Don't Miss the BoatBy Carolyn Koenig

Sailing's not just for incentives anymore

Lance Wieland, then an independent meeting planner, had long resisted the idea of a cruise. Then he needed a fresh, unique idea for a high-end incentive program for a group of 200 top insurance sales executives from around the world. Working with Landry & Kling, a well-regarded cruise specialist, he chartered the Seabourn Spirit for a five-night cruise from Athens to Istanbul. “It was the most incredible experience, and the highest-rated program we’ve ever run…It was an education about what cruising could do for us,” Wieland says.

   Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream

Your incentive meeting budget and parameters may differ from Wieland’s client, but there’s a lesson to be learned regardless: Incentives require innovative thinking and a “wow” payoff for the top achievers who work hard to earn their participation.

 Incentive travel has long been an effective carrot to inspire exceptional performance from a company’s employees, distributors or agents. The challenge for planners has always been to create that “wow” year after year, sometimes with a more limited budget. The temptation is to go with the tried-and-true resort program, but when the agenda for this year’s incentive looks just like last year’s except for the date, it’s time to rethink the options.

That’s where cruising comes into play. Cruises fire the imagination, especially as 80% of Americans have never cruised. After all, the prospect of being aboard a sleek, elegant ocean liner surrounded by clear, azure water is a pretty enticing carrot.

The good news about cruising, and incentives in general, is that post-AIG meetings are returning to normal. The purpose of incentives—and their ties to business objectives—is once again acknowledged, and the perception of cruises as a frivolity is no longer the elephant in the boardroom.

As part of an incentive program, in fact, cruises are trending up. A 2010 PhoCusWright report found that the number of meeting planners who intended to book their 2011 event on a cruise ship increased by a third, from 6 to 8%. “There’s pent-up demand,” says Karen Devine, president of 3D Destinations, a third-party cruise and destination specialist headquartered in Mundelein, Ill. “Things are on a steady incline…People were starting to think about [a cruise] last year, then made the decision this year. The [market] looks good for 2012, and there’s lots of interest for 2013.”

The timing couldn’t be better, as the number of new ships coming online this year and next is considerable. These vessels, and other recent launches, were designed to better serve the meetings business than those in the past, with dedicated meeting and conference facilities, state-of-the-art technology and flexible public spaces.

You can also anticipate more meetings-cruise synergy as we move forward into 2012. Christine Duffy, former president and CEO of Maritz Travel Company, recently became the president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, which is pushing for both industries to work together through education and collaboration, says Lanie Fagan, director of communications for CLIA.

In other words, there are more reasons than ever for holding an event at sea—and more options to do so. Here’s the why and how to make cruises a part of your incentive rotation or meetings program.
 

Sea vs. Land

When comparing sea vs. land meetings, one huge advantage pops up immediately: value. Cruise pricing is all-inclusive, encompassing not only the guest rooms, but also a slew of meetings amenities.

Meals for example often include a plethora of dining options and venues (including room service). Entertainment is another, with a variety of on-board shows and activities each evening, featuring Broadway musicals, Las Vegas-type revues, gaming, nightclubs and more. If it’s fitness your group wants, ships always have a fitness center onboard with a full complement of classes, but also myriad recreational options such as ziplines, rock-climbing walls and now—on Disney Dream—a combination roller-coaster water slide.

SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream II

For meetings, there is dedicated meeting space that can be set up to your specs. Plus, theaters on the new ships are larger, which is ideal for meeting groups. “Nothing is more impressive than using the theater stage for a company awards event,” says Ron Gulaskey, director of sales, corporate and charters for Celebrity Cruises. Another plus: Audiovisual technology is often built-in with an on-site crew available. Same goes for décor with a variety of options, including flowers.

By choosing a cruise instead of a hotel with a la carte pricing, you could save 40%, according to Jo Kling, president of Landry & Kling.


Other Cruise Advantages

Let us count the ways. For starters, cruising offers simplified coordination of all the various meeting elements, particularly dining and entertainment, two of the most time-consuming programs to plan. And there’s often an onboard event planner to make sure things play out the way you desire.

When you cruise, your budget is self-contained. “Your costs are fixed; you have absolute budget control,” Devine says. And the ship’s broad spectrum of free recreational opportunities means that team building is a cinch.

There’s also the ample face time spent networking and trading best practices with colleagues, plus the opportunities to interact with top execs in a relaxed, more casual setting. Overall, the advantage points to sea.

Sea Cloud Cruises’ Sea Cloud

Choosing the Right Ship

While many people are familiar with Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International—two popular mass-market lines—there’s a wide range of other possibilities to explore. They’re generally divided by category, similar in design, facilities and service level to the hotel brands you’re familiar with: luxury, premium and contemporary.

Choosing among them might seem a little daunting, so where do you turn for help? Like Wieland, you look to a cruise specialist, whether online or brick-and-mortar.

If you’re a hands-on planner who likes to do research on the web, you have plenty of options, including CLIA (cruising.org); CruiseCompete.com, in operation since 2003; and newcomer (since 2009) Seasite.com, the most comprehensive of the three, and it’s targeted specifically to meeting professionals. You’ll find detailed information about meeting space onboard the ship—which not all cruise lines post—and an RFP process. All online sources offer options to speak personally with a specialist as well.

Or, you can go directly to cruise specialists such as Landry & Kling, the industry pioneer and parent company of Seasite (landrykling.com), and 3D Destinations (3ddestinations.com). What all of these resources have in common, however, is a track record of experience in the industry—and there’s never a charge to you for their service as they’re paid by the cruise lines.

But suppose you need something more customized to your group and time frame than an existing cruise? Or something with more privacy and exclusivity? In that case, you might consider the flexibility of a full-ship charter. Like buying out a hotel, you “own” the vessel for the duration of your cruise; you can display your company logos, banners and signage throughout; create the menus; even dictate the itinerary. (Partial charters are also available on some of the cruise ships, which is similar to a hotel block for your group.)

When Creative Memories, a scrapbooking company with more than 40,000 consultants worldwide, was about to celebrate its 15th anniversary, the company decided to offer one really special incentive—a chartered Caribbean cruise—instead of its typical three-tiered program. Lucy Eisele, CITE, Creative Memories’ manager of travel, events and meetings at the time, did site inspections on three different lines before choosing Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium as the reward for the company’s top achievers. With the help of Landry & Kling, she customized the ship’s itinerary to include San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, USVI; Celebrity’s private island, Labadee (Haiti); and the highlight—which hadn’t been done much up to that point—St. Barth. “It was fabulous,” she says.

A charter has its own set of considerations, however, including payment schedules and the fact that it can’t be canceled. Attrition isn’t necessarily of consequence; however, adding passengers after signing the contract could be if the number of the group exceeds the capacity of the vessel.

But even that obstacle can be surmounted, as Eisele discovered. The carrot of a high-end cruise turned out to be even more delicious than previously anticipated, and the number of qualifiers for the incentive multiplied exponentially. Fortunately, her cruise was scheduled for the tail end of the season, she says, and Celebrity agreed to do a back-to-back (before repositioning) so she could accommodate all 2,000 winners (each trip was seven days—14 days total for this successful incentive).

“Having chartered ships, it is the way to go—budget and size of group allowing,” Eisele says. “It is so special, and the things you can do that make it your own truly tie into what a real incentive is all about.”

The results of that charter incentive speak for themselves, she says: “We doubled what we thought we would do!”

Choosing the Right Itinerary

Selecting the right ship also means finding the right itinerary for your group. With the expansion of the industry and ship inventory, there are now new ports of departure on the East, West and Gulf coasts in the U. S., including “drive to” ports ideal for regional groups (such as Baltimore); additional sailings on popular routes; and new itineraries (three-, four- and five-night cruises, in addition to seven- and 10-night programs). “With so many ships coming on the market, and others being redeployed, it means shorter cruise opportunities,” Devine says. “There are now options for four-night

Mediterranean cruises, for example, and opportunities for four or five nights in the Caribbean”—all of which have great appeal for meeting planners.

Once the province of the mass-market contemporary lines, premium lines such as Celebrity are now sailing shorter itineraries, in destinations including Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe, among others. But Gulaskey notes an increase in interest in seven-night cruises, as they don’t require any more time out of the office than the typical four- and five-night programs due to weekend departures.


FAQ’s: The Big Three

Of course, planning a cruise meeting isn’t all smooth sailing. Three issues appear with regularity. First, the all-inclusive price for the cruise doesn’t include port excursions, a popular activity when docking at multiple destinations. One way to handle these, Devine says, is to budget a certain amount per person, then give attendees vouchers that can be used however they wish, whether for port excursions, spa treatments or other amenities. Gratuities can also be prearranged.

As groups prefer to dine together for most meals, dining arrangements always run a close second. Celebrity’s Gulaskey gives a for-instance of how these can be arranged: On a five-night cruise, on the first and last night, the group can come to the main dining room as a company, allowing attendees to choose their own seats within a block of reserved tables. On the nights in between, he says, many CEOs like to host their top people in the smaller dining rooms, while everyone else is free to eat when and where they like—even in their staterooms, with room service.

Then there’s Norwegian Cruise Line’s Free Style dining, which revolutionized rigid cruise-dining models when introduced a few years ago. The line features open seating, flexible hours and numerous restaurants, including both casual and upscale dining, throughout its fleet.

The third common issue is technology. Incentive passengers and their execs feel the need to be connected constantly, and today’s cruise ships have kept up with technology. Most offer Wi-Fi throughout the vessel, including staterooms, so your attendees can bring their own laptops and log in at will (similar to a resort, there is a Wi-Fi charge for Internet service). Cell phone service is available everywhere, although Gulaskey advises that you talk to your carrier and arrange international calling alternatives to avoid roaming charges.    

Cruise Trends

Several trends are cresting this year, two of which reflect similar impulses in the meetings industry.
 

Take the Family?

It’s been a few years since employees regularly brought their families along on business or incentive trips. These trips—especially to Florida and Hawaii—served as mini family vacations, and were sorely missed when they were cut or seriously discouraged.

That was then; this is now. Like corporations, as the cruise industry redefines itself, it is attracting a younger demographic, including those with families. In the leisure market, cruising with children in tow is popular. In fact, according to Eileen Ogintz, creator of the website TakeTheKids.com, “more than 1 million children per year under the age of 18 are cruising on the various lines.” To plan a successful event that includes families, you need to secure the right ship. Some lines, such as Celebrity, cater to adults (children are “accommodated”), while others are designed to be family friendly, including Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Princess and—of course—Disney. These offer not only scheduled programs for kids, but also lounges, cafés and hangouts with music, movies, video games and dance floors for teens and tweens. A great resource if you’re considering an incentive that includes children is AllThingsCruise.com, which has a family section providing tips about cruising with kids of all ages, including infants.

Although there’s a strong benefit for participants who bring their families, a cruise also has benefits for the planner: no extra work to plan kid-centric activities, and no extra cost to feed them.

Green

As some cruise liners are the size of small cities, it may be surprising to learn that the industry is doing a good job of minimizing environmental impact. According to research by PhoCusWright, among the major green initiatives currently under way (or about to be launched) on various ships are:

-An on-board recycling plant that reduces 100% of all solid waste products, in addition to an on-board wastewater treatment plant
-The ability to run on green diesel as well as the installation of special engine seals to prevent oil leakage
-On-board desalination units that turn salt water into fresh water
-Use of salt water in on-board swimming pools to avoid the usage of chemicals
-LED lighting that uses 50% less energy than regular lighting and reduces the ship’s carbon footprint by 70%
-State-of-the-art washing machines that use sound waves and less water (10 gallons versus 60 gallons)
 

River Cruises    

By all accounts, there’s a spike in interest about river cruising. CruiseCompete.com, an online cruise marketplace, has seen a 24.5% increase in river cruise requests from June 2009/2010 to the same time in 2011/2012.

River cruises, particularly in international destinations, are “something new and different” for corporate groups, according to Heidi Allison, co-founder of CruiseCompete. By necessity, river vessels are smaller than ocean-going ships (the AmaLegro, for instance, holds 148 passengers), so they offer a “very intimate venue for your top salespeople or other important guests,” she says.

Delighted with the success of his first meeting at sea, planner Lance Wieland subsequently booked the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess with Landry & Kling for an incentive program that had similar results. “Although my ship experiences so far have been limited, they’ve been overwhelmingly positive. I highly recommend cruising,” he says.