Artic winds were blowing and temperatures were in the single digits in Boston a few weeks ago as more than a thousand guests got a sneak preview of the new MS Noordam, the 13th ship in Holland America Lines' fleet, before it set sail for its winter home port of New York City.
As I shivered through security and stepped into the welcoming warmth of this tasteful floating resort, I closed my eyes and fantasized that we were about to embark for a leisurely week in the Caribbean. Alas, this was just a site visit. But it gave me a glimpse of why cruises have become a popular option for incentive travel.
What most incentive groups prefer, said Paul Shortall, CTC, senior director, incentive and charter sales, is a full-ship charter that allows customized programs for 1,250 to 1,900 attendees. "We're seeing a tremendous boost in incentive programs, particularly charters," he noted, "with 31 full-ship charters in 2005." Windstar Cruises' three sailing yachts, also part of the Holland America family, are "hugely popular" for smaller group charters of up to 308 people, he added.
During a press briefing in a nicely appointed meeting room adjacent to the very cool Explorations Cafe, a high-tech library and coffeehouse, I learned that the Noordam is the fourth and last of Holland America's Vista Class ships. Like all vessels in the fleet, its size is kept small enough to transit the Panama Canal--which nevertheless translates into a passenger capacity of 1,918, a crew of 800, 959 staterooms (85 percent with ocean views and 67 percent with verandahs), a show lounge that seats 804, four restaurants, a casino, and a spacious spa and fitness center.
As well, the Noordam has benefited from Holland America's Signature of Excellence program that began pumping $225 million of enhancements into its ships two years ago. The idea is to create brand awareness with extra amenities and service, from plush bedding and flat-screen TVs in the staterooms to an early embarkation program. There are also two new facilities: the Explorations Cafe; and a Culinary Arts Center--a theater-style venue with an elaborate open kitchen and large plasma video screens--that will feature guest celebrity chefs on selected sailings. (This is the first ship to have all Signature of Excellence enhancements in place; all ships will have them by fall of 2006.)
Coming next for Holland America is Signature Class, a line of slightly larger ships that will accommodate 2,044 passengers in 1,022 staterooms. The first is due for delivery in summer 2008.