The question is not why would you hold a meeting or incentive program at sea—it’s why wouldn’t you? There are so many advantages, including cost and time savings, that planners owe it to themselves to at least consider convening on a cruise ship.
Small or large, corporate meeting or incentive program, today’s cruise industry is ready to accommodate business at sea. Planners may be surprised at how efficient and cost effective cruise meetings and incentive trips can be to plan and execute. Cruises offer flexibility in terms of itineraries with sailings from three days to two weeks, and in destinations, with ships sailing in nearly every corner of the globe.
According to Jo Kling, president of Landry & Kling (landrykling.com) — the first travel company focused exclusively on meetings at sea and corporate charters — meeting and events on ships is a growing part of the meetings industry, and has been for many years.
Cruise-based meetings also are high value. Kling says the cost of programs aboard ships is typically 20–30 percent less than those at hotels of comparable quality. “Ships offer much more budget flexibility than hotels, as meals and entertainment are included in the cruise fare,” she says. “And there’s no added cost for use of a ship’s AV equipment and no need for linens, risers, plants, florals, lighting, labor, etc.”
“If you let a cruise be what a cruise is, you’ll provide a great diversity of experiences that are certain to please the broad range of your attendees.”
— Eldon Gale
There’s also little or no added cost for onsite transportation, often a large budget item. Transportation is either built into shore excursions or unnecessary for attendees getting to and from all the activities, dining and entertainment venues onboard. There is a lot, in fact, for attendees to do on ships, which speaks to another saving for planners.
“While ships have a resort environment,” Kling says, “there are no resort fees and there’s no charge for use of shipboard fitness facilities.”
All of that underscores the ease of planning a shipboard experience. “There’s no menu-planning or budgeting required for meals,” Kling says. “And special diets are easily accommodated with no extra planning.” Likewise, delivery of room gifts is typically easier and less expensive on ships than in hotels.
Cruise lines have already lined up many of the best activities at each port, so planners don’t have to find and vet those. And with all the activities onboard, creating itineraries and schedules is less complicated and less work than at comparable land destinations.
Eldon Gale, director of events for Scentsy, a global direct sales fragrance company, has booked five programs at sea including a combined leadership training and incentive program in the Caribbean for 1,100 Scentsy leaders and consultants. The group cruised on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas in January, which included two days at sea and one port of call in Mexico. Like Kling, Gale says that ship-based programs offer much to attendees and planners that land-based programs can’t match, perhaps especially entertainment options.
“You can hire entertainment on land, but cruises have it all built in,” he says. “Band for your general session? Check. DJ with killer lighting and special effects for your dance party? Check. Broadway-style shows? Check. Multiple bands playing multiple genres of music so your attendees can listen to what they prefer…all at the same time? Check. Built-in kids programs? Check. You do have to be flexible and work with what the ship has to offer, but generally speaking, cruise ships are going to have something to fit every age group and every interest level — and it’s all included. Try achieving that on a land program!”
Gale also points out that ships often have extras not available at most hotels, giving planners added creative power. “Oftentimes ships will have things you’d never have on land, like a theater with full theatrical lighting; different drapes, drops and backgrounds; a movable orchestra pit; and special effects such as fog.”
Gale used the ship’s theaters for two general sessions for his group in January. ”It’s a great way to have a meeting because all the AV you need is built into the ship,” he says. “We augmented it a bit with TelePrompTers and confidence monitors, but when you consider that you’re not paying for lighting or sound, it really saved us quite a bit of money over a land program. We also had smaller special-topic meetings in the ship’s conference center.”
As for dining, Gale notes that while land programs generally offer a set plated menu or basic buffet to meet attendees’ needs, cruises provide significantly more options. “Attendees get to choose exactly what they are eating every meal of the day, often ordering off of a menu with dozens of choices. If that’s not enough, all ships have extensive buffets that are much larger and more diverse than anything you would get from a hotel banquet team. Still not enough? Most ships now offer multiple specialty dining outlets where you can get some of the best food you’ll find anywhere. There are surcharges for specialty restaurants, but the charge is a fraction of what you would pay for the same experience on land.”
Because the group of 1,100 was too large for one seating, Gale had tables at both of the ship’s seatings and let attendees choose which they wanted when registering. “Other times,” he notes, “we’ve had enough people to take over a whole deck of the dining room so the seating was open, and they could rotate tables from night to night. We’ve bought out specialty dining as well, and that’s always a nice experience for smaller or VIP groups.”
The biggest advantage to a cruise setting may be the inherent flexibility. “Your attendees can make the experience what they want it to be. Chances are you would never plan bingo, an art auction, games of name that tune or adult scavenger hunts as part of typical land programs,” Gale says. “The beauty of a cruise is the diversity of activities onboard. There truly is something for everyone on board, and your guests can do as much or as little of it as they want.”
There are some challenges as well. “It is what it is,” Gale says, and planners will only end up frustrated if they don’t accept that framework. “Cruises are designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. (Cruise lines) do this week in and week out and they are very good at it. Unless you are chartering a ship, you need to be flexible and not try to micromanage the experience. Just let the cruise be what the cruise is and you’ll have a much easier time.
“If you try to take the same land program you have always done and force it onto a ship, you’re going to be disappointed,” Gale continues. “Cruises require you to revisit things a bit, to work what you typically do into what they offer. Don’t make the mistake of not letting your attendees enjoy what cruising is really all about. The more you over-program and try to change things up, the more frustrated you’ll become. Look for ways to maximize what the cruise experience is for your attendees, and they’ll have a great time, and you’ll be a lot more relaxed.”
The notion of working with what ships offer is echoed by many experts. Jeanna Steele, partner with Sea Planners Group (seaplanners.com), which plans, manages and promotes group programs at sea, says, “You are sharing space with 1,000 other people and standard programming. You may want to do your awards show on the third night at sea at 7:00 p.m., but that may be the night the ship does its production shows. You will have to find an alternative time or date. It is all about advance planning.”
Kling puts it this way: “Your meeting at sea will be more successful if you create a fresh new agenda, built on using the ship’s facilities, activities, teambuilding opportunities, entertainment and dining options. In other words, fit your business agenda to the ship environment rather than trying to fit the ship into your same old traditional agenda just because it’s familiar.”
Planners can minimize problems by making requirements clear early in the process, and being flexible enough to work with what ships offer and can do.
Internet access has been a stumbling block for many groups wanting to book conferences and other types of meetings onboard ships, especially meetings for which conducting work is part of the agenda. The Internet has not been comparable to what’s available on land — but that is changing.
“Due to current bandwidth limitations onboard ships, you do not see complimentary unlimited Wi-Fi offered to groups very often,” Steele says. “More likely contracts include a certain number of minutes of Wi-Fi per passenger or something like that. But I see this evolving quickly in the industry. IT gets better every day, and every cruise line is making strides. I am on five-plus ships every quarter, and every quarter it gets better.”
Steele says that one of the biggest trends in the cruise industry today is more technologically advanced ships. New ships are being built with high-end technology, including high-speed and accessible Internet, and older ships are being retrofitted with better technology — all good news for planners.
Another challenge planners may face is a client’s hesitation about meeting on a ship. “That’s natural when considering an unusual venue,” Kling says. “It’s their responsibility to ensure maximum return on time and budget invested.” Her advice to planners is to find out what those hesitations are before presenting a full proposal. “That way,” she says, “you can get some assistance from your cruise adviser so you can easily and confidently address those concerns.”
For groups wanting an overseas destination, an exotic destination or multiple destinations in one trip, cruise lines can deliver — and offer savings over hotel-based programs in foreign countries.
Steve E. Some, president of IME Connect, which provides incentive, meeting and event logistical planning services for a wide range of companies, chose Royal Caribbean for a program for 740 incentive qualifiers from a large HVAC distributor. The group sailed in the Mediterranean on Allure of the Seas last September. Cruise programs represent about 15 percent of IME’s total programs.
When it comes to running programs in foreign destinations, Some says there are advantages to basing a group on a cruise ship. “Cruise pricing is in U.S. dollars so you don’t have the worries of a fluctuating exchange rate as you do in a land-based program.”
He also points to the cruise advantages of visiting multiple destinations without unpacking and repacking multiple times or paying for added flights or other travel between destinations. But it’s more than simple logistics. “For this particular group,” he says, “they were able to experience the beauty, culture, history and culinary experiences of three different countries in six different ports, yet have that ‘U.S.’ level of comfort and the same accommodations nightly.”
And that’s exactly what many incentive groups are looking for.
Some chose Royal Caribbean based partly on it being able to accommodate a group of 740, but there were other factors as well. “Due to the size of the group, it came down to two cruise lines,” he says. “RCCL came through with very aggressive pricing and concessions, which was very attractive to the client. In addition, the outdoor venues for cocktail receptions were much larger than those offered on other cruise lines’ vessels.”
Like many planners, Some chose to book air for his groups independent of the cruise line. “We handled that ourselves,” he says. “It allowed us more control with the flights, access to all the airline records and allowed simplicity with name changes.”
Foreign destinations are a major draw, especially for incentive groups looking for the newest destinations and that ever-important wow factor. Cruise lines continually up the ante with new ports and itineraries. Kling says there are many new and exotic ports in play and on the horizon, including in China, which she says is booming, South America, Europe, Antarctica and Cuba. That makes cruises “great for the ‘been there, done that’ incentive qualifiers and top-tier groups,” she says.
Planning a program at sea is different than planning on land, which is why many planners turn to a broker or other third-party expert for help.
“The pre planning can be a challenge,” Gale says. “You plan everything through the cruise line’s corporate office and never meet the team that will execute your event until you set foot on the ship. Even doing a site sailing — which is essential — won’t guarantee you’ll have the same crew for your sailing that you did for your site. Crews change regularly, which is why all your planning is done through corporate. A broker can be very helpful. Brokers know the ships, the shore-side team, and they know what has been and can be done onboard. They can be a tremendous advocate for you as well as an oftentimes needed source of reason.”
There’s also the question of comparing ships and site visits. “It’s important to understand the differences between the cruise brands,” Gale notes. “You need to understand the differences between the total ship offering and the target demographic and how that relates to your group. This is where a broker is incredibly valuable. Yes, you could do site inspections on multiple ships to see them physically, but to truly understand the experience and personality of each ship, you need to sail them. This would be a monumental task on your own. A broker can help you identify what’s important for you and select a ship that meets those needs, be it dining or entertainment or luxury accommodations. No ships out there are going to tick all the boxes for everyone, so you need to narrow down what’s most important to you and go from there.”
Gale worked with Shari Wallack, president of Buy the Sea, a Florida-based cruise brokerage company, for his January meeting.
In terms of contracts and negotiating, cruise lines and hotels have similarities and differences. “In theory,” says Steele, “the concepts are the same — room block, space, amenities, cancellation, attrition, force majeure — but the detail is much different. Planners need to understand their pricing and amenities, and they will find that many of the things that are negotiated for in hotel contracts can also be requested in cruise contracts, such as complimentary Internet access.”
There also are differences, and some of them, Gale says, favor planners. “Generally speaking, ships have very generous cancellation clauses. I’ve booked five programs at sea and in each case, we had a cancellation schedule that allowed us to walk away four to six months prior to sailing without paying a dime. I don’t advocate taking advantage of this; however, because of it you have more peace of mind that if something changes, you have flexibility and options. Hotels would never give you such flexibility. And if your numbers don’t come in where you thought they would, you can easily adjust your room block.”
Kling points out that cruise ships typically charge a single supplement if only one passenger will be in a stateroom, which can be hefty, and that single rates may be limited to a fixed percentage of the group size. She also notes that because cruise lines don’t have “walk-in” clientele and can’t make up for cancelled reservations as hotels can, there are typically no refunds once the final payment has been made, usually 60 to 90 days in advance of the sailing. It’s also important to note that ships have tight security, and passport and other personal information is typically required by cruise lines no later than two weeks prior to sailing, so planners have to make sure clients and attendees understand this.
There’s no question that there’s much to learn when putting a corporate program on a cruise ship. But the fact is that cruise lines want corporate business, and they’re able to offer meeting venues and services that can save companies money and draw attendees.
“Cruises have a high perceived value for a lot of people,” Gale concludes. “They are a ‘bucket list’ item for many people, so qualification and interest is often quite high. If you let a cruise be what a cruise is, you’ll provide a great diversity of experiences that are certain to please the broad range of your attendees. And it doesn’t hurt to mention that it makes the planner’s job a whole lot easier as well.”
Oceania Cruises’ big news is the launch of their newest ship, the 684-passenger Sirena. The fourth Oceania ship of its capacity, Sirena will be christened this April following a $40 million refurbishment and feature a new specialty restaurant, Tuscan Steak, and Red Ginger, a favorite from the Marina and Riviera ships. A new lunchtime experience called Jacques Bistro will feature dishes from legendary chef Jacques Pépin. During its inaugural season, the ship will sail on Mediterranean and Caribbean itineraries.
Regent Seven Seas is launching Seven Seas Explorer in July, “the most luxurious ship ever built” and the largest in the fleet. New specialty dining options, a new Culinary Arts Kitchen and a one-of-a-kind, $10,000 per night ultra-luxury suite are just a few of the highlights. Also just announced is a two-year $125 million refurbishment program for the entire Regent fleet designed to align with Explorer’s offerings, providing passengers with a consistent look and feel in public spaces and suites on all ships. Seven Seas Navigator, the line’s most intimate ship carrying just 490 guests, will be the first to receive the upgrade, followed by Seven Seas Voyager in late 2016 and Seven Seas Mariner in the spring of 2017.
Carnival Cruise Line’s new 3,936-passenger Carnival Vista, the largest in the fleet, will launch in May 2016. New ship features include: SkyRide, an open-air cycling experience; the world’s first Imax Theater on a ship; an expanded water park; Seafood Shack, a New England-inspired eatery; RedFrog Pub, including the line’s first onboard brewery. Beginning in the fall, the ship will sail from its home port of Miami. Carnival’s new fathom brand, designed exclusively to bring community service volunteers to countries in need, embarks on its maiden voyage in April from Miami to the Dominican Republic.
Debuting in May 2016 is Royal Caribbean’s third Oasis-class ship, Harmony of the Seas. The megaship, which spans 16 decks and offers 2,747 staterooms with capacity for 5,479 passengers double occupancy, features seven neighborhoods, 20 dining options, three multi-story waterslides including the tallest waterslide at sea, faster Internet speed and more.
Celebrity Cruises continues to upgrade its Millennium-class ships, the most recent being Celebrity Infinity, which received a new Rooftop Terrace venue in December 2015 — the first in Celebrity’s fleet — which features a large outdoor film screen and stereo surround sound. The project also included renovations to the Penthouse and Royal Suites, as well as conversion of the ship’s specialty restaurant to the signature Tuscan Grille. Celebrity Summit will receive similar upgrades during a dry-dock in March 2016.
Norwegian Cruise Line also is upgrading its fleet. The Norwegian Edge program will invest $400 million in upgrades over two years through 2017. The centerpiece of the program is an extensive ship refurbishment initiative that began in October 2015 with a full refresh of Norwegian Epic, followed by Norwegian Gem in November. A total of seven additional ships will go into dry-dock for both guest-facing and technical enhancements: Pride of America and Norwegian Sun in spring 2016; Norwegian Dawn in summer 2016; Norwegian Spirit, Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Pearl in winter 2017; and Norwegian Jade in spring 2017.
Princess Cruises recently announced a $450 million multiyear product innovation and cruise ship renovation campaign called The Come Back New Promise, intended to enhance the line’s onboard guest experience. Recent new initiatives include: “Crafted by Curtis” menu items by award-winning chef and restaurateur Curtis Stone, available in the main dining room on all ships; new luxury beds installed in staterooms across the fleet through 2018; the new Salty Dog Gastropub, available on select ships. Previous initiatives include: new original musical productions; onboard festivals; Discovery at Sea activities and shore excursions developed through a partnership with Discovery Communications; and a mobile messaging service for passengers to connect with one another onboard. C&IT