Karen Tise had always dreamed of being on board a majestic clipper ship. She could almost hear the snap of the huge canvas sails catching the wind as the craft sliced through the waves.

So, when she started planning her company's 1998 customer incentive trip, she decided to go for it. She had her travel agent book a Caribbean cruise on one of Star Clippers' two majestic 360-foot ships.

Tise, a credit manager for Wilmington, Mass.-based Homan's Associates Inc., has been organizing the company's incentive trips since it began offering them in 1994. Homan's sells industrial supplies, such as insulation, heating, and air conditioning parts. Customers, primarily industrial contractors, have one year to qualify for the trip by increasing their purchases by a certain percentage above the year before. Some companies win multiple trips, allowing owners to bring along a couple of their employees.

Tise says last year's week-long trip on Star Clipper was a big success because Homan's achieved both of its objectives: rewarding customers with an unforgettable adventure and making them feel part of a family. She does not believe she could have met those goals using a typical cruise. For starters, her group of 170 people never could have had a cruise ship to themselves, and Tise wanted to bond with her customers, not have them get lost in a crowd of tourists.

The setting was also more intimate and casual. The group even became friends with the multinational 72-member crew. "It was so relaxed," Tise says of the cruise. "There were no floor shows or dinner seatings, no jackets, ties, or pantyhose."

Another benefit of a smaller ship was that it could dock at out-of-the-way ports where passengers could lounge on secluded beaches far from the crowds. On their stopovers, which included St. Barts and St. Kitts, the Homan's group had beach barbecues, friendly volleyball competitions, and went scuba diving.

As far as cost, the $2,300 per person was comparable to the cost of a large luxury liner, and included the airfare to the starting point, Antigua.

According to Mike Testa, president of Westgate Travel Service Inc. in Cleveland, which booked the trip, many companies book large cruise ships in case they end up with significantly more or fewer qualifiers than they expected. By chartering a clipper ship, Homan's could accommodate only up to 85 qualifiers with one guest each. If fewer customers had qualified than they anticipated, the cost per person would have risen. However, that was not the case--nor was anyone left behind.

Another benefit for Homan's was the fact that Testa was able to customize the itinerary for the company. During the trip, the schedule was very flexible. Early risers were free to lounge on the deck and watch the sun come up, have a cup of coffee, or get some exercise, and late-night revelers could sleep in.

Yet while the atmosphere was relaxed, the ship still was stately and impressive, Testa says. As it glided into each of the Caribbean ports, passengers, crew, and onlookers were captured by its beauty. "It's sort of like driving up in a Ferrari," he says. "People's jaws drop when they see it."

Satisfied Customer Customer Robert Anderson, president of Worcester, Mass.-based Energy Insulation Conservation, says Homan's is the only New England company in the industry to offer incentive trips, and it has made a difference in his business decisions. Other companies offer comparable prices and service, Anderson says, but he goes to Homan's first because of the yearlong incentive program. "They've built a lot of loyalty," he says.

Of the several Homan's trips Anderson has qualified for, the clipper ship excursion was his favorite. "It was fantastic," he enthuses. "If someone said to me that I could choose to go on any trip, this would be very high on my list."

One of his fondest memories was of sailing the ship, which he was allowed to do with his colleagues. They worked together to raise the 36,000 square feet of sails and they guided the ship for several hours a day. "It was a lot of work," he says. "And it was extraordinary. It's really something out of a bygone era."

Star Clippers' director of sales Larry Haugh says, "On a clipper ship, you are doing something more natural, and the ship itself becomes more of a destination.

"The first time the sails go up, and the wind catches them and you start to move, it's like having an epiphany," he adds. "It's an awe-inspiring feeling. I think that's what people come away with."