What to do when you're 10,000 rooms short? Float in some new ones.

So why did Computer Associates International, the Islandia, N.Y.-based computer software giant, deliberately alter its schedule so it would be in town at the same time as the New Or leans Jazz and Heritage Festival? Usually big conferences try to schedule around public events. Ed Markowitz, vice president of marketing for CA and the man charged with producing CA World, shrugs. "Our clients make a time commitment to come," he says. "We also want to reward our employees . This is a way to add value to the event." It does, of course, create logistical problems, like a shortage of 10,000 hotel rooms.

"When we first called Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) to ask about leasing two of its largest boats for two weeks, they hung up on us," laughs Dustin McNabb, vice president of marketing for CA, "It took a few calls, and faxing some letters of credit, before they began to take us seriously."

CA traditionally brings the troops together in person every two years for a kickoff--a super sales and strategy meeting to start the fiscal year. "Every major high-tech company has a kickoff, but CA's is unique," says McNabb. "I've never known a company that goes to the lengths it does to bring everyone physically together. It's the best way for our executives to set out their key common messages in terms of product direction and business direction."

This year, the lengths CA went to included hiring four cruise ships to house 6,000 employees. RCCL soon realized that CA's pockets were indeed deep enough to buy exclusive use of the Sovereign of the Seas and Grandeur of the Seas, each of which picked up 2,000 CA employees in Miami and then sailed across the Gulf, up the Mississippi, and docked in New Orleans. CA also leased two other ships already docked in New Orleans: Carnival's Tropicale and Commodore's Enchanted Isle.

"We faced a major communications hurdle--how do you convey a common client message to 6,000 employees across four ships?" says McNabb. "We could wire the ships, but not to the level of an Internet, because at that level it was feared that the network would interfere with the ship's navigation system."

So McNabb and his co-leader Siki Giunta, senior vice president of marketing (also McNabb's fiancee), created 12 meeting rooms on the four ships as the "Floating Internet Pavilion," (even though, strictly speaking, there was no Internet connection) with each set up as a stand-alone multimedia training center.

Among the operational quirks of putting people up on cruise ships was that the cruise line contracts included meals as well as sleeping quarters. As a consequence, it was always easy to tell that you were in an employee session at the Morial Center, because it would begin and end with a chant coined by J. P. Corriveau, senior vice president, software development: "If you sleep on the boat, you eat on the boat!"

Another operational quirk was the fact that there had never been four cruise ships of that size parked at the New Orleans dock before. "We had to call a meeting with the Harbor Patrol and New Orleans Transit Authority and the Mayor's office," says McNabb. "Blueprints were drawn to show exactly where the ships would go. The engineers calculated that the top of the front-most boat would fit under the highway bridge that crosses the Mississippi with a clearance of about seven feet at high tide. It was pretty close."