ALTHOUGH CRUISES HAVE a strong safety record, they're not without risk. After all, cruise lines have been addressing bad press about security since the 1985 terrorist attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which an American tourist was killed. Most recently, the press has turned to concerns about bioterrorism and outbreaks of contagious gastrointestinal illnesses aboard cruise ships.

How can planners assess these risks when considering a cruise ship as a meeting or incentive venue?

“Start by doing your homework, says Barb Giesbrecht, assistant event planning manager for the Great West Life Assurance Co. in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Giesbrecht has planned three corporate cruise events over the past dozen years, and says she has never experienced security or health problems.

“Following the industry in general is always a smart thing to do,” adds Lance Wieland, president of Falmouth, Maine-based Global Events Group. “You should always have an understanding of the history and background of your suppliers.”

Just read the news, suggests Rick Werth, president of Event and Meeting Security Services in Franklin, Tenn. “If a ship just had the Norwalk virus, or had a bomb threat, you have to stop and think, ‘OK, cruise line, what are you doing to protect my attendees and my event?’”

Werth suggests asking about the level of security a ship provides, safety procedures, lifeboat drills, and even meeting with a ship's medical staff.

In the end, Werth says, a planner will want to achieve a level of comfort with the cruise line — a comfort level that says, “They are doing the right things, in addition to the fun things.”

Running a Tight Ship

Most destinations have some terrorism threat, but cruise vessels “are big ships and soft targets,” says Werth. “Terrorism is a possibility that can't be ignored.”

Since 9/11, the cruise industry has become so security-conscious that it has a “security awareness and presence that's almost unprecedented,” reports Bill Wright, senior vice president of safety, security, and environment for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and its sister line, Celebrity Cruises.

Cruise lines do full security assessments of new ports of call and constantly reassess old favorites. Once in port, cruise ships are protected by strict security measures. For example, unauthorized persons and boats are prohibited from getting too close to ships, and it's not unusual to see scuba divers checking the submerged hulls of vessels.

Security precautions on ships are tight as well. “Before guests ever set foot on ships, they go through a screening process as detailed and multilayered as anything they go through with the airlines,” Wright says.

All cargo and luggage brought aboard ships are X-rayed. High-tech photo identification cards are issued to passengers and crew, making it difficult for unauthorized persons to board ships. And the computerized identification systems allow security guards to determine when passengers and crew leave and return to ships.

Joyce Landry, president and CEO of Landry & Kling, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based company that specializes in cruise event management, points out that when war broke out with Iraq last year, cruise lines began changing itineraries, abandoning the Eastern Mediterranean for the more secure Baltic Sea.

Even in what is perceived as a safe location, planners should remember that attendees are going to be anxious when it comes to security.

Giesbrecht was on a Caribbean cruise recently during which a passenger died. The ship was near Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and helicopters were sent from the American base there to retrieve the body. But, because of extremely windy conditions, the helicopters were forced to hover over the deck.

“Passengers just didn't understand what was happening,” Giesbrecht says. “The people on the upper deck began panicking.” In this case, she observes, a little communication would have gone a long way.

Wake-Up Call

Cruise lines took a big public relations hit in 2002 when ships were struck by outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses, many of them blamed on Norwalk-like viruses characterized by diarrhea and vomiting.

Cruisejunkie.com, a Web site that monitors the cruise industry, found 43 reports of illness outbreaks involving 3,530 passengers and crew on cruise ships in 2002. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2003.

Officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that the illnesses affecting those ships are a microscopically small percentage of the 23 million cases that strike the United States annually. And CDC officials have publicly proclaimed the safety of cruise ships. Yet the cruise industry has become the “poster child” for the Norwalk virus, Wright observes.

It's an exasperating situation for the cruise lines. “Every time there is an outbreak on a ship, it tends to get overplayed by the media relative to the number of people affected,” says Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Wright points out that cruise lines, unlike land-based venues, are required by the CDC to track all cases of gastroenteritis reported on ships. If the number of illnesses onboard surpasses 2 percent of the passengers and crew, ships must go through CDC-mandated sanitation procedures. If the situation worsens, a ship can be quarantined. It's through this kind of visibility, Wright says, that the Norwalk virus has become known as the “cruise ship virus.”

As unfair as he thinks that moniker is, Wright views the outbreaks as a wake-up call to the cruise industry. Consequently, in the past year his lines have enhanced their sanitation procedures and updated the protocols used in dealing with contagious diseases, steps that were useful when the SARS epidemic broke out early in 2003.

Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises used those updated protocols to track the disease, query prospective passengers, and identify those who had traveled in SARS alert areas, eventually barring them from boarding ships. The Norwalk experience helped in this case, Wright says. “We were proactive and stepped up to the plate with our own policies and procedures.”

The good news for planners is that the CDC, through its Vessel Sanitation Program, closely monitors the cruise industry. Through the program, any ship that calls at a U.S. port is subject to surprise inspections twice a year, the results of which are available online.

The CDC also recommends hygienic practices for passengers, including frequent, thorough hand washing with soap and warm water and avoiding contact with ill passengers.

Even in the worst circumstances, planners can be confident that their group will have access to good medical care, says Landry. “Ships are really cities within themselves,” she says, adding that cruise lines need to provide sophisticated medical services, not only for passengers, but also for the entire crew.