Agents at Cedar Rapids, Iowa — based Life Investors Insurance Co. of America are working hard to qualify for a cruise incentive next February. “Considering what's going on in the market right now, we're very happy how excited our agents are,” says Barbara Bahr, director of agent services. They're competing for one of 200 spots on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, the world's biggest cruise ship, which plies the Caribbean for a week. The ship accommodates 3,100 passengers, and among its amenities are rock climbing, golf, and an ice-skating rink. “It's the hottest thing out there,” Bahr says.
The number of vessels designed to lure meetings is on the rise, reflecting the bigger role group business has assumed for cruise lines.
That mammoth Voyager of the Seas, for example, also supports the largest business center at sea, with conference space that can accommodate up to 1,350 and be converted to exhibition space; wireless controls for audiovisual, climate control, and lighting equipment; and videoconferencing capabilities and other features needed for business meetings. Typing and copying services, computer access, and private workstations are also available. In the past six years, 12 of Royal Caribbean's 13 vessels have been retrofitted with similar facilities.
Celebrity Cruises' Millennium-class vessels are designed with a conference/cinema center, an auditorium that holds more than 300 people and has an individual-controlled interactive voting system, a full control booth, and the latest in AV technology. Five meeting rooms come with TV monitors, computers, teleconferencing and Internet connections, fax machines, and private satellite phones.
Even smaller ships are getting in on the act. In Silversea's fleet, each ship comes equipped with a conference room with AV gear and a multitiered show lounge for larger groups.
Corporate meeting planners seem to be taking cruises more seriously. In a recent study conducted by EventSource, Landry & Kling, and Royal Caribbean Cruises, 79 percent of planners surveyed said that they would consider holding their business events at sea. That leaves a lot of room for growth, considering that only about 12 percent said they currently schedule shipboard meetings.
High Seas Stories
Rosemary Bakken, conference coordinator for MTL Insurance Co. in Oak Brook, Ill., recently scheduled her first cruise-based event, an incentive for the firm's highest level producers on the Disney Wonder, sailing from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after a larger meeting at Disney's Grand Floridian.
Why a cruise? “We wanted to try something new,” Bakken says. With Disney's help, the transition from hotel to ship was simple, and onboard planning was minimal, since no meetings were scheduled. The company did take over three adjoining boardrooms and rented living-room furniture to set up a hospitality suite for the group of 40 qualifiers, who dined together. One day they had their own contest on Disney's private island in the Bahamas.
After years of booking incentive-quality resorts, Lynn Averill also was looking for something different to wow attendees at National Life's President's Club conference. Averill, the Montpelier, Vt., firm's director of travel and conferences, decided to charter the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator for the five day conference in April. The group of 620 sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Grand Cayman and back.
Averill says the onboard experience compared favorably to a typical resort experience. The cost was about the same, entertainment and recreation were provided as part of the package, and the ship's staff understood the group's needs.
Having access to the entire ship was a plus as well. National Life was able to assign staterooms on its own, the crew was at the group's disposal, and passengers ate at their leisure in the ship's dining rooms. “It was our ship,” Averill says. “We didn't have announcements that bingo was starting at 2:30.”
Better Luck the Second Time
Not every cruise line is equal. Bahr's first cruise experience for a Life Investors Insurance group in 1999 left a lot to be desired, in part because of how the cruise line treated her requests. “I didn't feel like a very high priority,” she explains, noting that reserving space for group functions was a special challenge.
But, not willing to abandon the benefits of cruising, Bahr decided to work with different cruise lines for upcoming incentive programs in January and February. In January, 600 achievers will board Carnival's Imagination in Miami and sail to Key West and Cozumel. This time, service has been superb, says Bahr. “They laid out the schedule for the show lounge and said, ‘What do you need? When do you need it?’ and they moved several elements that we don't really need in the space,” she says. “They also asked when we wanted meal seatings. We've really felt taken care of.”
Bahr decided to give cruises a second chance in part because of their perceived value to attendees and in part because of planning simplicity. Having free access to meeting rooms and show lounges is a plus, she notes, as is the freedom from worrying about meal planning or decor.
After growing exponentially over the past few years, the cruise industry is trimming its sails. In mid-September, Renaissance Cruises abruptly ceased operations of its 10 ships, and only a month later, American Classic Voyages filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it was shutting down Delta Queen Coastal Voyages, American Hawaii Cruises, and United States Lines. Both cruise lines blamed financially devastating fallout from September 11.
But other major cruise lines seem as healthy as ever, and are continuing to launch new ships and retrofit old ones. Evolving lifestyles are resulting in a more casual atmosphere onboard, as well as more Internet connections for passengers. Ship design is also changing to accommodate passengers with special needs.
Arguably the most significant development in shipboard dining is Norwegian Cruise Lines' Freestyle Cruising, which has open seating and a choice of up to 10 restaurants per ship. Other lines, such as Princess (Personal Choice Dining) and Carnival (Total Choice Dining), have followed in Norwegian's footsteps.While no one boards a ship expecting a Weight Watchers program, more are offering healthful dining alternatives, such as vegetarian, heart-healthy, and spa fare.
For those who want to stay in touch with the outside world without having to pay for ship-to-shore phone calls, Internet cafés are popping up on more vessels. Several Celebrity ships also offer Connect@Sea, which allows guests bringing laptops to connect in the privacy of their staterooms.
On Princess ships, an AOL Internet Café allows users to send and receive e-mails or create a Web page to share their cruise with friends and family back home. Passengers on Silversea Cruises have 24-hour Internet access, and if people want to get financial news without going online, Bloomberg Professional Service terminals provide links to global financial and market news.
Responding to passengers with disabilities, Holland America has installed the first wheelchair-accessible tender on its Statendam liner and plans to equip several other ships with the $100,000 prototype, which raises and lowers wheelchairs via a hydraulic leveling system.
Carnival's new Spirit offers state-of-the-art infrared listening devices that allow hearing-impaired guests to participate in entertainment and activities. The system operates in the ship's main show lounge using headphones connected to an audio receiving device.
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Meeting at Sea Info
www.LandryKling.com Go to this site for information geared specifically to planners, including tax deductibility, golf at sea, meeting facilities, types of ships, cost comparisons, a cruise checklist, and 360-degree virtual tours of more than 70 ships from various cruise lines.
On Location: The Paul Gauguin
The 320-passenger Paul Gauguin, part of the Radisson Seven Seas fleet, sails through French Polynesia, departing from Tahiti and dropping anchor at Bora Bora and several other locations in the Society Islands during its 320-mile, weeklong voyage through the South Pacific.
The Paul Gauguin offers a peaceful adult retreat. Tastefully appointed, spacious staterooms all have ocean views; half have private balconies. The all-inclusive cruise price includes well-stocked mini-refrigerators; a fruit basket replenished throughout the journey; and a generous supply of nightly chocolates. The ticket also includes all meals, wine with dinner, gratuities, and 24-hour room service.
With a 1.5:1 guest-to-staff ratio, the highly personalized service rivals that of a five-star hotel. Well-trained crew members greet guests by name, note food and drink preferences, and freshen rooms twice daily. Excellent meals are served in three restaurants, one of them offering open dinner seating, and the dress code is country club casual/elegant for all functions.
Given the vessel's size and location, it's probably no surprise that accommodations for those who wish to work are slim: The ship has an e-mail facility but no business center. The Grand Salon showroom, which seats 320, has built-in audiovisual equipment. The ship also offers several intimate lounge spaces for boardroom-style meetings.
The Paul Gaugin can accommodate groups of up to 150 on a scheduled cruise, although groups of 50 to 75 are most apt to appreciate what the ship has to offer. It is also available for charter.
Most groups take advantage of Air Tahiti Nui's conveniently timed service from Los Angeles: Nonstop eight-hour flights arrive several hours before the ship leaves Papeete, Tahiti, on Saturday night and depart several hours after it returns the following Friday. Many like to stay on board Friday night, spend a day in Papeete, and fly home — reluctantly — Saturday night.
— Megan Rowe
Are Cruises Safe?
How have the cruise lines responded to post — September 11 concerns about security? What are the cancellation options if there is renewed terrorist activity?
As far as cancellation is concerned, “Unless the airlines are not flying, cruise lines are not going to give the money back” for canceled bookings, says Shari Wallack of Worldwide Cruise Associates, Plantation, Fla. However, some groups who were concerned about security after the events of 9/11 were able to rebook Mediterranean-based cruises to the Caribbean at no charge. And several cruise lines offered a 75 percent credit toward a future booking to those who canceled.
Pressured by uneasy meeting planners, some cruise lines were also makingconcessions for future bookings, such as offering a 90 percent refund, for example, in the event of war or terrorist activity. It doesn't hurt to ask.
Regarding security, all cruise lines have stepped up their efforts. Passengers are being asked to identify baggage dockside, carryons are being X-rayed each time they are brought onto the ship, retractable marinas may be closed, and bridge tours have been canceled. These extra security measures will result in longer waits to embark and disembark.
In addition, many cruise lines are moving ships from far-off ports such as the Mediterranean to closer-to-home destinations such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Panama Canal, plus U.S. destinations such as Hawaii and Alaska — although cruise ship permits to Glacier Bay may be reduced from 139 to 107 in 2002. And many other U.S. locations, such as Port Canaveral, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, and Los Angeles, will become home ports for new ships.
Setting Sail in 2002
Cool Feature: Southwest-style restaurant
Cool Feature: Virtual reality entertainment center
Cool Feature: AquaSpa
Cool Feature: three-deck theater
Cool Feature: villas and private gardens
Holland America Prinsendam
Cool Feature: high space-to-guest ratio
Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas
Cool Feature: rock-climbing wall
Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas
Cool Feature: Books, Books & Coffee coffeehouse
Cool Feature: 24-hour pizzeria