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 far different from their expectations.

The fact is, there's often more to do on a mega-liner than at a resort. They 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 multipurpose ballrooms.

A new dining concept from 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 planners the option to arrange customized dine- arounds on board.

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 in 2001, 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 also 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 (see "Two Entrees? No Problem," page 86).

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 like 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's 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 the 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 things like PowerPoint presentations and videoconferencing.

There are no ballrooms. In- stead, 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 seat more than 1,000 people, and they're 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 AV costs 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," Wie-land notes. It sets the scene for a productive meeting."

Advance planning is crucial: Only a few of the cruise lines have 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 same itinerary 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 you can identify appropriate meeting facilities on the ship.

* Set up a meeting with the onboard audiovisual 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 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 of 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 than hotel programs. Consult a tax advisor, because there are different angles if the program has land-based meetings, or pre- or post-trip meetings, for example.

Here are the basics, from Landry & Kling (800-448-9002; and Jona-than 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, 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

* 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

It took nine years of persuasion before Lance Wieland booked a cruise-based incentive program.

Now president of Global Events Group, an independent meeting planning firm in Falmouth, Maine, Wieland was formerly the director of meetings for UnumProvident Corp. in Portland, Maine. Every year beginning in 1987, Joyce Landry of Landry & Kling, a company specializing in corporate cruises, traveled from her home base in Miami to Maine to pitch Wieland on the benefits of cruising. Every year, he listened and politely declined.

"My general impression of cruising was a long, boring time at sea, and I just couldn't shake that image," says Wieland. "The Unum qualifiers were a young, high-energy, relatively sophisticated group who needed a trip that they couldn't do on their own. I didn't think that cruising offered enough of a differential."

What finally changed his mind was the chance to take over an entire vessel and design a customized program. In 1998, he chartered the Seabourn Spirit for a seven-night Mediterranean cruise. About 100 attendees visited such exotic ports as Athens and Mykonos, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey. "It felt like having our own private yacht where everything you dream of could happen," says Wieland. "There was a level of flexibility that just doesn't exist at hotels. The ship was like a five-star property that moved to a new destination whenever we wanted it to."

Imagine attendee expectations for a program called "Conference of the Century." For Barb Giesbrecht, assistant conference planning manager, Great-West Life Assurance in Winnipeg, Manitoba, making that promise a reality was simple. "We chose a cruise, because our qualifiers absolutely love cruising," she says. Ever since sailing on a Holland America ship in 1993, qualifiers had been requesting another incentive at sea. The 1999 Marketing Conference, for about 700 participants, was held aboard Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas during a seven-night Caribbean itinerary.

What's the big deal about cruising? For Great-West Life attendees, says Giesbrecht, two things stand out: experiencing a variety of destinations on a single trip, and ordering off the menu--as much or as little as they liked--instead of eating pre-selected banquet food. They could even order room service, at no extra charge.

There is also a benefit for the company's budget: The seven-night cruise cost the same as the typical four-night resort program. "People loved having everything wrapped up in one big package on the cruise, and so did I," Giesbrecht notes, pointing out that she didn't have to plan pre- or post-conference trips or theme parties (cruises typically have nightly entertainment as well as a variety of theme evenings).

One challenge with piggybacking a conference on a scheduled cruise is making attendees feel special when they're mingling with vacationing passengers. The Great-West planning team did it by arranging private receptions and an exclusive land activity (a beach party). They also were able to reserve the entire main floor of the dining room for the group.

A year out from the program, Giesbrecht cruised the exact itinerary and ironed out the details with RCCL's convention services manager. She cites the manager--and the ship's dedicated meeting space--as pluses.

Cruising did require some extra administrative work, such as mailing out cruise tickets and assigning cabin numbers. "The most difficult part of a cruise," Giesbrecht says, "is the pre-planning. Once on board, it's easy."

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