Three years ago, as the COVID-19 crisis brought meeting and incentive programs to a halt, the cruise industry was impacted dramatically. For 15 months, U.S.-based cruise companies shut down operation of all ships, and only slowly resumed cruising in summer 2021, with numerous pandemic-related hiccups along the way.
But by the end of last year, the cruise industry had come back in full. Protocols established by the industry helped navigate the choppy waters as the pandemic moved into the rear-view mirror, and today every ship is back at sea, with many sailing at full capacity recently.
For meeting and incentive planners, the return to cruise events has been more cautious, in part due to the lead time usually required for a successful group event. But one factor above all will seal the deal for many companies looking for alternatives to the typical resort or meeting venue: value.
“My experience is that a cruise typically trumps a land package in pricing, variety and value,” says Janis Walter, Travel Advisor, CLIA, IATA, with Travel Dreams Plus. “An all-inclusive resort may come close, but the variety of food and entertainment does not compare. In addition, A/V costs, meeting room rentals and resort transfers add to the price tag for a land package. A cruise gives the corporate office confidence in knowing and keeping within their budget. As for the attendees, there is always something that motivates, whether it is one or more of the ports of call, the ultimate in relaxation or having a floating casino.”
The benefits of using cruise ships for meeting and incentive programs aren’t new, but a growing number of companies have found that the sea offers an edge over traditional land-based programs. Meeting planners who’ve handled the logistics know how challenging it can be to assemble the many and various pieces for a successful event, especially one that takes place in another country. Between room blocks, transportation, dining venues, meeting rooms, A/V 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 event planning. And, by assembling the disparate functions under one umbrella, logistics can be contained, budgeting is more predictable and bundling also usually leads to cost savings over comparable land-based meeting options.
For a 70-person incentive program scheduled for next March, Walter’s client, a marketing firm, will use the 6,762-passenger MSC World Europa on a Mediterranean itinerary visiting four different countries. “MSC Cruises is the first checkpoint when I’m looking for clients who want a European experience,” Walter says. “The cruise line staff and the ports of call both provide a great cultural experience for those who are used to a Caribbean cruise out of the U.S.”
Walker calls the beverage packages offered by MSC very affordable for incentive groups. “Not only do those who qualify for the trip experience a fantastic cruise, but they are welcomed with free alcohol and beverages for the entire duration.” Walker continues: “Most of my clients always prefer a newer ship, and World Europa just launched. In addition, this itinerary sails out of Rome, which was within the budget for flights. Since this is a smaller group, a charter is not really an option. But I find the guests truly enjoy meeting other people from around the world, which is a benefit of cruising — especially with MSC. The price point typically cannot be beat, making it affordable for companies of any size to offer a top-notch incentive trip.”
Walker adds that cruises provide value because accommodations, meals, entertainment and varied destinations are all included. Even A/V requirements can be met in most situations. “I find the technology on board ships to be very competitive with what is available at resorts and land options. There are, of course, limitations in lighting and décor depending on the venue, but even those options can be increased by working with the cruise line ahead of time.”
Walker has done previous incentive programs with MSC Cruises for several years, and since the pandemic, the line has put a new emphasis on incentive travel. “There has been a noticeable difference in the planning stage,” Walkers says. “Working with MSC’s director of charter sales & M.I.C.E. … has been extremely efficient and a pleasure. [The] knowledge and efforts have been as good as any of the other cruise line incentive departments I have worked with. Going through the planning process with someone who has an understanding of incentive travel makes a big difference, and certainly keeps MSC at the top of my list for overseas incentive travel.” Walker continues: “As with any event, you need to know your clients, but even more so when booking a cruise. From cabin type to destination preferences to entertainment interests, it’s important to choose the right ship for the group traveling.”
And, notes Walker, whether for a corporate event or individual travel, not everyone is up for the experience at sea. “Some people don’t like the idea of a cruise. For this reason, it’s important to market the benefits that are not about being on the ocean,” she says. “For example, reminding travelers that they get to visit six distinctive European cities but will only have to unpack their suitcase once — that can be just the inspiration needed to change the mindset of a non-cruiser.”
Despite supply- and pandemic-related delays, shipbuilding didn’t cease during the last few years. If there is a common theme to be gleaned from all the new tonnage, it’s a wide variety of sizes. The ships debuting offer a variety of capacities, allowing for almost any size group to find a ship that fits for their event. Last year’s arrivals included new vessel classes ranging from Seabourn Cruise Line’s first expedition ship, the 264-passenger Seabourn Venture, and the 298-passenger Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s Evrima — a new brand for the high seas — to Celebrity Cruises’ 3,260-passenger Celebrity Beyond and the 216,000-ton MSC World Europa, which represents the largest cruise ship at sea not sailing under the Royal Caribbean flag.
This year, a wealth of new vessels will enter the sea aiming to cater to the U.S. market.
Explora Journeys will debut the first in a new brand of upscale ships as part of Geneva-based MSC Cruises. Explora 1 will offer all-suite accommodations for 922 guests, 18 food and beverage options, four pools and staterooms with balconies starting at 301+-sf — sold on an all-inclusive basis. During its first year of operation, starting in mid summer, no two itineraries will be alike, as Explora 1 ventures from Northern Europe to New England, Canada, the Caribbean, South America, California, Hawaii and on to Alaska next summer. Four sister ships are set to follow, two of which are expected to be powered by hydrogen.
Oceania Cruises’ Vista represents the line’s first new build in 11 years, a 1,200-passenger Allura-class vessel, slightly smaller than Oceania’s previous Marina and Riviera ships. A favorite among foodies, Oceania builds on the culinary focus with new dining venues, a fully-equipped cooking school, along with cabins conceived for solo travelers and Owner’s Suites designed by Ralph Lauren Home. Offering the largest “standard” balconies at sea, Vista sets sail in June.
With Silver Nova, arriving in August, Silversea Cruises will introduce the largest member in its fleet of luxury ships. Using an asymmetrical design almost unseen in the industry, Silver Nova will be one of the world’s most environmentally forward-looking cruise ships, powered by dual engines running on hydrogen fuel cells and liquid natural gas (LNG), and utilizing shore power for emissions-free operations while in port. Silver Nova will carry 728 guests in all-suite comfort, and includes Silversea’s popular Sea And Land Taste (S.A.L.T.) program, an immersive culinary concept to enable guests to travel deeper into the destinations based on gastronomic experiences.
All three of these new ship concepts will offer capacity in a rare, but coveted, size for meeting planners, around 1,000 passengers. But also on deck for this year: In late spring, adults-only Virgin Voyages will debut its third ship, 2,770-passenger Resilient Lady, a sister to the line’s original vessel Scarlet Lady; the 4,810-passenger MSC Euribia is the latest in MSC’s Meraviglia-class vessels, coming in early summer; the 3,219-passenger Norwegian Viva, second in Norwegian Cruise Line’s lineup of less-crowded Prima-class vessels, will debut in late summer; and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 750-passenger Seven Seas Grandeur, latest sister to Seven Seas Explorer and Seven Seas Splendor, arrives in late fall.
This year will also see the revival of a beloved brand, as Crystal Cruises relaunches under the guardianship of A&K Travel Group. Following liquidation by parent company Genting Hong Kong early last year, A&K acquired rights to the line’s brand and its two main ships for $128 million, and both ships are currently undergoing extensive refurbishments. The line has a new tagline, “Crystal: Exceptional at Sea,” and the line’s name will now be simply Crystal.
The refurbishments will reduce overall capacity by combining three staterooms into two, or two into one. On Crystal Serenity, capacity will be reduced by 24%, to 740 passengers; on Crystal Symphony, capacity will be reduced by 28%, to 606 guests. The smallest guest rooms on either ship will come in at 215 sf, and butler service will now be offered in all room categories. Crystal Serenity sets sail with a Mediterranean cruise in mid summer, and Crystal Symphony follows with an early fall sailing out of Athens. The two ships will then travel the world, with Symphony following its Mediterranean summer with Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand itineraries, and Serenity cruising Northern Europe, Canada/New England and the Caribbean before setting course for a world cruise next year.
In early winter, the 3,260-passenger Celebrity Ascent, the fourth ship in Celebrity Cruises’ Edge class, will continue many of the design concepts that made the original Edge a hit — innovative accommodations that meld indoor and outdoor living, a terraced pool deck, rooftop garden and a Magic Carpet that doubles as tender boat access as well as a dining option. The Edge-class ships, like most of the Celebrity fleet, have dedicated meeting venues — in this case, the 1,970-sf Meeting Place, which is situated to provide ocean views. The space can be configured for general sessions, conferences, banquets or cocktail seating, and is equipped with top-notch A/V.
Late last fall, Cathy Watkins, CIS, manager of operations for SMI Travel Inc., attended a three-night event aboard Celebrity Edge. “It was my very first time being on Celebrity, and it was outstanding,” says Watkins, who is currently negotiating with Celebrity to host an HVAC company’s 120-person event next year. “What stood out most was the service, which was beyond exceptional. They far exceeded any other cruise line I’ve been on. We’ve used a variety of cruise lines for events — Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Windstar and others, but this client wants something new and fresh, and Celebrity piqued our interest,” she says.
Watkins notes that her client’s meeting budget will go a lot farther at sea. “The advantages of a cruise are having the activities, the dining venues with their different menus, and there’s Broadway-style entertainment,” she says. “That doesn’t happen on land, unless you’re buying tickets to go to a play. When the client wants an opportunity to meet their producers and interact with them one on one, if they have the budget, we’ll do a buyout of a restaurant on the ship. They’ll also have a day at sea when the guests can’t go anywhere, and this also gives the client an opportunity to interact. On land, the participant can have their own agenda and be gone from the hotel the whole day.”
Tara Carpenter, charter and group account manager at Worldwide Cruise Associates, says compared to land-based events, organizing at sea is significantly more streamlined. “All your points of contact are in one location, everyone works well together and does this day in and day out, so they have a well-oiled system in place. Being able to board the ship and have all your events, meeting spaces and food and beverage — even specialty restaurants — be taken care of is very appealing.”
For a law firm’s annual training meeting of lawyers coming in the summer, Carpenter needed an upscale ship with meeting space for daily educational sessions lasting two to four hours each. “This particular group sails at minimum once a year, and they always do a group versus charter,” Carpenter says. “They are well seasoned in knowing the ins and outs of being a group. The biggest requirement was meeting space for multiple hours, which isn’t always easy to get.”
Carpenter continues: “Seabourn has been great to work with and we have collaborated to make sure the group as well as passengers have a fantastic experience and have all their needs met,” says Carpenter, who notes the client requests meeting space well in advance to ensure it is reserved for them. The all-inclusive nature of Seabourn was also appealing. “Having a 5-star luxury product with built-in signature events that make the trip extra special was also a huge selling point. We know the quality of service and food that Seabourn offers is always top notch, and sure to impress the end user.”
Once they determined that the client wanted Seabourn, they matched the ship to the requested itinerary and embarkation location, Carpenter says. “We select certain cruise lines based on our history with them, of knowing which ones can truly accommodate the requests we will put in for each individual group or charter. A great product with a poorly matched ship won’t work, so it’s crucial to make sure the match is right.”
Carpenter contracted for 51 suites aboard Seabourn Encore, a 604-passenger ship that will sail out of Athens. She says the customer service during planning has been on par with what she expected from Seabourn, and interaction with the ship’s staff as well as shoreside has been seamless. “I know we are in excellent hands,” Carpenter says. “The F&B really stands out, with so many options capable of being truly customized to produce a unique experience for our client. I don’t think most people really understand how much is customizable when on a ship, especially of this caliber. If you can dream it, we can come up with a way to make it happen in conjunction with Seabourn.”
Carpenter says an experienced partner such as Worldwide can make a huge difference in the planning process. “If you have never done a program on a ship, I would highly recommend using a brokerage agency,” Carpenter says. “There are hundreds of ships available to the corporate market, and it’s impossible for clients to know which ship and cruise line best fits their needs.” C&IT