In Insurance Conference Planner's reader survey conducted late last year, 57 percent of the respondents said they had held an incentive program on a cruise ship. That's an impressive chunk of the insurance and financial services market.

But while cruises remain a popular option for corporate incentives, the cruise industry also has a long history of grappling with safety, security, and health issues. Cruise lines have been addressing security concerns well before 9/11, beginning with the 1985 terrorist attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which an American tourist was killed. More recently, two of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives Crystal Award winners involved canceled or relocated cruises because of safety and security concerns. Combating health threats has become a priority as well, particularly with the recent, well-publicized outbreaks of contagious gastrointestinal illnesses onboard cruise ships.

Do Your Homework

Planners would be foolish not to think about possible risks, says Rick Werth, president of Event and Meeting Security Services in Franklin, Tenn. “Given all the high-speed media, if planners think attendees don't read the news, they are wrong,” Werth says. “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?’”

Werth advises planners to take precautionary steps before signing a contract, such as meeting with cruise officials to ask about the level of security a ship provides, safety procedures, lifeboat drills, and medical facilities. They may even want to meet with a ship's medical staff. The goal, he says, is to achieve a level of comfort with the cruise line that says, “You are doing the right things in addition to the fun things.”

Security Precautions Onboard

In the aftermath of 9/11, the cruise industry has become so security-conscious that it now has a “security awareness and presence that's almost unprecedented,” says 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. And 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 onboard ships are tight as well. “Before guests ever set foot on ships, they go through a screening process as detailed and multi-layered as anything they go through with the airlines,” Wright says.

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

Of course, there is one huge advantage ships have over land-based venues — they're mobile. Joyce Landry, president and CEO of Landry & Kling, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based company specializing in cruise ship event management, points out that when the most recent war with Iraq broke out cruise lines began changing itineraries, abandoning the Eastern Mediterranean region for the more secure Baltic Sea.

Norwalk Virus Wake-Up Call

Beginning in 2002, cruise lines have been taking a big public relations hit as ships continue to be struck by outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses, many of them blamed on Norwalk-like viruses characterized by diarrhea and vomiting. Officials of the Centers for Disease Control have said that the illnesses affecting those ships are a microscopically small percentage of the 23 million cases that strike the United States annually, and have publicly proclaimed the safety of cruise ships. Nevertheless, 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 spokesperson 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 aboard a ship surpasses 2 percent of the passengers and crew, ships must go through CDC-mandated sanitation procedures. And 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. In the past year, for example, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises have enhanced their sanitation procedures and updated the protocols used in dealing with contagious diseases, steps that were quite useful when the SARS epidemic broke out early in 2003. The updated protocols were used 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. 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 passengers should engage in while onboard, including frequent, thorough hand washing with soap and warm water and avoiding contact with ill passengers. Planners should encourage members of their groups who become sick to seek immediate medical assistance to reduce the risk of spreading illness.

Even in the worst of circumstances, planners can be confident 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 their passengers, but for the entire crew as well.

Staying Safe on Land

Security concerns don't end when cruise passengers arrive at a port of call. “Our advice is always: Stay on the beaten path … Be wary of your personal belongings,” says Bill Wright, senior vice president of safety, security, and environment for Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., and its sister line, Celebrity Cruises.

Rick Werth, president of Event and Meeting Security Services in Franklin, Tenn., recommends that passengers from groups never leave the ship wearing name tags, but instead wear lapel pins or some other discreet identification tag. “Don't make them bigger targets,” he says.

“Have people understand what the risks are,” says Lance Wieland, president of the Global Events Group, a meeting management company in Falmouth, Maine, that has planned several cruise programs. “You're going into a foreign country where the annual average income could be $1,000. If you step off the ship wearing a Rolex and with cash in your pockets, that's not using common sense.” He adds, “Tone down your look; don't be quite so obvious. Have people dress in a certain way so they don't violate any cultural or social norms.”