If you think a cruise is bound to be a snooze, you haven't let your attendees get up close and personal with a calving glacier, or wowed them with an awards dinner in a state-of-the-art show lounge.
Here's the thing about cruising: It's not what you expect. People who haven't cruised often think of the ship as a kind of prison of boredom from which there is no escape. But those who try it for the first time are nearly always won over by an experience that is far different from their expectations.
The fact is, there's often more to do on a mega-liner than at a resort. Cruise ships have an average of nine decks that house world-class health clubs, virtual-reality game rooms, cigar bars, Internet cafes, and even rock-climbing walls.
During free evenings, meeting participants have many choices: a nightcap, a movie, a show, or a deck party. A seven-night cruise has up to six different ports of call, so attendees can experience different countries and cultures during one trip.
Inventory of both small luxury vessels and grand liners is growing fast, with 53 new ships launching by 2005. That means new destinations - Cuba (Cuba Cruise Corp.), for instance, or West Africa (Classical Cruises).
Of course, if you charter a ship, you can choose the ports of call. A custom incentive itinerary might include sailing around the coast of Ireland, with stops for golf along the way. Are your attendees more interested in spa treatments than fairways? In 2002, Canyon Ranch is introducing two Canyon Ranch at Sea luxury vessels. Each will have 35 treatment rooms and 100 spa professionals.
Beyond the Big Buffet It's a common mistake to think that there's nothing to do but eat on a cruise. However, there are a lot of dining choices on board, and the F&B staff is used to serving hundreds of people, all ordering from an a la carte menu. Another advantage is that meals are served in dedicated dining rooms, not in multipurpose ballrooms.
A new dining concept from the Norwegian Cruise Line, called Freestyle Cruising, breaks with the conventional model of two dinner servings (along with specific dress codes) and instead offers open seating in any of the ship's restaurants. That gives meeting planners the option of arranging customized dine-arounds.
Here's Your Closet What about those tiny cabins with minuscule bathrooms? Today's luxury vessels have larger cabins, many with sitting areas and balconies; the smallest staterooms on the Radisson Seven Seas all-suite, all-balcony Mariner, due to launch this year, measure 301 square feet, for example.
Still, most staterooms aren't as large or lavish as the rooms in luxury resorts, and it's important to inform attendees about that and other differences prior to meeting at sea. "Our promotional material explained the compact cabins; gave information on the ports of call, including the documentation needed; and covered other differences from our usual resort programs," notes Barb Giesbrecht, assistant conference planning manager at Great-West Life in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The company's meeting planning team booked 700 attendees on Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas seven-night Caribbean itinerary for their 1999 marketing conference.
But Can You Really Meet at Sea? Perhaps the most significant trend in cruising is that ships are actively courting meeting business. When Landry & Kling (a company specializing in corporate cruises) was established in 1982, only Norwegian Cruise Line had a corporate and incentive department, notes co-founder Jo Kling. Now, even companies such as Windstar, whose largest ship accommodates just 312 passengers, have managers dedicated to meeting sales.
Most cruise lines have seen an increase in meeting and incentive business: at NCL, it was up about 60 percent in 2000 compared to the same time period in 1999, says Cindy Wolf, director of the corporate and incentive sales department. "The big change," she says, "is that up until about five years ago, retail absolutely dictated the ships' facilities and itineraries. Now, we discuss the needs of the meeting and incentive market at every corporate meeting."
New liners offer more meeting facilities than ships of the past. Purpose-designed conference rooms on meeting-friendly cruise lines such as Norwegian, Holland America, Celebrity, and RCCL typically have theater-style seating and hold about 200 people. They are well equipped for handling PowerPoint presentations, videoconferencing, etc.
There are no ballrooms. Instead, Kling notes, "Ship people think in terms of the main lounge or the showroom as the big function room. These spaces don't cost extra to use, but they have to be booked well in advance, and are not available for 24-hour holds."
Some ship lounges can seat more than 1,000 people, and they are always outfitted with high-end lighting, sound, and video. "The show lounge works great for awards programs and general sessions," says Lance Wieland, president of planning company Global Events Group in Falmouth, Maine. "All the extra audiovisual costs that we'd normally incur go away."
There is also an advantage to having a captive audience. "Attendees on board ship are relaxed, but not itching to get out on the golf course," Wieland notes. It sets the scene for a productive meeting."
Advance planning is crucial: Only a few cruise lines employ onboard meeting services coordinators; most of them will assign a liaison for planners.
Business sessions take place shipboard as they would on land. The Great-West Life attendees had morning meetings and then broke for afternoon recreational activities. The ship's showroom was the main meeting room, while a divisible conference room and the ship's library were used for breakouts.
Offshore Site-Inspection Guide Take a site inspection at least a year before the meeting, advises Kling, who offers these other tips:
- If possible, travel the itinerary that your attendees will travel.
- Start your site inspection at least a day before the cruise ship sails, so that you can check out the port for advance hotel accommodations and for shipping of necessary meeting materials.
- Identify ground operators in advance, and meet with them in each port of call. Or meet with several different ground operators in each destination and choose one.
- Bring your preliminary program so that you can identify appropriate meeting facilities on the ship.
- Set up a meeting with the onboard AV technician.
- Meet with the maitre d' to discuss meal seating and with the chief purser to set up billing accounts. Depending on the ship, talk to the chief housekeeper or purser about stateroom deliveries and storage of meeting materials.
- Sample the onboard entertainment so that you can write about it in promotional materials. If you're going to charter a ship, decide which entertainment you want along on your cruise.
The key: Think outside the land-based box. "Planners can't just plug in the usual resort agenda," Kling says. "You have to start with a blank slate. But you can fit in everything - in a fun, new way."
The Tax Tangle Cruising's standard all-inclusive package is generally cost-effective for double occupancy, but there are sometimes tax disadvantages because meetings at sea often fall under different tax guidelines from those of hotel programs. Consult a tax adviser, because different angles can be used, based on whether the program has land-based meetings, or pre- or post-trip meetings, for example.
Here are the basics, culled from Landry & Kling (800/448-9002; www.landrykling.com) and Jonathan Howe (312/263-3001).
- Pure incentive: Attendees must shoulder the tax burden for the "fair market value" of the cruise, which means the company treats the value of the trip as employee compensation (or 1099 income).
- Cruise meetings conducted for business can be deductible for attendees, but only up to $2,000 and only if the ship is registered as a U.S. flagship (most aren't) and cruises to U.S. ports.
- Companies can deduct expenses only for business cruises held inside North America (including Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago).
- Allowable expenses for the company can include the airfare portion of the cruise, speakers, or other meeting-related costs.
Setting Sail in 2001 * Carnival Spirit; Carnival Pride passengers: 2,124 cool feature: 80 percent ocean-view cabins, most with balconies
* Celebrity Infinity passengers: 1,950 cool feature: 25,000-square-foot AquaSpa with 20-plus treatments
* Norwegian Sun passengers: 2,000 cool feature: Nine restaurants with 10 distinct menus
* Golden Princess passengers: 2,600 cool feature: Three show lounges
* Radisson Seven Seas Mariner passengers: 700 cool feature: All-suite, all-balcony
* RCCL Radiance of the Seas passengers: 2,501 cool feature: 3-level, 915-seat Aurora Theatre
American Hawaii www.cruisehawaii.com Carnival Cruise Lines www.carnival.com Clipper Cruise Line www.clippercruise.com Celebrity Cruises www.celebritycruises.com Classical Cruises www.classicalcruises.com Commodore Cruise Lines www.commodorecruise.com Costa Cruises www.costacruises.com Crystal Cruises www.crystalcruises.com Cuba Cruise Corp. www.cubacruising.com Cunard Line Ltd. www.cunard.com Delta Queen Coastal Voyages www.deltaqueencoastalvoyages.com Disney Cruise Line www.disneymeetings.com Holland America Cruise Line www.hollandamerica.com KD River Cruises of Europe www.rivercruises.com Mediterranean Shipping Cruises www.msccruise.com Norwegian Cruise Line www.ncl.com Orient Lines www.orientlines.com Premier Cruises www.premiercruises.com Princess Cruises www.princesscruises.com Radisson Seven Seas Cruises www.rssc.com Renaissance Cruises www.renaissancecruises.com Royal Caribbean International www.royalcaribbean.com Sea Cloud Cruises www.seacloud.com Seabourn Cruises www.seabourncruiseweb.com Silversea Cruises www.silversea.com Sonesta Hotels, Resorts & Nile Cruises www.sonesta.com Star Clippers www.starclippers.com United States Lines www.unitedstateslines.com Victoria Cruises www.victoriacruises.com Windjammer Barefoot Cruises www.windjammer.com Windstar Cruises www.windstarcruises.com General Cruise Industry Web Sites www.cruising.org www.smallshipcruises.com
They're everywhere. Peering out at you from behind ice cream cones half the size of their faces. Scurrying by you on the pool deck ... Look out! Splash! Squealing with delight as they spot Mickey striding down the hallway ... Look out! Bear hug!
You don't have to love kids to take a Disney cruise - especially the new seven-day Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic - but it helps. The questions I had were: Is there really enough privacy and exclusivity for incentive winners, and can a ship that caters so well to the under-10 set possibly deliver incentive-level treatment at the same time?
It did, starting from the minute my motor coach crossed the channel at Port Canaveral and the spectacular ship appeared in the distance. There were "ooh's" and `aah's" from every guest. Equally impressive were the art deco - style terminal and the seamless transfer: Passengers who stay at one of the Disney resorts even use the same room key once on board.
The architecture of the Magic is just stunning, especially the main atrium, with a Murano glass chandelier that hangs almost a full story high. The cabins are not only roomy and elegant, but many (384 out of 877) also have their own balconies. There are enough private spaces to hold a function each night while on board. My favorite was the gourmet, adults-only restaurant, Palo. Elegant options for groups include brunch and afternoon tea, with views of the sparkling seas on all sides. Other adults-only getaways: a private swimming pool and an 8,500-square-foot spa.
Incentive groups expect exclusive activities - things that they wouldn't likely be able to do on their own. The itinerary delivered in St. Maarten, our first port of call, where the group took part in a sailing regatta on the Stars & Stripes - the 12-meter sailboat used by Dennis Conner to win the 1987 America's Cup. And there was still time for a leisurely lunch in the lovely French town of Marigot.
An incentive itinerary has to include shopping, and there's no better port in the Caribbean for this than St. Thomas, the next stop. At Castaway Cay, Disney's private island, there's the opportunity for luxurious massages in tiny cabanas overlooking the ocean, and a quiet adults-only beach. There's also the Grouper Pavilion - a popular choice for groups to come together on their last day of the cruise.
Something special catches the eye everywhere you look on Celebrity's new 1,950-passenger Millennium. From the softly glowing steps in the soaring grand foyer to more than 500 quirky paintings, photographs, and sculpture in public spaces throughout the ship, interesting details abound. The overall aesthetic is refined and tasteful, not glitzy or overblown.
The enormous liner is divided into many intimate spaces, each with a distinct design identity. Among them are a music library, an internet cafe, a coffee bar, a cigar lounge, a martini bar, and a champagne bar. More expansive areas include a 14,000-square-foot boutique and a 25,000-square-foot spa and gym that features an atrium-enclosed saltwater pool with massage air beds and water jets.
Then there's the above-average cuisine, developed (as on all Celebrity ships) by French Master Chef Michel Roux. His culinary artistry is most evident in the 134-seat Olympic restaurant, where tableside cooking highlights a gourmet experience.
All this - and the fact that 80 percent of the staterooms are ocean-view, 74 percent with verandahs - has already prompted corporate groups, including The Royal Bank of Canada and Volkswagen, to get onboard for scheduled itineraries and full-ship charters.
Dedicated meeting space includes six flexible conference rooms that range from a boardroom seating 10 to a cinema and conference room seating 200. (The Celebrity Theater seats 900.) All support PowerPoint presentations and sophisticated audiovisual. Meeting organizers can also work with the broadcast team to set up a dedicated television channel in attendee staterooms and, on a full-ship charter, display company messages on the plasma screens throughout the ship.
Catch views of the ports of call - in the Caribbean during winter and in Europe and the Mediterranean during summer - from exterior, glass-enclosed elevators. Another industry first: environmentally friendly, gas-turbine engines.