Much like the surge of programs that have returned to European destinations and popular domestic beach resorts, cruising has also seen a comeback.
Cruise ships are regularly sailing at full capacity again, and shipyard order books are once again locked in years ahead. With a total of 38,500 new berths coming online this year, ranging from intimate 100-passenger luxury ships to bells-and-whistles expedition vessels, to 5,600-passenger mega-ships packed with amenities, the cruise industry appears to be experiencing a new renaissance.
What has been somewhat slower to come back has been the MICE sector. That’s due, in part, to the long lead time meeting planners usually require for successful events. But also, international travel hurdles and health restrictions have only recently receded into the background. The one thing planners cite over and over as the chief advantage of meetings and incentive programs at sea is the value.
If you have not taken a cruise previously, consider this as an opportunity.
“The pricing includes your food, entertainment, meeting space and more, depending on the cruise line,” Diana Bloss, director of operations of Worldwide Cruise Associates, in Plantation, FL, said. “For your events onboard, you don’t pay fees for the event room, as you do at a hotel. On a ship, the AV gear is also free. At a hotel, you pay extra for it. Your entertainment is included and you don’t have to worry about arranging transportation to a venue for dinner or a show, which would add another cost. At the end of the day, not only does it take less staff on the planner’s side, but it is cheaper and you know all your costs upfront. There are no surprises.”
Graysen Ledbetter, marketing specialist — promotions with Kimball Midwest, in Columbus, OH, concurred, following his experience using a Celebrity Cruises ship for a 28-person incentive trip.
“The difference in cost between a cruise event and a resort are drastic,” Ledbetter said. “When researching different options we had available for our incentive trips, resort events were nearly double the cost of a cruise event. This is an important factor for corporate incentive trips, as maintaining the budget set beforehand is crucial.”
As he researched options for an Alaskan incentive program, Ledbetter chose Celebrity Cruises because he said the line stood out for its luxury trimmings.
Although Ledbetter found that Celebrity was not the least expensive option, he said, “I could tell that the quality of entertainment, dining and overall experience would be above and beyond. Everything exceeded our expectations.”
Kimball Midwest selected the Celebrity Solstice, which can accommodates up to 2,852 passengers. It is a ship that operates seven-day Alaskan cruises out of Seattle.
“I knew the Solstice would provide a great experience for attendees,” Ledbetter said. “This was important, as we wanted to ensure all felt at ease and comfortable with the different amenities and overall experience onboard. We knew we wanted to do an Alaskan cruise, but departing from Seattle was a major factor. This allowed all to fly into Seattle fairly easily and we didn’t have to worry about passport restrictions. We wanted to ensure that all were in Seattle a day before departure, as one flight delay can mean the difference between having the experience of a lifetime or missing out on boarding the ship.”
Ledbetter said that sharing the ship with paying passengers did not affect his group’s program in any way.
“All had an incredible experience,” Ledbetter added. “The only accommodations we requested was for our groups to be seated next to each other in the dining room and a Welcome Aboard Happy Hour. It was a great way to celebrate our sales’ teams success and kicked off their memorable trip. We wanted our group to escape work, as they were the ones who earned their spot on this incentive trip, so we did not plan for many group functions or events. However, I worked directly with Celebrity to book at least one excursion for each guest.”
According to Ledbetter, it was overall an easy process and something that made planning a lot easier.
“From the dining room, casino, theater, and even the basketball court, there was not an inch of the ship that was not explored,” Ledbetter said. “The size of the Celebrity Solstice was truly remarkable and the different amenities it had to offer were incredible. With a cruise incentive program, you visit different ports, places you may have never been to before or even thought to visit and you then have a chance to go on some of the most memorable excursions you can imagine.”
For Stacey Edwards, vice president of talent and marketing for MedPro Healthcare Staffing, in Sunrise, FL, Celebrity Cruises is the top pick for a five-day incentive program planned for the end of this year.
“We have used other cruise lines in the past, but Celebrity was far and away a step above what we experienced previously,” Edwards said. “It was obvious from my initial call with our sales representative that this was going to be a different experience.”
With more than 60 different cruise ships embarking from South Florida in winter months, Edwards had a variety of options at all price points to consider for a tropical itinerary. Earlier in the year, while Celebrity Silhouette was docked in Miami, she took her team aboard for a site visit.
“We were impressed by the facilities, staterooms, dining experience and overall service,” Edwards said. “The past few years, our company has done this trip on land. Based on the price and what we had done for those trips, this was exceptional value. We are sharing the cruise with the public. Our group is around 400 people, so we’ll be less than 15% of the overall cruise passengers. With that said, we have private event space for our evening events and team building planned that the ship was able to accommodate.”
In order to book this event, the cruise line needed to provide Edwards with a meeting room large enough for the whole group, and they ended up securing the main theatre with its built-in AV.
Edwards also arranged for everyone to be seated together in the main dining room each night and she is discussing internally whether to plan additional events. She said that she was pleased with the service they received onboard.
“During my site visit, I was blown away that Celebrity’s senior vice president of sales happened to be on board and came over to spend some time with me and my team,” Edwards said. “She was so genuine and gracious and made me feel at home.”
Edwards summed up the experience of producing an incentive program at sea in three words: “It is easy,” she explained. “It is just so much more cost effective, and you really are able to stick to a budget. The costs are transparent and you know from the beginning what you’re getting into. In addition, the ancillary items, such as AV and amenities, are much less expensive than what you see at a hotel or resort.”
“Just try it,” Edwards concluded. “Attendees will love it and your life will be extremely simple, and your CFO will be happy.”
Deep in planning for a room block for 500 attendees aboard a Princess Cruises ship, Cherie Graves, director of events for Avoya Travel, in San Marcos, CA, noted how a cruise program involves fewer points of contact compared to what is typically needed for a land-based program.
“The multiple venues and vendors you typically need to source for a land-based program, from hotels, DMCs, décor, entertainment, catering, is all built-in on a cruise ship,” Graves said. “Hotel AV costs can be extremely high, but utilizing existing AV and stages on a cruise ship can save you thousands of dollars. A cruise makes putting together a budget and sticking with it a lot easier.”
For the upcoming Avoya Travel Annual Conference, Graves booked her group onto an existing itinerary aboard Discovery Princess, the newest ship in the Princess Cruises fleet. Debuting last year, the 3,660-passenger ship has all of Princess’ hallmark features, including the Princess Medallion.
The Princess Medallion is a quarter-sized wearable that enables faster boarding, locating fellow travelers and enhanced service wherever an attendee may be situated, on the ship, poolside or in their cabin.
“Princess has been a great partner for us,” Graves said. “We haven’t done this particular itinerary before, so it’s a great experience for attendees, who are all travel agents.”
The upcoming seven-day sail out of Seattle this year will port at Alaska’s top destinations: Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway.
“We are planning on hosting our general sessions in the theater, which is great because they already have a built-in stage, screens and existing AV, so we are able to save a lot of money not bringing that in from another vendor,” she said.
One challenge Graves noted on the technology front is that WiFi can be inconsistent when sailing. She recommended that any audio or visual content to be presented should be pre-recorded.
Graves also observed that, on some ships, the lack of traditional breakout or meeting space can be a challenge if an event includes a lot of meetings or breakouts. Still, planners with flexible requirements will find many venues on most ships, including restaurants, bars and theaters, that can be adapted.
“When we’re sharing a publicly-available cruise, we need to be flexible with space and times and exclusivity expectations,” Graves said. “This includes times when we can have the theater for sessions or other areas for private receptions.”
Shared spaces were not a problem for Bloss when she chartered with Seabourn Cruise Line for a seven-day Mediterranean cruise recently. There are, however, important considerations when choosing a full-ship charter, and size options have never been more diversified, ranging from sailing ships that can accommodate 148 passengers to mega-ships catering to 2,000 or more.
“Matching a client with the right ship and itinerary is crucial,” Bloss said. “When choosing a ship for a full charter, obviously size is the first factor one has to determine. You are buying the entire vessel, even if you don’t fill it 100%.”
Ships tend to stay in one region for a season before moving to another destination, and cruise schedules are released 18 months or more in advance. Therefore, if a specific ship is desired, some destination flexibility may be required.
“Another important factor is where the company has been before,” Bloss stated. “What is their bucket list? What is new and different? What destination has the magic touch? And then, of course, you have the budget.”
“We chose Seabourn Cruise Line for a particular client because they wanted luxury and needed a certain number of top suites,” she continued. “They also wanted a creative itinerary that was different from the standard itineraries. Dining was another important factor. Seabourn is a five-star-plus luxury cruise line, with outstanding service and multiple restaurant options. Compared to a land program, the organization that is needed for a cruise program is definitely more streamlined.”
The client planned for a high-scale meeting presentation and the size of the theater and the quality of the AV equipment were top priorities, so events and special needs were organized in advance by the ship staff, Bloss noted. The company also did a couple of customized shoreside events.
Another advantage that comes with a full-ship charter is that corporations can fully capitalize on branding possibilities.
“These stay in place for the entire cruise and the options are truly endless,” Bloss said. “You can also customize the daily order of events, select from a choice of entertainment, adjust dining times to suit meetings or excursions, provide input with menus and much more.”
For a broadcast company, Bloss recently planned a 100-person incentive cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Eurodam. The client wanted an Alaskan cruise and Bloss noted that Holland America is the founder of cruises through the Inside Passage and they get the better port position, so people have a shorter walk into town.
“In fact, most are docked right downtown,” Bloss said. “Holland America also owns most of the shore excursion companies, so they have priority on numbers and you have the peace of mind knowing that, for excursions you book, the tour company and equipment are all top-notch.”
Bloss pointed out that Holland America Line is known for providing live music, and on the newest ships, you’ll find a variety of venues like the Rolling Stone Rock Room, the Lincoln Center Stage for classical performances, a B.B. King Blues Club and the World Stage, which features a wraparound, panoramic screen.
In addition to the traditional main dining room and Lido Market buffet, the 2,104-passenger Eurodam also features the Pinnacle Grill steakhouse, Tamarind for Southeast Asian cuisine and Canaletto for Italian.
“Holland America is regarded as a premium brand and the service and food are extremely good,” Bloss said. “The price point compared to their competitors is also very attractive. For this particular group, we had several cocktail parties, special dining requests, group shore excursions, room gift deliveries and group transfers, all of which can be handled by a ship of this size and layout, hence why we choose the Eurodam.”
Norwegian Cruise Line just launched its all new Norwegian Viva. This is the second ship of the Prime Class. The ship mirrors the design of the award-winning sister ship Norwegian Prima. The 965 ft. ship offers space for 3,100 attendees and ports at many European destinations. The initial voyage started at Venice, Italy and sailed to Lisbon, Portugal. The ship will also port in the Greek Isles and take many Mediterranean voyages through November, before homeporting in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the end of the year for a season in the Caribbean.
Attendees will find interesting onboard experiences, including a three-level racetrack, a food hall with 11 unique eateries, “the fastest slides at sea” and an industry-exclusive sustainable cocktail bar, the Metropolitan Bar. There is also an expansive array of art on board and a sculpture garden. In addition, the ship features a world-class entertainment lineup.
David J. Herrera, president of Norwegian Cruise Line, said that the ship has “well-appointed spacious design, elevated experiences, expansive culinary offerings and signature Norwegian Cruise Line hospitality.”
Although the largest cruise lines try to appeal to the broadest swath of the marketplace, most cruise lines strive to carve out an identity that resonates for a particular audience segment. Chief among them is the Disney Cruise Line, which this year celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first ship launch, the Disney Magic. Since then, the line has grown to five ships, with a sixth, the 2,500-passenger Disney Treasure, due to come on line late next year. The line continues to innovate while catering to distinct areas for different age groups, including sophisticated adults-only dining options and an adults-only pool area. A tropical retreat developed by Disney arrives next summer when Lighthouse Point on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera is set to debut.
Virgin Voyages started sailing a few years ago and now has four 2,770+-passenger ships. They specifically market to the 18-and-up crowd. Onboard is a surprisingly diverse group, with the average age from late 40s to early 50s. The entertainment is skewed toward adults and isn’t far afield from what one encounters in Las Vegas.
Carnival Cruise Line continues to hone it’s offering for a broad audience, with a focus on sailing year-round from more U.S. ports than any other line. Although Carnival recently retired its six oldest ships two years ago, the company launched its Excel Class featuring Carnival’s largest ships ever, starting with the 6,630-passenger Mardi Gras. The Carnival Celebration followed last year, and the Carnival Jubilee starts sailing from Galveston, TX, at the end of this year.
At the market’s upper end, Silversea has continued its rapid expansion following Royal Caribbean’s acquisition of the line three years ago. Since then, Silversea has converted two of its smallest ships to expedition class, acquired Crystal Cruises’ expedition vessel The Endeavour and added a new, 100-passenger expedition ship dedicated to the Galapagos, the Silver Origin. Silversea also launched two new-build, 596-passenger luxury ships, the Silver Moon and the Silver Dawn, both featuring the groundbreaking S.A.L.T. culinary program and recently the line debuted the Silver Nova, which accommodates 728 attendees and is touted as the most environmentally advanced cruise ship sailing today.
Crystal Cruises, which went bankrupt last year, has been acquired by the A&K Travel Group, including its two classic ships, the Crystal Symphony and the Crystal Serenity. Prior to their re-launch this summer, the vessels received a total $150 million overhaul and many cabins were enlarged, meaning capacity was reduced for both ships by about one-quarter. The crew size remains about the same, ensuring a 1:1 staff-to-guest level. Going forward, the line is now called simply Crystal, and recently, they announced plans for four new ships in the coming years.
Launching next year is Cunard’s Queen Anne. This is the fourth ship in the line, which includes the Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. Offering world class comfort and Art Deco style, the ship can accommodate almost 3000 attendees. The ship sails to global destinations, including Mediterranean cities, Northern Europe, Norway’s Fjords and more. Voyages can last for three nights up to three months. C&IT