A LUXURY CRUISE SHIP is not the first place most people think of staying when they hold tickets for one of the most desirable sporting events on the planet. Yet when Super Bowl XXXIX came to Jacksonville, Fla., in January, dozens of corporations found themselves with no option but to host their executives, clients, special guests, and incentive winners on several ships that never left port.

Jacksonville simply did not have the volume of rooms normally associated with a host city. The ships added 3,667 deluxe sleeping rooms, 35 bars, 25 entertainment venues, 15 restaurants, 15 nightclubs, and five health clubs and spas to the city's infrastructure.

Mark White, senior vice president of Acosta, one of the 75 groups that used the five ships, says it worked out fantastically. “I stayed on board myself. The cruise ships allowed everyone to be in one place and to come and go in a more simplified way. We bused people to and from activities. Plus, there were extraordinary dining facilities, good bars, and places to sit and catch up or network.”

Acosta, which provides merchandising, marketing, administration, and analysis services to the consumer packaged-goods industry, employs 10,000 people in 70 locations throughout the United States and Canada. Among its hundreds of manufacturing clients are Nestle, Heinz, ConAgra, Clorox, and Hormel. The company entertained 150 people (including spouses) during Super Bowl weekend, housing and feeding them on the cruise ships, transporting them to dozens of Super Bowl special events, and, of course, providing each with tickets to the game. Attendees included the company's major clients, key retailers, and other business partners. Acosta also held a sales contest; five people won two-person packages that included hospitality, accommodations, flights, and tickets to the game.

Another 200 employees were involved in various Super Bowl activities. Additionally, Acosta's local team, which services Jacksonville-based supermarket chain Winn-Dixie, sponsored a celebrity flag football game the day before the Super Bowl.

The privately held Acosta is headquartered in Jacksonville, so not only was it a Super Bowl sponsor, it also participated on the city's host organizing committee. “We felt it important to support the city,” says White. “And many of our client companies — like Kraft, Sargento, and Nestle — were also involved.”

How It Worked

Most of Acosta's guests stayed on the Carnival Celebration. Some had prior commitments for lodging, such as Campbell's Soup, which is a major NFL sponsor, so they stayed on another ship.

“I wanted our people on the cruise ships,” White says. “They know how to feed thousands of people. They're open 24 hours. And they have great restaurants.”

There are notable similarities — such as round-the-clock room service — between sea-based and land-based accommodations. There were also some differences. For example, hotel guests can come and go at will, but cruise ship guests were screened as if they were boarding an airplane. As an added security measure, if two people were staying in a room, they had to check in together. And every cruise guest received a photo ID badge. “It was odd at first,” White says. “I went to Houston for the 2004 Super Bowl and stayed in a downtown hotel where nobody even checked my ID.”

The differences between Carnival and Hilton or Hyatt were also apparent in the early planning stages, when the company was choosing the rooms for its guests.

“We had to think about who we placed next to whom and who got which rooms,” White says. “There weren't enough balcony rooms to pass around. There were some big, some small. It's just like Super Bowl tickets; not all tickets looked alike. The cruise lines allowed us to place people in specific rooms, so we did the front-desk work.”

Acosta allowed guests to choose the events they participated in during their four days and three nights in Jacksonville. One thing they couldn't do on the ships, however, was gamble; casinos were not open while the ships were docked for the Super Bowl.

If he had to plan this event over, White says the one thing he would have done differently was to choose and invite his guests sooner.

“In our industry,” he says, “people make commitments to go to the Super Bowl six to 12 months in advance. A lot of our manufacturers or partners had already made commitments to the weekend or to other companies and could not participate in our activities. You can never start too early.”

Overall, however, the experience was a success. So much so that he thinks the NFL should bring the big boats to another big game soon — even if they're not needed.

Managing It All: Landry & Kling

“Jacksonville would not have been able to meet the requirements of the NFL unless they did something drastic like this,” says Joyce Landry, president and CEO of Miami-based Landry & Kling, Meetings at Sea, of the use of five cruise ships to house guests for Super Bowl XXXIX. “The host committee brought in excess rooms without flooding the city after the event with an excess of newly constructed rooms.”

When the NFL comes to a city, it sends notice to all hoteliers about its expectations in terms of hours of operation, access, security, and amenities. “Because the ships were being used as housing for corporate sponsors,” Landry says, “we couldn't have one set of rules on one ship and another set of rules for the next. How we charged people for their rooms, services, and amenities had to be consistent. And it would be simple with one cruise line. But we had Holland America, Radisson, and Carnival.”

Landry says that the biggest challenges went smoothly, but some of the smaller, take-for-granted issues were the roughest to smooth over.

“Security, transportation, and access went extremely well,” she says. “What did happen was fog on three of the five days that the vessels were due in. That delayed the ships. And Homeland Security going on board and clearing the ships took longer than scheduled, so we had a big backup. Another problem: We built a 35,000-square-foot, temporary fabric terminal with bathrooms, phone lines, lighting, heat, and air-conditioning. The one thing that failed that first day was the phone-line hookup for registration terminals! That was a frustrating day. Basic check-in failed. It smoothed out by day two, but it was hard to recover from that.”

Acosta's Super Bowl Agenda

  • THURSDAY NIGHT: Party at the Florida Times-Union Center on the St. Johns River to watch a boat parade and fireworks.

  • FRIDAY: Morning golf outing at the Sawgrass Country Club for 140 guests and friends of Acosta. This included many of the local execs who work for the company. “Some people didn't stay on the cruise ships, but we invited them,” says Mark White, senior vice president of Acosta.

  • FRIDAY NIGHT: Local host committee-sponsored private party. “This was the group's formal evening event,” White says.

  • SATURDAY: Choice of the NFL Experience and/or a celebrity flag football game at Jacksonville University for which Acosta, Clorox, and Winn-Dixie were the official sponsors. Celebrities included Roger Staubach, Doug Flutie, Drew Pearson, and Budweiser spokesman “Leon.”

  • SATURDAY NIGHT: Free, but guests were offered tickets to the “Taste of the NFL” or credentials to private parties at local bars.

  • SUNDAY: Pre-game hospitality — a casual, all-day event. “Everybody then participated in the game — and then some,” White says of the big day.