An opening conversation between a cruise line and a prospective charter client might go this way, according to Elena Rodriguez, director of incentive and charter sales for Princess Cruises. “We'll determine if and where they've cruised in the past,” she says. “We'll see how many guests need to be accommodated, where the group wants to go, how many days and nights. Then we can get into more detail, like what is the group trying to achieve? What are the potential customer's meeting requirements? What kinds of functions? Our ships are designed in a certain way, so if your group needs a lot of small areas for breakouts, we can narrow the options.”
Bonnie Slater-de Mont, owner of Event Strategy Planners in Hopkinton, Mass., says that while many planners she knows like to work through cruise brokers like the Florida-based Landry & Kling or Buy the Sea, she has a “nice relationship” with sales representatives from the several cruise lines she uses and prefers to deal directly with those cruise lines. So once she's gone through the process described by Rodriguez and gathered proposals, she'll present to her client.
“Price is a huge factor,” says Slater-de Mont, “but of course, [the client] has the final say. I'll do the research, bring them options — price, available ships — and we'll bring it to the company's executive team.”
It's Yours — for a Price
When it comes time to book, the cruise line is going to expect more than just a handshake to secure the date. “When the cruise line prints its 2011 schedule, and you've booked a charter trip that far out, the cruise line will remove that ship from its rotation in the expectation that it will be earning revenue from a charter,” says Shari Wallack, president of the cruise brokerage firm Buy the Sea in Plantation, Fla.
Typically, companies will need to sign an irrevocable letter of credit in order to secure the ship. That way the cruise line is protected in case of cancellation. “And remember,” Wallack says, “There's no out clause.”
Wallack says that in lieu of that letter of credit, some cruise lines may accept a more aggressive payment schedule. “The bottom line is that cruise lines have to make sure they are going to be paid.”
There's noprotection either. If a planner wants to fill a 1,900-passenger ship and ends up bringing just 1,500 people, she can't recover the difference. “If there is a real risk to chartering, that's it,” says Princess Cruise's Rodriguez. “But I've seen it work the other way as well. I had a full ship charter of 2,600 passengers once, and the client ended up with 3,000 people. We had to have a group of 400 overflow onto another ship.”
The costs are usually determined by what the cruise lines need to achieve based on their annual revenue projections, particularly for specific itineraries, notes Diane Moore, president of Windstar cruises.
“Rates are not all that negotiable,” says Wallack. “really comes into play on amenities and inclusions, such as special events. I'll ask my client what her hot button is. Whether it's champagne on arrival, or free use of an Internet café, it usually can be negotiated.”
One thing to remember is that if a ship is under-booked, there may be extra costs involved. Because these ships are on a regular cruise rotation, they need to be fully staffed. “If there's a charter with less than 100 percent capacity, we do have a clause in ourthat covers gratuities up to a certain level,” says Windstar's Moore. “That's a pretty standard practice. You don't want your crew to get hurt.”
When it comes to a ship's itinerary, a planner has to remember she doesn't own that ship's cruise schedule.
That being said, “as long as we can begin and end where we need to, and there's port availability, we can change an itinerary,” says Rodriguez. “We certainly do it for our customers. That is a true advantage of chartering.”
“We try to change the itinerary if we can,” says Slater-de Mont. She plans the annual incentive cruise for Princess House, a direct sales company that specializes in cooking, dining, and entertainment products. “There are so many cruises taking place in the Caribbean, and they have all the docking births tied up, so it's hard to make a significant change. But if you can change the order a little bit, or stop at a port that's usually not on the itinerary, it can make a difference.”
Whether or not you can make significant changes to an itinerary depends how far out you book. “If you are negotiating for next September or October, then you are going to be chartering an itinerary that already exists,” says Wallack, “If you want to charter something else, it has to be booked a good 18 to 24 months out. That is the key to getting exactly what you want.” — Michael Bassett
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