It's a vacation many of us relish or dream about: relaxing in luxury on a beautiful ship as the world floats around us and each day brings an exciting new destination.
But cruising as a meeting option? We hardly give it a thought. And that very novelty is one of many elements that makes gathering on a ship such a great idea.
“Most attendees have never cruised before, so meeting on board a ship provides an enticing new destination,” says Lori Cassidy, Royal Caribbean International’s associate vice president of global corporate, incentive and charter sales. Tanya Barnette, director of strategic key accounts and charter and incentive sales for Seabourn Cruise Line, agrees. “Everyone has been on an incentive program or meeting in a hotel. Offering a cruise program is truly unique in motivating a team or group.”
The response from guests is often wildly enthusiastic. “The uniqueness of a cruise is an important factor in boosting attendance for meetings and incentives,” says Barnette. Cassidy concurs: “Increased attendance is the number-one benefit of meeting at sea.”
“High value is the second benefit because so much is included on a ship,” Cassidy adds. Food and beverages, activities, entertainment, meeting and event venues, and technical services are all part of the package.
“The cost of a meeting or incentive program at sea is, on average, 20-30 percent less than a comparable land-based resort,” says Ailene Sorice, president of Corporate Cruise Consultants, a specialist in meetings and incentives at sea. “This is because many items that are not typically included in a landbased program are complimentary on a cruise. Meetings at sea give your clients a bigger bang for their budget because groups have access to amenities on cruise ships they might not otherwise be able to afford.”
(Sorice stresses the importance of keeping in mind that the cost is less than a “comparable” land-based resort. The cruise industry has different classes of vessels. For example, Royal Caribbean would be similar to Marriott or Hilton. Celebrity would be likened to a Kimpton or W. Luxury ships would be comparable to a Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons or other five-star properties.)
Barnette concurs, explaining that the pricing for Seabourn’s five vessels is comparable to an ultra-luxury resort, but “a much better value because dining, receptions, open bars, in-suite bars, meeting space, A/V, food and beverage for meeting breaks, entertainment, room service and gratuities are all included.” There are benefits that extend beyond cost, she adds, including ease of planning and onestop shopping. “With a meeting at sea, there is no need to plan banquets or off-site venues because the ship provides all of those. Planners can also book an international destination paying in U.S. dollars without worrying about fluctuations in foreign currencies,” Barnette notes. “And there’s tremendous ease of travel because attendees can visit many destinations and only have to pack and unpack once.”
Corporate and business groups that have held meetings on the seas seem to agree. Royal Caribbean has “a high percentage of repeat MICE business,” according to Cassidy. The same is true for Seabourn. And for attendees, repeat business doesn’t mean duplicating the same experiences. Because of each cruise company’s diversity of ships and itineraries, groups can sail again and again with the same company and experience something new each time. For example, if you meet twice on Holland America Line, the first meeting might be on a seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, and the second a seven-day cruise to Mexico from San Diego on the Eurodam.
MEETING AT SEA IS EASY FOR CALIFORNIA PLANNERS AND ATTENDEES
Numerous cruise lines call at Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Line are seasonal regulars. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line also offer a variety of ships and destination choices from California and other West Coast ports. Cruises to Mexico are especially plentiful, with hundreds of itineraries, from three to 10 days, out of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego nearly year-round.
For example, Holland America has three ships sailing round-trip from San Diego on seven-day cruises to Los Cabos, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta from October 2019 through April 2020. Princess is departing from San Francisco and LA to Los Cabos and other Mexican ports from September 2019 to May 2020. Carnival sets sail from San Francisco, Long Beach and San Diego on various Mexico itineraries in December 2019, January to April 2020 and October 2020. Disney is sailing from San Diego in October and November 2019 and March and April 2020.
If your California group wants to explore different destinations, such as a seven-day Caribbean, Alaskan or Mediterranean itinerary, the cruise MICE teams are experts at arranging group airlift and transfers to the ship. “Airfare isn’t a hurdle,” says Rob Coleman, Holland America Line senior director of sales planning and development, pointing out that the airlift cost is comparable to flying to a resort, and negotiated into the overall budget. Holland American offers an extensive Caribbean cruise network, as does Royal Caribbean, and both offer worldwide cruises. Other lines with international itineraries popular with high-end incentive gatherings for corporate, financial, manufacturing and direct sales groups include Seabourn, Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises.
ARRANGING A MEETING AT SEA
Most major cruise lines have in-house meeting and incentive teams to guide planners through the process from RFP to implementation. Most also work with third-party MICE partners, such as Maritz Travel and Sorice’s Corporate Cruise Consultants.
Cassidy leads a team of more than 65 MICE professionals who handle every aspect of an onboard meeting “from sales to planning to implementation,” including full-time group coordinators onboard each of Royal Caribbean’s 26 ships. If the group is large enough, Cassidy also puts one of her specialists onboard for the duration of the cruise to ensure the program runs smoothly.
Each Seabourn ship is available for groups and for charter, says Barnette, adding that “we have someone on the team who works closely with the groups to ensure their requests are met. Our team can customize all excursions for groups to provide exactly the experience they desire, from bicycling and hiking on shore to kayaking, water skiing and banana boats on the water.”
HOW LONG OF A CRUISE?
Three- to seven-day itineraries are a good time frame for meetings and corporate gatherings, MICE cruise executives agree. A three-day cruise usually features one port of call; for example, Catalina on an LA-based cruise, or Ensenada on a San Diego-based voyage. Sevenday itineraries generally have four ports, typically along the Mexican Riviera on California cruises. This length “optimizes the groups’ ability to meet their business needs and their attendees’ leisure experiences,” says Coleman.
HOW LARGE OF A GROUP?
From as few as 10 key individuals to groups in the thousands, the number of attendees is limited only by the size of the ship. Full ship charters (buyouts) are available on most cruise lines. Seabourn’s corporate and meeting groups range in size from 10 suites to a full ship charter of 600 guests, based on double occupancy on the Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation.
Holland America’s ships can accommodate from 835 to 2,666 passengers. Royal Caribbean’s ships can accommodate from 2,267 to 6,680 passengers. It recently had a full-ship charter on one vessel, and two corporate meetings of 1,500 attendees each (one a Western U.S.-based manufacturing company, the other a global direct sales company) on different ships. “We have many companies that charter an entire vessel, usually from four to seven nights,” says Cassidy.
TO CHARTER—OR NOT?
While it may seem extravagant, “if your group has the number of attendees to fill a ship, chartering is the best value,” says Coleman. Holland America averages 30 full-ship charters a year, he says; “many financial and insurance industry groups charter our ships year after year.” With a charter comes the perk of exclusivity. For example, you can use the main show lounge for evening events such as the keynote address; on regularly scheduled cruises, groups can only use the main lounges during the day. Charter groups can bring on their own entertainment and can often choose the destinations. Holland America has dozens of port choices out of Florida, so once you’ve set the date, the group can select among the line’s Caribbean destinations.
Small ship charters such as Seabourn are equally adept. “We can fly your company’s flag on the mast of the ship, develop a cocktail named for your group, and bring on special entertainment and lecturers that fit the group’s demographics,” says Barnette.
Another reason charters are popular is because most cruise companies prefer onboard groups to be no larger than half the ship’s passenger capacity, Coleman explains. If your group is 1,500 people and the ship holds 2,267 passengers, it’s appropriate to charter, or to book a larger ship.
CONFERENCE & EVENT VENUES AT SEA
Most cruise companies are happy to reserve and customize their ships’ lounges, showrooms, theaters, outdoor spaces, and other public spaces for private group gatherings. Branding with corporate logos can be put on just about anything from menus and room keys to the daily newsletter. Customized activities are equally diverse on and off the ship, from private wine tastings and cooking demos, team-building activities like onboard rock-climbing wall or karaoke, and shore activities from boat races to beach volleyball.
You can count on high tech on the high seas. Royal Caribbean features video walls, teleconferencing, touchscreen signage, and the new VOOM, the fastest internet at sea with 4G and streamlining capabilities.
Meeting venues abound. Seabourn’s five vessels offer several spacious function areas. Its three Odyssey class ships can accommodate all the guests onboard in The Grand Salon for meetings and presentations, and in The Restaurant for galas and awards dinners. The Card Room and other public rooms and lounges are ideal for smaller gatherings.
Royal Caribbean features dedicated Conference Center rooms for 18-400 attendees on all its 26 ships, in addition to the public spaces for 25-1,394 people. Unique onboard attractions like the ice-skating rink can hold from 775 to 1,000 people for a private reception or general session, and each of the seven “neighborhoods” on its Oasis Class ships features a variety of dining options, activities and venues. The Boardwalk neighborhood, for example, is patterned after old Coney Island-style boardwalks, with a traditional carousel, an arcade with ring toss and other carnival games, and casual eateries including Johnny Rockets, Sabor Mexican food and the Dog House. The Boardwalk opens onto the AquaTheater, a 600-plus seat openair amphitheater with the largest pool at sea that features nightly high dive and acrobatic shows.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s 17 ships welcome gatherings of 600-1,100 people in its onboard theaters, as well as other public rooms. There are also dedicated meeting rooms for up to 50, and luxury suites such as the 1,382-squarefoot Owner’s Suite for VIPs or use as a hospitality suite.
Holland America’s 15 ships feature dedicated meeting rooms for 30-120 attendees. The Main Stage show lounge is ideal for general sessions and events, with a capacity of 600 or 900, depending on the vessel.
A cruise program delivers a “phenomenal experience,” according to those who have done it. “It exceeded our expectations.” “The program was smooth and seamless.” “We’ll be back next year.” Comments like these, Cassidy and Barnette say, are frequently heard from seafaring groups.
FINDING YOUR SEA LEGS
Here are some things to keep in mind to make the most of a meeting at sea:
You’ll likely want to schedule your sessions on mornings and afternoons at sea. This leaves the evenings free for attendees to enjoy the entertainment options and their time in port for leisure activities.
Those entertainment options are plentiful. From Broadway hit shows like "Hairspray" on Royal Caribbean and Lincoln Center Stage live chamber music on Holland America Line, to comedy shows, singers, dancers and bands, multiple free entertainment is offered nightly for all passengers, and that includes your attendees.
Daily activities are free to all passengers. Depending on the meeting schedule, attendees are welcome to do as much or as little as they like.
Team-building can be built into just about any activity, both onboard and ashore. That ranges from bumper cars and rock climbing on Royal Caribbean to cooking lessons and jungle canopy zip lining in Belize on Holland America.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner in the main dining room and at select buffets are included for all passengers. Consider arranging an area in the main dining room for your group. Meals in the specialty restaurants, such as Tamarind, with Pan-Asian cuisine on Holland America ships, and Chops Grille, serving steak and seafood on Royal Caribbean’s fleet, cost extra. Leave it up to attendees to opt for these on their own, or consider negotiating a specialty dinner opportunity into your program.
Dozens of shore excursions are offered in each port. While luxury lines may offer some excursion options at no cost, other excursions will be an additional expense. Holland America’s Sales Director Rob Coleman recommends planners negotiate one group tour in one port and then leave attendees free to book any additional tours on their own. On any ship, group shore excursions can be private for attendees and customized.