Welcome AboardAugust 22, 2022

The Future Looks Bright for Cruise Meetings By
August 22, 2022

Welcome Aboard

The Future Looks Bright for Cruise Meetings
Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas took its maiden voyage earlier this year. It’s one of five Oasis Class ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet. Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas took its maiden voyage earlier this year. It’s one of five Oasis Class ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet. Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

Cruising, whether it be on large-scale vessels traveling through oceans to exotic lands or more intimate river cruises for smaller gatherings, have been a favorite among meeting and event planners for years.

Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer, Carnival Corporation, says meetings and events, like cruising, are about bringing people together and making connections with others. Aboard a ship, attendees can also experience new places and cultures, so it is naturally a great backdrop for meetings and events of all types and group sizes. And based on convenience, value and overall experience, cruising is one of the world’s most popular travel experiences, which is true for individuals, families, and small to large conference and event groups.

“With so much already included in a cruise, the ease of planning and opportunities to customize the experience are among the many benefits of hosting meetings onboard, on top of the experience of being at sea, which makes it even more memorable,” Frizzell says. “Guests enjoy countless onboard amenities and activities, great entertainment, high-quality dining options, including celebrity chef-inspired restaurants, spa and workout facilities and much more, on top of the convenience of unpacking once and being able to explore multiple destinations all in one trip.”

Tanya Murphy, travel adviser and independent franchise owner with Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, says event and meeting organizers may want to consider a cruise for their next event for a variety of reasons. “First, cruise ships’ venues that go unused during the day [evening restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues, as well as actual meeting space] can often be reserved at no charge. This is a huge advantage over the prices usually charged by hotels and resorts for meeting space,” she says.

While cruise ships may have additional charges for any food and beverage or A/V requirements for your meeting or event, these costs are often much more economical than similar services through hotels and resorts. “And really, unless you’re meeting over mealtimes, you can probably skip bringing in food. Meals and snacks are included on cruise ships, and there’s plenty of food around at all times,” Murphy says. “This is another aspect that makes cruises more economical.”

And similar to hotels and resorts, there’s dedicated meeting staff on ships that will help with all the details with whom meeting and event planners can work directly. “The big benefit I see is that there’s so much to do on a ship and in the various ports, that all you have to plan is your own meetings,” Murphy says. “Your clients or guests have plenty of already-planned activities to choose from on their down time or on port days. If you want, you can skip activity and entertainment planning altogether as part of your event, because it’s already built in.”

Kristi Kincaid, meeting planner and owner at Curated Travels, says a meeting at sea creates a captive audience, built-in entertainment and potentially extensive savings. And meeting spaces can be set up for classroom, theater-style, trade show, boardroom, card rooms, etc. “They are equipped with multimedia technology with flat-screen televisions, AMF panels, sound and lighting equipment, podiums and more. Food and beverage stations available with set-up fee and group excursions can also be arranged,” Kincaid says.

And while many meeting planners consider cruising at sea the ideal meeting locale, others are turning their attention to river cruising. Wesley Bosnic, vice president of charter & incentive sales at Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, says river cruises are a fantastic setting for meetings and events. First, guests can enjoy a more private and intimate gathering on a ship that caters to the needs and interests of the group. Secondly, for planners and attendees alike, cruising takes the stress out of organizing event logistics. For instance, Uniworld’s Charters & Incentives team handles coordination and planning entirely.

Post-pandemic, Uniworld has experienced an uptick of groups interested in river cruising. The root of the appeal stems from smaller ship size. Plus, small ships enable river cruising vessels to take guests to destinations that larger ships cannot enter with ease, such as the stunning Venetian Lagoon in Venice, Italy. “Meeting planners can expect to see more groups seeking bucket-list destinations such as Peru, Vietnam, Cambodia and Egypt, and splurging on high-luxury vacations,” Bosnic says.

Amy Conover, director, charter & incentive sales for Windstar Cruises, a small-ship cruise line based in Miami, says cruises can be a really streamlined option for meetings and events. You have essentially a single location, lodging and meals basically decided, and you have a captive audience. “But sometimes with that ease, you don’t get a lot of flexibility in your choices. That’s where the benefit of small-ship cruising comes in,” Conover says. You can book an exclusive full-ship charter for 148 to 342 attendees, or small groups from 20 to 140 attendees.

Windstar Cruises offers customizable itineraries and shore excursions, and their culinary team can pivot to even the most restrictive or specific of dining requests. “Our entire fleet provides many different options for incentive trips, full-ship charters and groups with up to 170 staterooms, paired with an endless choice of destinations. We’re also able to charter multiple ships at once, accommodating larger corporate groups,” Conover says. “In addition to our Star Plus Class ships — which are roomier and lavish with design elements like walk-in closets — our three sailing ships with actual tall, billowing sails have been known to elicit ‘oohs and ahhs’ from clients when they first step aboard.”

Cruise meetings offer the benefit of visiting multiple ports, and sightseeing activities as well as excursions that are already planned. Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

Cruise meetings offer the benefit of visiting multiple ports, and sightseeing activities as well as excursions that are already planned. Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

Safety First

The cruise industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but based on Carnival’s restart of guest cruise operations, for example, it is clear from new bookings that there is tremendous confidence in the company’s health and safety protocols and the return of cruising. “While there have been some changes onboard in our enhanced health and safety protocols, they have been designed to serve the best interests of public health while preserving a great cruise experience for our guests,” Frizzell says.

For example, Carnival is operating cruises with enhanced protocols developed in conjunction with global government and health authorities, and informed by guidance from public health, epidemiological and policy experts. This includes cross-industry learnings and best practices based on the proven health and safety record of industry-wide sailings. In fact, Carnival’s enhanced COVID-19 protocols have made cruising among the safest forms of socializing and travel, with far lower incidence rates than on land. “We just announced a fleet-wide rollout of comprehensive upgrades to each ship’s hotel HVAC systems, while indoor air quality is also continuously monitored and maintained to the highest standards at sea, using an industry-leading air filtration and ultraviolet-C treatment throughout the ship,” Frizzell says. “As health protocols around the world continue to evolve, we will be well-prepared to comply and adjust to changing circumstances while serving the best interest of public health.”

Carnival has also introduced more touchless interactions, which has been accelerated to a degree since the pandemic, and will help make the experience even more frictionless for meeting and event attendees. “At its core, cruising continues to be what it has always been — a convenient way to travel, meet people, experience new things and see the world, all at a tremendous value. And we are thrilled to once again be providing millions of guests with much-needed vacations,” Frizzell says.

Murphy advises meeting planners that the biggest difference between cruising today versus cruising pre-pandemic is paying attention to the ever-changing protocols at embarkations, ports, destinations, etc. “The protocols differ between cruise lines, between embarkation ports and destinations, and based on whether guests are vaccinated,” Murphy says. “Overall, continuing changes seem to be heading in the right direction toward fewer requirements, but it’s still a major factor in the planning.”

Meeting planners will want to make sure they understand, for their attendees, what the protocols will be for both vaccinated and unvaccinated attendees, as well as any children, as protocols can differ for them. In some cases, unvaccinated guests still cannot leave the ship at a few ports, so you’ll want to be careful about which countries you choose if you have some attendees who are unvaccinated.

“You will also see even more cleanliness protocols on ships than in the past with more hand washing and sanitizer stations, as well as lots of cleaning going on at all times,” Murphy says. “Buffets look different now, with staff serving guests rather than self-serve, or with items in single-serving dishes so that you can touch only what you are taking. I think some of those changes are here to stay.”

And as far as conference amenities specifically, Kincaid has seen one particular cruise line doing away with conference space, while another cruise line is gearing their conference at sea toward more of an intimate gathering — making it comfortable and easier to charter the whole ship. “Then, there is another cruise line that is embracing the meetings at sea segment and making their conference space more adjustable in sizes and amenities,” Kincaid says.

Celebrity Ascent, the fourth ship in the award-winning Edge Series, is expected to make her highly anticipated maiden voyage from  Fort Lauderdale late next year. Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Ascent, the fourth ship in the award-winning Edge Series, is expected to make her highly anticipated maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale late next year. Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Amenities Aplenty

Aside from the convenience of having rooms, dining, entertainment, spas, fitness centers and multiple activities readily available while not having to worry about details and logistics, cruising is also a great consumer value, especially when compared to comparable land-based alternatives. “For many of our brands, the larger costs of a meeting, such as accommodations, meals, meeting facilities, support services and A/V equipment, are already included in the price of a cruise,” Frizzell says. “Our brands also have teams who can help plan for private events or meetings on board. We also offer advanced connectivity solutions on board, including mobile apps and Wi-Fi capabilities to support staying well-connected at sea.”

The Carnival brands have departments to help specifically with group travel or event planning, including private events, meetings and seminars, which can include complimentary equipment available on the ship to facilitate events, along with additional options to consider such as photography and videography.

The cruise industry also partners closely with travel agents around the world who specialize in helping pair the wants and needs of meeting planners with unique brand offerings and experiences. “Many travel agents have expertise on cruises, so they are a valuable resource to meeting organizers looking to plan an event onboard one of our ships,” Frizzell says.

What’s more, cruise ship venues such as the theaters and nightclubs, for instance, have great décor and high-tech lighting and sound systems, which can turn a ho-hum meeting into something pretty fun and enjoyable if you want to get creative. “In addition, groups can qualify for additional amenities based on group size and sailing date, such as a free cocktail party, wine delivered to rooms, or onboard spending money for guests,” Murphy says. “Food and beverages can be brought into the meeting space if needed for a reasonable charge. Compared to a hotel or resort meeting, planners will find that hosting a meeting aboard a ship is much more economical, without losing any pizzazz.”

At Royal Caribbean International, many ships in the fleet are home to a number of customizable venues to suit every group size and meeting objective, which makes it easy to find the perfect venue. The cruise line’s theaters, lounges and outdoor spaces accommodate groups as small as 25 to as large as 1,400. What’s more, each venue is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and complimentary A/V services. For a true ‘wow’ experience, each ship in the Oasis class has a distinct Neighborhood available, as well as the Boardwalk or an awe-inspiring “evening reception under the stars” in the Solarium. When it’s time for business, each Conference Center room can accommodate as few as 18 attendees up to 400 attendees, and can be configured to meet the needs of any meeting setup.

Celebrity Cruises also offers a variety of theaters, conference rooms, bars and lounges, rooftop terraces and more available for meetings and events. The line’s theaters are perfect for larger conferences, presentations and ceremonies. These modern, multifunctional rooms are fully customizable for audiences from 200 to more than 1,000. Several adaptable conference rooms can also accommodate events of various sizes, such as intimate gatherings, meetings for 60 attendees, banquets for 100 diners and conferences for 220 attendees. For truly memorable experiences, Millennium Class ships in the fleet also offer Rooftop Terraces, the exclusive Magic Carpet, Sky Observation Lounges, the Lawn Club and Solarium. The Rooftop Terrace offers a movie screen and soundscape perfectly suited for inspiring outdoor events.

Freedom of the Seas visits Royal Caribbean’s top-rated private island destination in The Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

Freedom of the Seas visits Royal Caribbean’s top-rated private island destination in The Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

All Aboard

The cruise industry is recovering quickly, and cruise companies continue to see strength in demand for travel. As such, meeting and event experts have some advice for fellow meeting professionals as it relates to organizing a meeting or event on a ship or boat. “If your guests need to fly to get to the cruise port, have them arrive a day early. Even before the pandemic, this was the conventional wisdom, but post pandemic, it’s imperative given the current airline industry struggles to keep up with demand,” Murphy says. “Flight changes and cancellations are very common now, and you need a window of time to deal with possible issues. This means you’ll also need pre-cruise hotel arrangements for your guests, so plan on that.”

If you do use a travel adviser, make sure that person puts you in touch with the meeting planning staff for that ship directly. It will just make it easier for you to work with them to make sure your event goes off without a hitch. “Also, arrive early at the port so you can board early and maybe even have a little time with the meeting staff to go over any last-minute details. Put together an itinerary for your attendees of any group meeting events, as well as when their free time is,” Murphy says. “Make use of the travel adviser to help guests with any additional needs, such as helping them with excursions or general questions about the cruise. That is what they are there for, and it takes some of that burden off your plate.”

Bosnic’s advice to meeting planners is to heavily rely on the in-house cruise staff to arrange the event details. Don’t be afraid to communicate your needs and ideas, then leave it up to the planning team to make it all come together. “On full-ship charters, clients can privatize the experience, enabling them to add company branding or personal touches, make changes to cruise schedules and programming, organize special events on board and more,” Bosnic says. “These benefits are great for all groups, no matter the size.”

And Conover advises planners to become familiar with the ship. Ideally, they need to at least walk on the vessel while in port, but better still is to do a few days sailing on it. “They need to be familiar with all the public space on a ship and the capacities and function availability in each, in order to properly place the client’s events in the best possible locations,” Conover says. “They need to understand the goals, and important factors, their client has in order to deliver a successful program. Meeting the client’s goals is key.”

Looking ahead, industry experts see a bright future for cruising. “Our near-term bookings are outpacing even where we were before the pandemic,” Frizzell says. “With people’s natural desire to travel and connect, and the pent-up demand we are experiencing for cruising, the outlook for the cruise industry is very bright moving forward. As the industry continues to grow, the cruise experience will only gain strength as a great way to bring people together, enjoy a customizable vacation experience and create new memories, which is the perfect backdrop for organizing a highly successful onboard meeting or event.”

Murphy adds that the overall travel industry is bullish on cruising. “More than 10 new ships on various lines are scheduled to debut in 2023 alone. Cruise lines need to fill those ships, so they will continue to make it appealing for groups to sail, offering group pricing, amenities and continuing to offer things like free meeting space,” Murphy says. “Enticing groups to sail will continue to be a key sales strategy as more and more ships are deployed in the coming years.”

Conover agrees that cruising is definitely back, but it will probably take until 2024 to reach pre-pandemic levels. “Our leisure clients are definitely booking into the future; while the corporate client is still hesitant,” Conover says. “Programs are returning, but in smaller numbers, under 350 passengers is what we are hearing across the industry at the moment, which is great news for small-ship lines.” C&IT

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