Five-star service, built-in entertainment, better control of costs and that ever-elusive element of focus that a captive audience provides — these are some of the key reasons meeting planners cite when discussing programs based on cruise ships.
In addition to an ever-changing backdrop of sea and sky and a daily roster of new ports upon which to call, the sea can provide a solid alternative to land-based events.
It’s selling points such as these that satisfied Sabrina Hogan, CMP, director, meetings and events for Columbia, SC-based Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company. For a Leaders Conference last year attracting 590 employees, Colonial Life chartered Regent Seven Seas Explorer.
“When chartering the ship, your attendees know that whomever they encounter is with the same group and starting up a conversation
is much easier.” Sabrina Hogan, CMP
“The size of this ship was perfect for our Leaders Conference,” Hogan says. “Our attendees had an all-exclusive experience with luxurious accommodations and service. We have chartered Regent ships many times over the years, and the impeccable service that they provide keeps us returning. Their ships are the right size for our group, and when you charter, the space is yours to use as you wish.”
Debuting as Regent’s fourth ship in 2016, the $450 million, 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer was the line’s first new ship in a decade. Aboard Explorer, every cabin is a suite and each suite measures more than 300 sf. Gourmet cuisine is designed for the most discerning passengers, while 2,500 pieces of artwork include original pieces by Picasso and Chagall. Despite such lavish amenities, Hogan says her budget for a cruise program is about the same as a land-based resort.
“But our attendees have a whole different experience,” Hogan adds. “When using a resort, we do not provide lunch and dinner every night. They are also responsible for the cost of their tours. On a cruise, all these things are included for the attendees. It is also much easier to manage a budget. You can include everything, even the tours, making it truly an all-inclusive experience. And our group loves networking time — having a day at sea provides this. When chartering the ship, your attendees know that whomever they encounter is with the same group and starting up a conversation is much easier.”
Hogan notes that aboard a cruise ship, some elements of a program might face limitations. “You have to get a bit more creative with the space, but Regent was more than willing to brainstorm ideas on how best to make the space work for our group. Once onboard, the crew helps you accomplish everything they can — things that you might have struggled with during the planning phase are, in most cases, taken care of easily. If you need larger tables for dinners, they can accommodate. After the first night of the cruise, they knew our group was going to be utilizing room service late at night so they changed the staff’s schedule to handle the late night orders in a timely manner.”
Hogan also uses a third-party planner, primarily to assist with the contract negotiations.
“By the time I get the contract, he has already worked out most of the kinks,” Hogan says. “He knows what our legal department will require and exactly what to ask for. He then becomes my convention services manager. I recommend using someone like this so that you have one contact. He has been a lifesaver when things occur, because he knows the inner workings of the ship and exactly who to contact to make things happen. There have also been times that he handled issues before I even knew they were an issue. Having him as part of my team reduces my stress significantly.”
A sea-based incentive does have some limitations, and Hogan says on this cruise Wi-Fi was an issue. “It was very slow and connectivity was a problem. Also, our media crew was not able to adjust any of the lighting in the show lounges. The cruise line had them set for their entertainment. We sometimes have to supplement the stage lighting in order to accommodate our needs.” These types of hurdles are another reason Hogan recommends the services of an experienced cruise planner.
“If you have never held a meeting a sea, use a third-party,” she concludes. “They will save you lots of time and headaches.”
In February 2020, Regent will be adding a second Explorer-class ship, Seven Seas Splendor, and an additional sister will join the fleet in 2023. But Regent is only one piece of the trifecta of cruise lines operating under the banner of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Katina Athanasiou, CITP, vice president of charters, meetings and incentives, oversees not just Regent, but Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) — three distinctly different operations catering to all price sectors of the cruise market, in all regions of the globe, with 29 ships.
At Oceania, the line’s Regatta-class ships are going through a renovation designed to create a new sophisticated and modern look. Oceania Cruises also announced plans for two new 1,200-passenger ships, dubbed Allura class, scheduled to arrive in 2022 and 2025.
Oceania recently completed a refresh of the Sirena as part of the line’s $100 million OceaniaNext program of continuous improvements. The upgrade included some features that were not installed on the Insignia, the first of six ships in the OceaniaNext upgrade sequence. They include new doors and full-length mirrors in each cabin, new wall sconces in the spa, additional crystal chandeliers in the public spaces and stair lobbies, and 100-volt sockets on each side of the bed in cabins.
New art also has been commissioned, including a work by the line’s executive culinary director, Jacques Pepin, which will hang in the restyled Bar Istas, the ship’s social hub and coffee bar. At the center of the ship, the deck-and-a-half tall French-glass mirror that crowns the ship’s reception lobby and grand staircase displays a hand-painted willow tree meant to symbolize “balance, learning, growth and harmony,” according to Oceania. Nearby in the reception lobby is a commissioned piece by Soumiya Lakshmi Krishnaswamy that “seeks to capture the spirit of adventure that lies in the sea,” Krishnaswamy says. The 684-passenger ship, acquired in 2016 from Princess Cruises, received $40 million in improvements before being put into service at that time by Oceania.
Following a $50 million renovation, NCL transferred the 2-year-old, 3,800-passenger Norwegian Joy, originally intended for the Chinese market, to North America. This November the line will debut Norwegian Encore, the last of the 4,000-passenger, Breakaway-plus ships.
Other cruise lines are also focused on the meetings and incentive market and polishing their wares for an exacting audience. Visiting more than 400 destinations and all seven continents annually, Seabourn Cruise Line competes with Regent for the high-end market, starting with its three all-suite, 450-passenger Odyssey-class ships. Unique among many cruise ships, all guests can be accommodated for a meeting or presentation in The Grand Salon theater, or in The Restaurant for Gala Dinners.
Two equally deluxe 600-passenger ships were added to the Seabourn fleet in recent years, Encore and Ovation. Meanwhile, Seabourn’s next venture is a pair of ultra-luxury, purpose-built expedition ships that will launch in 2021 and 2022. The 264-passenger ships, a perfect size for charters, will take guests to even more remote places than currently found on the exotic Seabourn schedule.
Silversea also has a collection of intimate luxury ships, ranging from the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos to the line’s newest ship, the 596-passenger Silver Muse. Several ships are currently on order, including Silver Moon, a sister to the popular Silver Muse, and Silver Origin, a purpose-built ship destined for the Galapagos Islands — both arriving in 2020.
A recent European program conducted by a life insurance company aboard Silver Spirit took advantage of the ship’s lengthening last year that added a new midsection. Originally built almost 10 years ago, Silver Spirit’s “stretching” added 34 cabins, bringing its capacity to 608 passengers.
“I used this ship before and liked the size, and I liked the fact that there were multiple dining options and a variety of spaces on the ship where people could gather,” explained the planner. “The caliber of the ship — in terms of service, size of rooms, number of larger suites, number and type of restaurants — works for the profile of my group. We can leverage the vessel for all of our functions.”
In contrast to those who recommend hiring a third-party to oversee details, this planner preferred to stay closely involved in the process.
“For some planners just going along with what the ship does on a regular cruise is fine,” she explains. “A meeting planner can help if you are a novice. But for us it is all about customization, and you really need to understand what you are working with, what is doable, and then partnering with the ship’s staff to make it all happen. I am very hands-on and work direct, but my experience is the staff welcomes that opportunity to work outside the box. It is work but can be worth the effort for sure in terms of achieving your business objective and client satisfaction. Again, it is a partnership.”
What kinds of challenges did this planner experience?
“Planning can be hard since the staff on the ship is always moving,” she says. “So until the last 30 days, getting details firmed up is tough. The back office of Silversea and the sales rep worked hard for us, but the next time around I would do a face-to-face planning meeting in advance, if possible. The shipboard staff worked very hard to accomplish our objectives.”
She adds, “We find that we have to bring in all of our own A/V equipment for the high-end meetings and shows we host. But we supplied all the unique requirements — including booking entertainment, and providing and supporting all of our own production for our meetings and entertainment.”
Although the planner suggests that a European cruise is fairly comparable in price to a land-based event, she felt the guarantee of a contract in U.S. dollars makes budgeting easier. And she finds any challenges that exist are worth surmounting in the end.
“There are always challenges to overcome in planning any event — land or sea,” she explains. “But on the ship we have a captive audience and we find that, with all the people we are trying to make connections with, the sea program allows us time to do that.”
She adds, “Explore options and be brave, and see what the possibilities can be.”
Royal Caribbean Cruises last year acquired a majority stake in Silversea, providing the parent company with a pure luxury play within its family of cruise lines. The Royal Caribbean brand itself represents a fleet of 26 ships, including several of the largest at sea, carrying up to 5,600 passengers. In contrast to smaller vessels, those ships themselves are often the destination.
Royal Caribbean’s main theaters seat up to 1,411 guests, while other venues include ice skating rinks, “neighborhoods” such as Central Park replete with thousands of plants and trees, and conference centers that accommodate up to 400 seated, Royal Caribbean is the only fleet with dedicated conference centers on every ship. The line also works to accommodate planners desiring shorter programs. Three-, four-, and five-night cruises out of PortMiami and Port Canaveral, east of Orlando in Brevard County, visit Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s newly revitalized private island in the Bahamas, which came online for cruisers this year.
Royal Caribbean Cruises’ second-largest brand is Celebrity Cruises, which launched Celebrity Edge last December, the line’s first new ship in six years. The 2,900-passenger Edge represents a completely new ship design for Celebrity, and received kudos for blending innovation, technology and comfort. The Meeting Place aboard Edge is a 1,970-sf venue equipped with 85-inch LED screens and other state-of-the art A/V features, and can seat up to 200 guests, theater-style.
Cruise Critic editors selected Edge as the best new ship of the year, and lauded the Magic Carpet that transforms from a tender platform to an al fresco sushi station, and the Infinite Verandas that convert from an ocean view to a balcony with the push of a button. Four more Edge-class ships are on order, including Celebrity Apex, arriving in Spring 2020.
Also new for Celebrity Cruises is the 100-passenger, purpose-built Celebrity Flora, designed specifically for cruising the Galapagos Islands — and for rewarding top performers with something beyond merchandise. Flora will also place an emphasis on corporate responsibility — the ship is built with dynamic positioning to “anchor” without anchors and solar panels to supplement electricity. Past Galapagos Celebrity guests have planted over 38,000 trees. The intimate vessel arrives next summer.
For a leader’s conference with a U.S.-based life insurance company last year, Roland Navarro, president of Seven Seas Corporate Cruises and Events, recommended Celebrity Summit for the group of 600 attendees.
“In this particular case the client was also looking at resorts in the Caribbean,” Navarro says. “After hurricane Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean in late 2017, many resorts shut down and some are still not open today. They are very grateful to have selected a ship for their event and not the resort they considered.” Celebrity Summit is home-ported in the Caribbean during the winter, doing seven-night, back-to-back cruises. Navarro’s group needed only five days, but that allowed Celebrity to customize the itinerary out of San Juan. “We were in a different destination every day of the cruise. It was a five-night itinerary and included St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Barts and St. Thomas.”
Celebrity Summit, built in 2001, normally accommodates 2,158 passengers, but as Navarro’s group had chartered the entire ship, they had full access to all public spaces.
“It was a good fit because of Celebrity Cruises’ food and beverage reputation along with their level of service,” Navarro explains. “The receptions and private dinners were flawless. The client also wanted the ship to be all-inclusive, so Celebrity included optional items to be added into the charter price, such as specialty restaurant cover charges, gelato and specialty coffees, room service and the premium beverage package. Our main planning contact from Celebrity, Angelica Camacho, charter manager, sailed with us. She is a true professional who gets things done. Everyone onboard the ship has worked with her many times before so she was the perfect shoreside extension onboard to implement the operational plan.”
The group used the Summit’s main show lounge for its Awards Show, a room outfitted with lasers, lighting, sound and projection screens. Navarro notes how these are add-ons that would typically need to be paid for at a resort, but are customarily included for a cruise meeting, one of several pricing advantages cruises have over traditional land-based programs.
“In our experience of holding events at resorts and on cruise ships, the cruise option can save up to 10 to 20 percent, depending on the itinerary,” Navarro says. “Since the cruise line does not charge for room rental and A/V equipment use, and because most of the public rooms are themed, it saves on the décor and production budgets. And as most costs are all upfront, the cruise offers better budget control. Clients also feel that a cruise offers better security than a land resort.”
Navarro says the another reason cruise-based events work is that the participants are literally a captive audience. “At a resort, once the events are over guests can leave the property,” he says. “On a ship, once onboard, you know where they are. On a charter the only guests aboard are your guests, so the networking and bonding is evident in all the public spaces during their free time.”
Navarro cautioned that there are still unique considerations that must be taken into account when planning a cruise program.
“You need to know the seating and space capacities for all public rooms,” Navarro explains. “Many tables are bolted down and can’t be moved, so don’t assume making changes will always be possible. You need to be certain that the business end of the event can be accommodated first — the sleeping rooms, F&B and other things will all fall into place.”
He continues: “Make sure you bring all the computer dongles you have to make sure they are compatible to the equipment onboard for presentations. Make sure you know what equipment is onboard so you can bring what you need to make your production work.”
These kinds of details are reasons planners doing their first event on a ship may want to consider bringing in a third-party expert.
“For someone doing this for this first time, there are so many things that need to be negotiated upfront or they can become challenges down the line and once onboard,” Navarro says. “We always suggest the use of a third party experienced in cruise events to help mitigate the charter/group rate, the inclusions, etc. It will save you money.” I&FMM.