crystal and Regent cruises coming online in the next two years. In late 2019, the first of three 298-passenger ships comes online for The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. And now, Royal Caribbean for the first time can offer high-end luxury experiences with their recent acquisition of a two-thirds stake in Silversea Cruises.
Another megaship new to the scene is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Bliss, which entered service in April 2018. A sister ship to Norwegian Escape, Bliss is notable for the largest go-kart track at sea, an open-air laser-tag course, a high-end barbecue venue and water slides that send riders out over the ocean. Following its May 30 christening in Seattle, the 4,004-passenger vessel first heads to Alaska this month, becoming the largest ship ever to sail the West Coast, before beginning service from Miami on November 17.
Existing ships also are being adapted for the changing needs of cruise lines. During its March refurbishments, Silversea’s Silver Spirit didn’t just get new carpet and paint — the 36,000-ton ship was literally sliced in half during dry dock, with a new, 49-foot-long midsection inserted. The lengthening of the ship added more pool deck, additional dining, an expanded fitness center and cabins for 68 additional passengers.
Innovation for meetings and incentive planners also is called for. Katina Athanasiou, of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, recalls one event that demanded creative solutions.
“We had a super high-end client that needed capacity for 1,000 to 1,200 guests and there is not a luxury line in that size,” she explains. “It was a challenge that nobody else could accommodate at the time. But we drilled down into the needs of the program to understand their objectives. We wound up running two ships, Regent’s Voyager and Navigator, which offered the ability for people to go back and forth between ships. They were able to get everyone together for a reception on Voyager, then did an offsite dinner at a port of call.”
Athanasiou’s position in the industry is unique. She sells not only Norwegian Cruise Line, but also Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. This puts 26 ships with three distinctly different cruise operations at her disposal, catering to all price sectors of the cruise market, and in all regions of the globe.
“I fought hard to have all three brands,” says Athanasiou. “Someone may come to us and say, ‘I really want Oceania because I’ve heard amazing things about those ships,’ but when we start to dive into what they want out of the program, we might steer them to one of the other two brands. We can really hone in on giving them the right product, and we get to provide consistency with terms and contracts. There are so many positives from the synergies that happen.”
Freestyle Dining is what makes Norwegian Cruise Line unique, says Athanasiou. “Freestyle Dining provides the opportunity for you to dine when you want, where you want and what you want. It’s not easy, operationally, especially for a large line. But by not forcing people into locking down a set time and table, Norwegian was an innovator.
“Oceania has been a little gem sitting between the big and little guys, and between the premium and luxury side. There are more inclusions, like bottled waters, sodas, Wi-Fi, and specialty dining. And the dining rooms range from 10 to 120 passengers, so groups can do a buyout of one or more restaurants.
“Regent Seven Seas is an amazing value and brand,” adds Athanasiou. “What sets it apart is the inclusiveness, with free unlimited tours on every single voyage. If we’re in port 12 hours you can do a tour in the morning, come back to the ship for lunch, and do another in the afternoon.”
Athanasiou says the financial and insurance sectors remain very strong for NCLH, and points to Europe as being the leading cruise destination for these planners, “by far.”
“The Eastern Mediterranean has had a huge resurgence of interest, probably followed by the Western Med and then Northern Europe. After Europe would be the Caribbean, followed by Alaska.” Athanasiou also notes that Norwegian is the only cruise line that sails inter-island in Hawaii, aboard the U.S.-built Pride of America, year-round.
On the destination front, Royal Caribbean’s Pam Kressley says that Bermuda has been “exceptionally busy lately,” for incentives and charters. “Not many folks have been to Bermuda and it does not, as a rule, have large resorts — you can’t have 1,500 guests at a resort here. It’s also an expensive destination. So a cruise gives people a chance to get to Bermuda at a great price.”
Kressley suggests that a cruise is the only way to do a large program in Alaska, so those ships are doing well, while the third most popular “destination” she cites is the line’s four Oasis-class ships.
“They are the biggest sellers in our fleet,” says Kressley. “Simply by being the biggest ships in the world they’re a draw, the destination is second. There are so many unique venues to choose from, and no other cruise line has a Boardwalk, a Central Park, a Studio B. These venues are unique to this class of ships, and our groups can privatize them, even for a large-scale event.”
Kressley says Royal Caribbean’s team dedicated to supporting MICE channel exclusively numbers 58 people, led by Lori Cassidy.
“It’s a very valuable channel of business at RCCL,” explains Kressley, “and it requires a specially dedicated team. There are a lot of resources we put towards it, working with incentive house partners and cruise brokers that sell exclusively to this channel.”
Not only has Crystal Cruises developed a dedicated charters, meetings and incentives team, but Jerilyn Giacone says the line has added new features on its ocean ships that meeting planners will appreciate. Guest capacity aboard Crystal Symphony, which has been sailing since 1995, was actually downsized during a major renovation completed last October by converting standard veranda staterooms into suites. The ship now accommodates 848 passengers, eight percent fewer guests than before. A similar refurbishment of Crystal Serenity to be completed this November will reduce capacity to 980 passengers. The result for both ships is more elbow room and a higher crew-to-passenger ratio — key for the luxury sector.
“Crystal was the last luxury line to introduce open dining in our main restaurant and now offers more dining options for both lunch and dinner,” says Giacone. “This is a bonus for groups and incentives that want a luxury experience but also variety and choices that a small luxury ship does not offer. The entertainment lineup also has been updated with new shows and more options early evening for guests who prefer to see a show or hear a single entertainer or comedian before heading to a later dinner. With new technology, we are now able offer free, unlimited Wi-Fi connectivity to guests across multiple devices both in staterooms and throughout the ships. Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity are also the only luxury ships with a dedicated movie theater, which works well for corporate presentations, meetings, panel discussions and lecture programs.”
Crystal Cruises occupies a unique niche in the industry: Carrying just under 1,000 passengers, the line’s two ocean ships are slightly larger than the largest for other luxury operators.
“Our medium-size ships are really in a class by themselves in the luxury cruise space,” explains Giacone. “The ships accommodate fewer guests than other premium lines of similar size, so Crystal has more space per guest, can offer more suites and dining and entertainment options.”
For Celebrity Cruises, all eyes are on Celebrity Edge, a new ship design with four ships ordered that will begin to debut this December. 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, three-deck group space ideal for gatherings, dinners, and functions; a movable deck; and cabins with balcony-like spaces that convert from outside to inside. The recently announced Meeting Place will offer 1,970 sf of event space.
Exemplifying how size is everything in this business, in May 2019 the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora will take to the seas. Designed specifically for cruising the Galapagos Islands, Flora also will be ideal for incentives and small group meetings with an emphasis on corporate responsibility. The intimate vessel will utilize cutting-edge technology and ecofriendly practices to make exploration of this precious archipelago more sustainable, according to Lisa Vogt, Celebrity’s associate vice president for corporate incentives, meetings, and charters.
“A Galapagos cruise not only makes the ultimate bucket-list incentive trip and ideal for small meetings and executive retreats, but they also provide an incredible opportunity to give back to the environment and the local community,” says Vogt.
A key reason planners like setting meetings and incentives at sea is cost savings. Although it depends on a group’s typical spend, Pam Kressley at Royal Caribbean says, on average, savings are about 30 percent.
“They’ll save especially on meeting facilities, since our AV is complimentary,” Kressley explains. “Our theaters can hold up to 1,400 people — think of the cost if you had to build staging and seating in a ballroom and convert that from scratch! We do charge $75 per hour per tech person, but only for the main theaters — it’s complimentary in our conference centers.
“The other area that offers big, big savings is food,” she adds. “There are no F&B minimums on our ships, and that can be a huge challenge on the land side.”
The meeting planner from the insurance company cautions that F&B savings depend on the number of offsite events you plan, due to the all-inclusive nature of a ship.
“The ship used to negotiate with you if you weren’t going to utilize their outlets on the evening of, say, a gala dinner, where 99 percent of your attendees are off the ship. They now are not so apt to do so. If you are spending on offsite meals, you may not be saving money if the ship isn’t willing to negotiate.”
Stacy Anthony, CMM, vice president of meetings and events for insurance broker NFP, says handling her event with Regent Seven Seas Cruises allowed for a more accurate budget process.
“We usually only do four- or five-night events, so a seven-night makes it more expensive,” explains Anthony. “But we found the attendance was high due to the excellent ports and itinerary. The group could see a lot in seven days.”
NFP worked with cruise broker Buy the Sea to plan her event, and did not charter the whole 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager for the 180-person group, sharing a summer Mediterranean itinerary with independent travelers. Anthony says this was not an issue for her group.
“The shared space worked very well. My group preferred it, as they felt like they could meet other people. And for first-time planners not used to cruises, I would definitely recommend using a third-party.”
Voyager received a bow-to-stern refurbishment in November 2016 that gave the ship a fresh, more contemporary look, part of $125 million in fleet-wide upgrades for Regent’s three older ships. The line debuted a fourth ship in 2016, the $450 million, 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer — Regent’s first new ship in a decade. In early 2020, a sister ship, Seven Seas Splendor, will debut.
Anthony came away with suggestions for planners, starting with getting familiar with the ship layout and operation, and the daily agenda. “There’s limited space for groups that are not chartering the ship, so we had to adjust our agenda to be able to use the space when not in public use. Work your event around their agenda for better space and (to make it) easier to manage, but don’t deviate too much from what the ship is used to doing — it confuses the staff on the ship. Listen to their recommendations as to what works best.” I&FMM