Meet at Sea

Meeting Planning

While the majority of cruise passengers step aboard to embark on vacation, the number of business passengers on cruises, for meetings or work-related events, is steadily rising as groups discover the advantages of hosting a meeting at sea. Surprising to some groups may be that one of the biggest benefits of choosing water over land is value, which cruise-based meetings can deliver. A cruise also offers a variety of activities to suit all types of travelers, from rock climbing, lounging by the pool and ice skating to attending Broadway-style shows, so everyone in your group will find entertainment in their off hours. It’s little wonder that since 1980, the North American cruise industry has grown at an annual rate of passenger growth of 7.5%, with meeting attendees playing a significant role in the growth.

“A cruise ship is particularly conducive to productive, memorable meetings because the ship fosters an environment for participation and productivity in an atmosphere of carefree relaxation,” says Christine Duffy, CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “And, meeting planners will find that CLIA member lines are able to offer excellent value and pricing compared to land-based options, as well as one-stop shopping and planning and the benefits of traveling in comfort and style from port to port, country to country.”

At MPI’s World Education Conference in August, Duffy—a former meetings industry executive— announced that 13 members of CLIA have agreed to host one MPI chapter meeting annually aboard one of its ships (while docked in port). And in 2013, portions of two major industry conferences will be held on board a CLIA ship: CLIA’s annual conference in June in Vancouver and December’s SITE Global Conference in Orlando.

“What people are looking for in conferences today is really coming away with new relationships,” says Josephine Kling, president of Landry & Kling, a program management service for cruise groups. “You want relationships; you want a sense of community. You want entertainment, new ideas and a sense of having connected with people so that when you get home you have contacts you can follow up with and new experiences that you’ve had. Cruise opportunities provide that in spades beyond what a normal resort experience offers.”


   MS Maasdam, Holland America Line

Meetings at sea can cost about 30% less than those held on land. While the average land-based hotel or resort charges extra for meeting rooms, specialty A/V equipment, meals, activities and enterinent, those and other amenities are included in the base price on most cruises. With that value come flexibility and convenience. Attendees have three meals a day of their choice, plus snacks and nonalcoholic drinks, and they can enjoy the activities they prefer. If family members are invited on the cruise, they can take advantage of the activities offered for passengers of all ages. A number of cruise lines offer children and teen programs that will keep youngsters busy while their parents attend meetings, and which are typically part of the base price. Many ships have health and fitness clubs for passengers as well, so attendees may maintain their exercise programs while on the ship without incurring added costs, as they might at some resorts.

Cruise lines today also have state-of-the-art facilities and technology. Groups may request projectors, podiums, DVD players, plasma-screen televisions, video walls, wireless or lapel microphones, professional lighting and sound boards. And most cruise ships offer Wi-Fi service and roaming networks for cell phones.

Planners also save time setting up the meeting, especially when it comes to meals. One option: The attendees themselves can simply choose what they want for breakfast, lunch and dinner at onboard restaurants with a variety of menu options. Even those with special dietary needs can request customized orders directly from the wait staff. Want to add coffee and tea service to one of your meetings? On a Royal Caribbean International cruise, that’s just typically $2 per person.

“In an environment today where companies are trying to stretch their budget, get the most bang for their buck, and really try to deliver that memorable, meaningful experience, we’re stepping it up and doing a lot more business as a result of the value proposition and the cost behind [meetings at sea],” says Lori Cassidy, director of corporate, incentive and charter sales for Royal Caribbean.

So what’s holding planners back from booking the next company meeting on the water? First, a lack of awareness in the meetings industry—many planners haven’t been on a cruise, or they think of a cruise as a vacation rather than a potential setting for a business event. One of Royal Caribbean’s priorities is to make planners aware of the benefits Of holding a meeting on a cruise ship and to show them how much they can save for their clients.

Another issue that comes up with cruising is timing. Meetings today are typically short in duration and it may not make sense to book a seven- or 10- day cruise for just a day or two of gatherings. However, ships offer short-term trips as well, from three to five nights, a time frame that makes more sense for many groups. Cruise companies including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Lines offer three-night itineraries to the Bahamas and four-night cruises to various islands in the Caribbean. Destination options expand with the length of the journey. And there’s the option of adding on an extra day or two to the itinerary to allow attendees some time off—which pays off in the long run because it increases excitement about the trip, can positively impact employee performance and is likely to ramp up attendance numbers.


   Odyssey Washington DC, Oydssey Cruises

How could anyone be less than thrilled when surrounded by mesmerizing views of the ocean and tropical beaches? Between business functions, cruising attendees will enjoy the picturesque surroundings and breathe in the fresh ocean air.

Because everyone in the group is in the same general vicinity and can’t wander too far, gathering on a ship inherently supports networking. Attendees see each other at dinner, at cocktail receptions, the gym or spa, during activities and at shows even If no special function is planned.

“You have a captive audience,” says Cassidy. “You have everyone in one area. If you go to Orlando or Vegas, those destinations are so big that once people leave a meeting you may never see them again.”

Shore excursions are also easy for planners to organize. If you would like to leave the boat as a group, Royal Caribbean will organize a private beach barbecue, a golf tournament or a trip out on a catamaran for your attendees. Another option is to give attendees time to themselves or with friends or family to enjoy the activities they choose in their free time. Because everyone has to be back on board at the same time, it’s no problem to reconvene as a group as the ship leaves port.

As easy as cruise lines make it for planners, conference organizers still need to consider options carefully. Erik Elvejord, director of public relations at Holland America Line, emphasizes putting a lot of thought into the needs and goals for the meeting and picturing how these can be met on a cruise ship. He encourages planners to think through the itinerary from an attendee’s perspective. It may be best, for example, to schedule the majority of meetings when the ship is at sea, or to balance the meetings with entertainment and activities each day. It might be difficult to focus on an agenda when there’s a stunning Caribbean island right outside the meeting room and the sounds of a steel drum band echoing off a nearby beach bar. For some, a meeting room without a view may be preferable.


   Carnival Breeze, Carnival Cruise Lines

For planners who don’t have personal experience with cruises but are considering booking one for a meeting, there’s help. Valuable resources include travel agents with knowledge of the cruise industry and booking meetings on ships. Explain your goals and requirements, and an agent who has booked groups on cruises can help you through the decision process. Additionally, once a group has decided to meet on a cruise ship, planners can also contact the meetings and incentives department of a potential cruise line for help with the process.

Kling has encouraged clients to host meetings on cruise ships for 30 years. She and her business partner, Joyce Landry, founded Landry & Kling Inc., a distribution channel between the cruise industry and corporate America. They’ve been providing site selection and program-management services for cruise groups and full-ship charters since 1982.

“When we started, none of the cruise lines had a corporate and incentives department and they all do now,” says Kling. “This has not always been a natural sector, but they all recognize that it’s important because the group [and business] sector is important overall to a cruise line.”

Kling and Landry saw a gap in the meetings market that wasn’t being filled—meeting planners needed one source where they could research cruise schedules and availability for group bookings, as well as information about accommodations, meeting rooms, amenities, dining, activities, the size of the ship and ratings on all the ships in the industry. There weren’t any websites with group-specific information and schedules for all the cruise lines, and searching every cruise site for those details was prohibitively time consuming. In 2009, Landry & kling launched to fill this gap.

Planners interested in choosing a cruise on their own can hop onto Seasite to do their research, instead of spending hours scouring the various cruise ship websites for relevant information. Seasite helps planners choose the best ship and schedule for their clients, and it’s easy to fill out an RFP online that can be sent to up to five different cruise lines.

Ship Size

   Celebration Belle, Celebration River Cruises

A crucial part of the initial planning stages of your meeting involves choosing a type of ship or ship size. This choice may be limited by the number of attendees and whether you want to reserve a block of staterooms or a full or partial buyout of the vessel. Large ships offer a range of accommodations and state-of-the-art amenities, while small ships boast more personalized service and itineraries that include less-visited and less-crowded ports.

The largest ships hold anywhere from 800–2,700 staterooms. These vessels have impressive shows and entertainment, top-of-the-line A/V equipment and meeting space, as well as gorgeous health clubs and spas. The larger boats also have the most variety in restaurant options and activities.

Today’s mid-size ships hold 500–800 staterooms. Most have amenities and dining options similar to those of larger ships, just fewer of them. Midsize ships may also have more flexibility with itineraries compared to mega ships, which can’t sail to all ports.

Small ships and yachts include all-suite vessels, motor vessels and sailboats, and usually have flexible itineraries of three to seven days. Fares for these ships tend to be higher than other options, as they have the most luxurious amenities, personalized service and more upscale accommodations. Yachts work well for half- or full-ship charters, depending on group size and timing.

River cruises have become more popular recently, both in North America and abroad. They offer in-depth sightseeing at a relaxed pace, and are an ideal option for a charter as a group has the ability to set the itinerary for the desired mix of downtime and business. The riverboats are smaller, so they don’t offer the conference rooms and amenities of a mega ship, but they still work well depending on the group’s needs. River cruising itineraries can be particularly ideal for an incentive travel experience.

As cruises become a more widespread meeting option, planners are increasingly aware of the possible benefits of meeting at sea. A cruise offers more than value; it provides an adventure as well as a new—and ever-changing—backdrop against which business and pleasure flourish.

Main image: Lord Hornblower, courtesy of Hornblower Cruises and Events in San Diego

Meeting Spotlight

Who: Investors Group Financial Services; 260 attendees
When: June 10–17, 2012
Where: A Royal Caribbean ship ported in the Bahamas, St. Martin and St. Thomas
Why: “Attendees loved the ship, the quality of product and all its amenities, including the fine-dining restaurants, the high-end shopping, the healthy food options and the gym, with high-quality equipment and a variety of programs such as yoga and spinning. The entertainment was excellent. For a ship that accommodates 5,500 people, as a group of 260 we never felt it was crowded.” –Angie Pfeifer, CMM, assistant vice president, corporate meetings, travel and incentives

Day Cruises

Many day cruises accommodate meetings and business functions out of ports in various locations. Charter a yacht, plan a dinner or schedule an outing for your group with a beautiful view from the water.

Accent Cruises
Charter a yacht off Vancouver for a special event or meeting. Accent Cruises has five vessels that offer the services of a private chef who will prepare outstanding meals for your group of 30–220.

Casco Bay Lines
Book a company outing or special event for 25–275 guests on a private cruise around Casco Bay off of Portland, Maine. For a real Maine experience, book a private charter to a lobster bake on Peaks Island.

Celebration River Cruises
With four decks, including two that are climate controlled and can hold functions for up to 800 people, Celebration Belle hosts group events on the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill.

General Jackson Showboat
Two riverboats on the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tenn., are available for group events and meetings—The General Jackson and the Music City Queen

Hornblower Cruises & Events
Hornblower offers premier day cruises with quality dining and entertainment out of New York City, as well as San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Berkeley, Marina Del Rey, Newport Beach and Long Beach in California.

Mid-Lakes Navigation
Groups of two to 100 can enjoy sightseeing tours, dinner cruises or longer cruises on the Erie Canal and beautiful Skaneateles Lake in upstate New York.

Odyssey Cruises
Odyssey offers elegant yachts for parties of two to events for hundreds in Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Groups can enjoy creative dining, live entertainment, dancing and stunning city views.

Star of Honolulu
This luxurious ship features an array of options for corporate events, private meetings, parties and dinner cruises in the gorgeous waters off Honolulu.

Venetian Lady Yacht Charters
Venetian Lady Yacht Charters in Miami caters to groups interested in dinner cruises, corporate events, cocktail parties, private yacht charters, conferences and seminars. Dinner cruise vessels hold up to 360 passengers.

World Yacht
Book a dinner cruise, a brunch cruise, group events or charter a private yacht with World Yacht at Pier 81 in New York City.