A Sea of OpportunityApril 3, 2023

Meetings & Incentives at Sea in 2023 By
April 3, 2023

A Sea of Opportunity

Meetings & Incentives at Sea in 2023
Party on the pool deck of the Norwegian Pearl. Photo courtesy of Anthony Diaz

Party on the pool deck of the Norwegian Pearl. Photo courtesy of Anthony Diaz

When it comes to rewarding and incentivizing a company’s top performers, hosting an event aboard a luxury ship at sea has many appealing options.

In fact, the industry has rebounded after the pandemic. Chérie Weinstein, CTC, CIS, CITE, project manager at Landry & Kling Global Ship Solutions, says, “Cruising has come back from the depths of the pandemic. Planners are definitely interested in cruising again. People are feeling really optimistic, and we are seeing repeat groups in rotation, which is very encouraging.”

A range of exceptional amenities combine to offer attendees the ultimate wellness experience at sea, such as unique destinations and excursions, deluxe ship accommodations, immersive onboard and shore activities, and inspired global cuisine. Add versatile conference spaces with enhanced audiovisuals and high-speed internet, along with sustainability projects, and planners can elevate an event to celebrate peak performance.

What’s Trending: More Food Options, Wellness Activities and Seaboard Connectivity

After the pandemic, there are some favorite cruise trends.

“We’re seeing more food options and wellness activities, more opportunities for families to be included,” Lauren Berns, chief of operations at Continuing Education/University at Sea, says. “Imagine not worrying about what your kids are doing while you are in class. The ships provide excellent complimentary programs for children and teens. We like to tell our clients this experience is family friendly and stress free.”

Both families and planners will appreciate enhanced connectivity.

“Connectivity at sea and Wi-Fi capability through Starlink is improving,” Weinstein says. “This is sometimes offered as an optional amenity for people who like to stay in touch with the home office while at sea. Alcohol has become less important, but passengers say, I would rather be connected.”

Sensory spa treatments, luxurious bedding and enhanced fitness equipment are among the latest amenities. The addition of several new ships across cruise lines, reimagined accommodations and meeting spaces, and a focus on sustainability practices, which reduce plastics and greenhouse gas emissions, experts say round out top trending initiatives.

More All-Inclusive, Budget-Friendly Options

Weinstein points out that the moment a planner decides to book a cruise event, a company can kick in its ROI, saying, “The value of incentive travel is really seeing a big payback as team players are motivated to qualify in order to attend a meeting at sea.”

Beyond motivating employees to achieve peak performance, here is how meetings at sea work within budget constraints: Pierre van Breda, deputy director of C&I Sales for Seabourn, says: “The most common misconception is that an ultra-luxury, inclusive offering is associated with exorbitant pricing. This is simply not the case as cruise lines welcome group business.” For example, Tara Carpenter, charter and group account manager of Worldwide Cruise Associates, and a Seabourn preferred partner, says: “Seabourn hosts several exclusive events that are included in the price — but add to the programming — which adds a nice special touch for the end user.”

Weinstein agrees, saying, “Cruising has always offered a good cost-benefit ratio-experience because its inclusive nature means the ability to control costs, though all costs are going up, food, labor, etc.”

Berns, whose organization annually books 100-plus meetings at sea, also champions its cost-effectiveness, saying, “On a regular basis, while we are planning for future years, I run an Excel budget comparison; and every time, it is clearly to our advantage to use the appropriate ships that we have, over the years, identified as appropriate for our needs.”

Still, Berns says, “Not all ships are appropriate and not all cruise lines are. But the ones that have official meeting rooms and conference centers, lines we have worked with for years, understand our goals upfront and never disappoint us. We can maintain reasonable registration fees, provide beautiful accommodations and gourmet meals, and still end up with a profit.”

Berns adds, “One of the best things in my opinion is there are no surprises. We have learned exactly how to price and predict our costs upfront. Everything is paid upfront. It is a wonderful thing to receive no bill at the end, but rather see an actual profit.”

For planners still unconvinced of the value of meetings at sea, Roland Navarro, president of Seven Seas Corporate Cruises & Events, says, “Just do it. The functions rooms are already decorated, the meeting rooms have all the AV you require, and the F&B is included. You add different destinations in between and it really is the best bang for your MICE buck. People check into hotels all the time for meetings or on vacation. A cruise has a higher perceived value and is a very unique venue that mixes business with pleasure.”

Ron Gulaskey, assistant vice president of global corporate, incentive and charter sales for Celebrity Cruises, says: “It’s so important to realize the budget control and value that happens. We not only offer all the AV equipment and meeting space at no extra charge, but also all the meals and snacks a corporate attendee would want all day. We also offer drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities included in the cruise, which is a game changer for an incentive trip. Can you imagine none of your employees during an event ever having to expense bottled waters, Wi-Fi, specialty coffees or alcohol, or ever having to pay when sitting with their peers in a lounge for any drink? Also with no F&B minimums, resort fees, fees for AV equipment or meeting spaces and even entertainment, the possibilities to save money for the event are endless.”

Berns gives this example, “Imagine, as a planner, if you did not have to make allowances for food and beverage, cocktail parties, special meals, entertainment, AV, complimentary camp for kids. Imagine how much that removes from not only your budget, but that of your attendees. … What we do have are a lot of repeat clients; once their members realize how much they save and how nice an experience it is, they always want to repeat.”

The Celebrity Edge “Club,” seen from above, is a multi-purpose space that can be used for talks, live music, and other interactive and entertaining events. Courtesy of Ron Gulaskey

The Celebrity Edge “Club,” seen from above, is a multi-purpose space that can be used for talks, live music, and other interactive and entertaining events. Courtesy of Ron Gulaskey

Memorable Itineraries & Special Amenities

A top draw for many meeting planners involves sailing to different destinations around the world, while enjoying world-class service.

“Cruising delivers an ideal solution for corporate groups and organizations that wish to provide their top performers with a reward that is unique, prestigious, glamorous and fun,” says Rob Coleman, vice president, North American Sales for Holland America Line. “No overwhelming crowds, no long lines. We cater to a mindset that embraces destination immersion, impeccable service, amazing dining and the best live music at sea.”

Moreover, Coleman says that Holland America Line provides a team to assist planners from the initial quote through execution.

Anthony Diaz, senior vice president of Charters, Meetings & Incentives at Norwegian Cruise Line, says there are special amenities at that planners can expect on their cruises: “Complimentary meeting space and business centers, complimentary audiovisual and coffee breaks, unique meeting venues and hands-on, personalized service.”

Regarding unique destinations, Diaz points to Great Stirrup Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. The 268-acre island is part of the Berry Islands, which Norwegian Cruise Line bought in 1977 and developed for their cruise ship passengers.  Attendees can “snorkel with sea turtles and colorful fish in warm turquoise waters, peacefully glide along the coastline in a kayak, or soar high into the sky as they zip-line across the island,” plus “have the opportunity to craft their own delicious taco at the complimentary Abaco Taco, while sipping on a refreshing drink,” according to vimeo.com.

He also pointed out Harvest Caye in Southern Belize as another unique destination: “A 75-acre oasis featuring an expansive pool with a swim-up bar, salt-water lagoon for water sports, exclusive 7-acre beach and exciting shore excursions ranging from zip lining across the island to snorkeling the world’s second largest barrier reef,” according to the cruise line’s Facebook page.

Navarro’s client booked a Celebrity Cruise in the Western Caribbean to commemorate the telecommunication corporation’s 20th anniversary. He says, “The whole experience was unique. This was the corporation’s first cruise event, first time in Cozumel, as well a first time sailing Celebrity Cruises.”

Navarro says: “The ship provided internet speeds that allowed the meetings onboard and awards show to be telecast via Microsoft Meetings back to the skeleton crew that stayed behind for this event. … The group had embarkation welcome gifts waiting for them in their rooms upon check-in and we hosted a ship-wide scavenger hunt that was used as a team-building event that was a huge success. Prizes and bragging rights went to the top-three winners.”

Carpenter’s client, who selected Seabourn as a new cruise experience in Europe, found the brand offered quality service and food, and large group space for the size of the vessel. The unique itinerary included several smaller, less commercialized ports, which the group liked since they were well traveled. She says, “We pride ourselves in creating unique options for our clients and offering Seabourn is a great fit with our business model.”

Carpenter adds that the group booked an incentive cruise with Seabourn because there were versatile and varied meeting spaces, “This group is very meeting intensive and we have to ensure adequate time and space for them to conduct continuing education classes daily throughout the entire journey. In addition to that, we host multiple cocktail parties and group dinners throughout the cruise,” she says.

Meanwhile, Navarro used these group spaces while aboard Celebrity Cruises: the Sky Lounge for three cocktail receptions, Celebrity Central for the awards show and General Meeting, as well as Quasar Lounge for the leadership and sales meetings.

Commenting on the meeting spaces aboard Holland America cruises, Coleman says there are “rooms for private meetings, ranging from an intimate meeting facility to our larger show lounges. On most of our vessels, we can accommodate up to 900 in one session. We can also arrange group dining so that attendees can be together.”

Seabourn Quest at sea off the Italian coast. Photo by Michel Verdure

Seabourn Quest at sea off the Italian coast. Photo by Michel Verdure

Inspired Global Cuisine

Award-winning chefs, together with specialty restaurants featuring global cuisine, can create an exceptional dining experiences for meetings and incentives at sea.

“From the buffets in the Oceanview Café to the more formal dining in the Grand Cuvee, the menus were fantastic,” Navarro says of the Celebrity Cruise. “Since the group had never done an event on a cruise ship, they were amazed by the choices and the fact that you could order another entrée if you wish at no charge. Vegetarian diners commented on the expanse array of options they had during the cruise.”

Of special note, Navarro says: “We hosted some VIPs in Le Petit Chef on one night and I must say that this was the highlight of the cruise for dining. The animation on the tables was brilliant, while the food was incredible. My well-traveled executives mentioned this was one of the best meals they ever had.”

Carpenter finds Seabourn’s culinary program “topnotch with multiple venues to choose from while onboard at no additional fee.” She adds, “…An al fresco dinner option with delectable Mediterranean inspired grilled dishes … and the grilled octopus was by far my favorite.” She adds that groups “appreciated the main dining room, which could hold the entire ship in one seating and that offers a variety of classic and unique, regionally inspired dishes.”

Carpenter says another dining venue that should be highlighted is The Grill, which she says is a traditional steakhouse that is elevated by the Michelin-Star chef Thomas Keller featuring a spin on some of the classics with a heavy emphasis on presentation, with many dishes being prepared table side. She adds, “The Epicurean evening is a beautiful event put on by the ships officers with specialty drinks and food options served pool side with the ships entertainment serenading you. At the end of the event, the entire staff onboard lines the pool deck to give attendees a chance to pay their respect. Usually hosted on the last evening, it’s a beautiful way to finish the cruise. All in all, I can’t say enough about the F&B onboard Seabourn.”

Aboard Holland America, Coleman says the ships’ menus are guided by celebrity chefs, which include David Burke, Jacques Torres, Ethan Stowell, Rudi Sodamin, Andy Matsuda and Jonnie Boer.

“Each ship has a casual Lido Market with various stations, as well as a Dive-In for gourmet burgers and fries,” Coleman says. “Select ships have New York Pizza with made-to-order pies, and the Pinnacle Class ships have Grand Dutch Café for a coffee, beer or dutch treat.”

Highlighting restaurants, Coleman notes, the award-winning Pinnacle Grill, offering seafood and steak, and the Canaletto, for Italian, are both available on all ships. Select ships showcase Tamarind, featuring Pan-Asian cuisine, and Rudi’s Sel de Mer, an intimate French brasserie.

On Celebrity Cruises, Gulaskey says menus are “crafted by Michelin-starred chef Cornelius Gallagher and are inspired by, and locally sourced from, the amazing regions we visit,” adding, “And with world-renowned chef Daniel Boulud, as our global culinary ambassador creating exclusive menus for attendees of Luminae, Le Voyage and Chef’s Table, there’s something to please every palate whether casual or upscale, sushi or Italian, dining room or al fresco under the stars.”

Diaz says, Norwegian Cruise Line is “the first to eliminate set dining times. He says you may dine wherever and whenever suits your taste and schedule with venues ranging from continental cuisine to authentic Italian to classic steakhouse fare.

Top Planning Tips: Advance Booking

When planning meetings and incentives at sea, the top tip from cruise specialists is to book your event with as much advance notice as possible. “Start the process as early as possible,” Coleman says, “to make sure you can lock in the program that will delight the attendees.”

Navarro agrees, saying, “Book early so you can reserve the meeting rooms/venues for your event. The longer you wait the harder it may be to reserve space.” He adds, “Communication with the attendees is imperative. We schedule certain touch-points with attendees prior to sailing, so they know what to expect next since a large portion of the population has not experienced a cruise before.”

Moreover, Weinstein says: “We can do so much to create a unique event, but qualifying the group is really important. Tell us the kinds of destinations and lodging you’ve had in the past, duration of the program, what kind of group it is. For example, are they a fun group? Or are they more like early-to-bed and up-and-ready-to-go at 8 a.m.?”

Carpenter says, “My personal preference is to always go full-ship charter when available, as it gives you almost limitless options on customization options from special events, branding, décor, etc.”

Van Breda sums up the value of hosting meetings and incentives at sea by saying it is a comfortable, luxurious and memorable experience for planners and attendees alike. “The benefit is true incentive. Attendees unpack once, wake up in a different location daily, while getting the opportunity to balance work/relaxation, learning and adventure, during luxurious setting,” he adds.   I&FMM

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