Set SailBy Talia Salem

Cruise meetings bring value, flexibility and variety onboard  

 There are few things more inspiring than a multiday passage over a great blue expanse of ocean, seeing nothing for miles around. In fact, millions of people see the appeal. In 2009, more than 13 million people cruised on the member companies of Cruise Lines International Association. As for what percentage of them are meetings and incentives, the statistics vary. “Our members, however, report that group travel, including family reunions and multigenerational travel, weddings and honeymoons, educational, social and other affinity groups, shipboard meetings and incentives, accounts for 5% to almost 40% of yearly passenger volume, depending on the line,” says Lanie Fagan, director of communications for CLIA. “Cruise lines operating smaller ships often have a higher percentage of group and meeting business, because the ships can be more easily chartered than larger vessels.”

And these numbers are looking to grow. Cruise lines are seeing the value of group business and are marketing themselves accordingly. Jo Kling, CEO of Seasite, a Landry & Kling company (a website dedicated to cruise meetings and incentives), says that cruise ships are anticipating more groups and have built in more meeting space. “Cruise ships are beginning to understand that this is a very defined market. They have thought this thing through, and they see meetings at sea as a category needed to plan for,” says Kent Foster, senior audience marketing manager for Microsoft. Cruise lines are more willing to talk about meeting space than in the past, but this willingness varies from line to line.

Neil R. Bauman, CEO of Pasadena, Calif.-based InSight Cruises, who has been planning group cruises for the past 10 years, adds, “Some lines, such as Princess, don’t even want groups. I never got a call back.” This can also be true of the industry in general, where some suppliers, such as hotels, are more group friendly than others.

While cruise providers have their sights set on expansion, the cruise industry has to overcome the public perception. For years, cruise voyages were viewed as only for the elite or too luxurious, Kling says. Adding to that view, the recent recession made all things luxurious taboo, and augmented the perception that business cannot be conducted at sea. “Concerns about the viability of the program on a ship will go away when they come on the ship,” says Joan Levicoff Sanchez, CTC, vice president of charters, meetings and incentive sales for Carnival Cruise Lines. “One thing that might be a concern is the perception of luxury, and in dispelling something like that, we talk about the affordability and terrific value, especially for the pricing that we have out there.”

Nonetheless, the frivolous association still lingers. “We are running a bona fide academic conference, and there is nothing ‘boondoggle’ about it. There is a challenge with that,” Microsoft’s Foster says. “[People ask] ‘How can that possibly be anything serious?’ I don’t know if that is going to change, but for those who have gone on these conferences, they come back convinced that it has a lot of value.”


   Lobby of the Disney Wonder.

Despite the negative image, cruises are viable venues for meetings and incentives. Cruise ships were built to accommodate, feed and entertain the masses. They can be cost-effective and offer ease of planning in addition to multiple on-site venues for groups. And contrary to popular belief, a group does not have to charter the whole ship for an event; they can book a room block and meeting space just like they can in a hotel.

When planning your next meeting or incentive, throw that hotel contract (and preconceived notions of cruises) to the wind, and let your program set sail.

Where Is the Compass Pointing?

As we exit the collective choppy waters of the recession, cruise lines are seeing the calm after the storm—even a patch of sunshine. “We are seeing a nice spike in business for the last six months. As we know, 2009 presented its own challenges, but Carnival has its own advantages,” Levicoff Sanchez says.

CLIA has also seen strong signs of improvement. “Many CLIA member lines have been reporting for several months that bookings are strong—in some cases, record-breaking—and 2010 looks like it will be stronger than 2009. Advance bookings into 2011 are also strong,” Fagan says.

The recent boost in business may be due in part to a greater understanding of what cruise meetings can offer. “As cruise ships have changed, so has the understanding and recognition of what you can do with the ship. It is like going to a hotel, but the hotel is moving,” Kling says. Lori Cassidy, director of corporate and incentive sales for Royal Caribbean International, echoes this sentiment. “There is more and more interest in cruising as a venue for meetings and incentives. Once a client does a site, they are typically convinced that a cruise can work for their program,” she says.

Undercurrents

The cruise industry is growing and evolving, Fagan says. This means more ships, more passengers, more ports and more destinations around the world, as well as innovations in shipboard accommodations, recreation, entertainment and shore excursions.

One example is that cruise lines have been opening up more domestic ports of call. “It is now called drive-in cruising, as a huge center of the population can drive in for the cruise. If [planners] can have [attendees] drive, that is a big cost saving,” Kling says. This trend has been happening since 9/11, but is also a result of more expensive airfares, she says.

Levicoff Sanchez has seen this shift at Carnival, which has added new ports. “What we are seeing is an opportunity to better serve our customers. People are comfortable driving. As far as groups are concerned, it is a savings opportunity both in time and in expense,” she says.

Other trends in the industry right now are shorter cruises and more cruises of varying lengths. Groups are looking for flexibility, less time out of the office and more customization. The industry is seeing changes in itineraries, with more cruises lasting four to five nights (rather than seven), which is more affordable for corporate buyers, Kling says. “We have ships that depart on shorter cruises from a variety of ports. [We have] cruises as short as three days. We are definitely seeing a spike in the shorter programs with this market,” Levicoff Sanchez says.

Smooth Sailing

Among the many benefits of cruising are the exotic ports of call and ever-changing scenery. The cruise experience alone is a major reason to plan a meeting at sea. “The goal of a meeting or incentive is to create an impact. Cruises offer an all-encompassing experience, not just a bed,” says Cecilia Blevins, corporate sales manager for Norwegian Cruise Line. “With domestic and international departure ports, itinerary variety and extensive shore excursions, a cruise program is a trip of a lifetime.”

Ships also possess the unique ability to travel as you meet and greet. “Some seven-day cruise itineraries feature as many as six different islands or countries,” CLIA’s Fagan says. “To duplicate such opportunities with land-based arrangements would require extensive, exhaustive and time-consuming travel. On a cruise, the meeting can progress as the ship sails from port to port.”
This unique and varied experience is likely to increase attendance and excitement for the program, Royal Caribbean’s Cassidy says. “We offer a variety of customization options for our groups; we think outside of the box and are willing to explore new ideas so that we are continuing to deliver a memorable, meaningful cruise experience,” she says. Many cruise industry professionals report that the variety of the all-inclusive, à la carte dining experience is very popular with groups, who often get stuck with pre-ordered banquet food.

Cost

All of the industry professionals surveyed for this story stated that a huge perk of cruising is the major cost savings. “More and more companies are looking to reduce their budgets and still deliver the ‘Wow’—cruising is the answer,” Cassidy says. Many items that a typical venue would charge for separately, such as A/V, meeting space and food, are, in most cases, included. “Cruises offer value due to all the included amenities, as well as cost savings. There is no need to budget for décor, delivery drops, turn-down service, luggage pull, meeting space and basic A/V. Usually less travel staff assistance is needed, as well,” Blevins says. Foster adds that many cruise lines will often throw in both an opening and closing reception.



Industry research shows that cruises are more affordable per person. “We negotiated a five-day conference with Disney for $650 [per person]. People are used to spending more—it was about one-third of what they are used to spending on an academic conference,” Foster says. Cassidy agrees and says meetings at sea can start out as low as $399 per person.

Clearer Skies

When it comes to a cruise, everything you need is onboard, so planners don’t have to work with many different vendors. “Depending on the line, group sales departments, dedicated group planners and shipboard meeting and incentive staff make planning and implementing a meeting or group program at sea an extremely easy, ‘one-stop’ process, from travel and accommodations to making sure the company flag is flying and menus are printed with the company logo,” CLIA’s Fagan says. Plus, the ships are engineered to orchestrate multiple events and host different groups at once, so they allow for easy set-up and easy transitions between activities. And everything you need is there. “Instead of going into a naked ballroom, on a ship you walk into a room that is already decorated,” Kling says.

Built-in Team Building

Unlike hotels and many other land-based meetings options, people cannot go in and out of the venue at will. Once on the ship, participants have no choice but to say on-site, which creates a great venue for networking, Cassidy says. “The keynote speaker is not jumping away and flying on a plane after their talk, which contributes to a sense of real dialogue,” Foster says. Attendees have many chances to rub elbows outside of the program, at breakfast, lunch or dinner, as can their spouses or family members. “The cruise ship venue helped foster this community, and it is now having all kinds of unexpected outcomes,” he says.

In addition to increased face-time, cruises offer a number of activities for groups—all in one place. “Our ships are a destination within themselves with diversified activities, an array of outstanding restaurants for foodies and entertainment for every age group and taste, most of which is included in the price of the cruise fare,” Blevins says.

Levicoff Sanchez agrees that the team-building opportunities are great. “We can customize all kinds of shore excursions for them. We will work with them to customize things onboard; we will create special cocktail parties, award ceremonies and dining,” she says.

Spouse and Family Friendly

Cruises are the perfect place for attendees to bring their spouse and their family. As a planner, you do not have to create activities for them, because they are on the ship and activities are often built into the cost of the cruise. Parents can feel confident that their children are onboard and safe. Many cruises are also billed on double occupancy, so it is cost-effective to bring the family along.
Foster says that the ability to bring a spouse or the family along can beef up attendance. At a conference held on land in June, “less faculty brought their families,” he says. Attendance was down, and he attributes the decrease to the move from a cruise venue to a land-based one. Carnival’s Levicoff Sanchez adds, “So many times participants will go away on a trip without their spouse. Here is an opportunity for the spouse or significant other to enjoy that time together.”

Cruising Limits

Cruises can present certain challenges. One major concern is securing meeting space, as the ships are constantly running concurrent activities. “Just getting the meeting space you need and making sure the space is confirmed is the biggest challenge,” InSight Cruises’ Bauman says.
Out at sea, you are also subject to Poseidon’s fury, and these changes in weather can impact your itinerary. “Hurricanes have been an issue. You are unable to pull into the port, so you stay at sea,” Foster says. “[The staff] wants all the public meeting space for games and other backup things for inclement weather.” In this case, you risk losing your meeting space.

Another possible risk is the high cost to connect to the Internet, Foster adds. Because of the expense, his company opted not to have Internet, but this turned out to be a plus, and they took a fast from being online all the time. “They had a feeling of getting away,” he says. The same goes for being reachable by phone. While getting a signal may be a challenge at sea, being disconnected forces attendees to interact together and focus on the task at hand.

Another challenge of cruise meetings is logistics, Bauman says.“If you are new to this, you want to steer clear of add-ons and side trips. A pre-cruise cocktail party is also lots of work,” Bauman cautions.

Payment can also be a challenge. “Most cruise ships are going to ask you for milestone payments for the cabins you have reserved. You may or may not have enough cash on hand to make those payments,” Foster says. “Cruise ships usually have a cancellation or attrition policy. It is a little bit of a balancing act. Do I need more cabins or less cabins?”

Navigating the Seas

For some planners, cruises may be uncharted waters. “It helps a great deal if you work with a company like Landry & Kling that specializes in cruises. I worked with a land-based company that never did an event on a cruise ship before, and we learned by trial and error,” Foster says.
Bauman agrees and says, “It’s a hard business; you need to go to someone that is a cruise specialist.”

Once you have done some preliminary research, it is time to zero in on some options. One key factor in site selection is the ship’s itinerary. How much “sea time” do you need for meetings and breakout sessions? If you need to pack in a few days of meetings, you need to select a cruise with longer cruising time. You also need to look at your projected group size and which ships can accommodate your attendees and the various sessions you are planning, Bauman says.

Conducting a site visit in advance of your event is helpful, especially if you need things executed in a particular way, he says. “We do a walk-through of the all venues, which is very critical,” he says. While you are onboard, meet with key stakeholders. “A/V was important to us, so we met with the A/V team to find out what fixed assets we had,” he says.

Booking a land-based room block the night before the cruise can be a good idea, depending on the cruise location and the distance of the port of call. For a European cruise, Bauman advises getting in the night before so that attendees are sure to make the departure time and they are not so exhausted before the program starts. “We typically arrange to have a hotel at the port for people and put a strong emphasis on getting in the night before because of air-travel delays,” Foster says.  
With these insights at hand, getting a cruise meeting on the books should be a breeze—hopefully a warm tropical one.