Like many insurance and financial services companies, Nationwide Insurance canceled its two major incentive programs in 2010. For 2011, the two were combined, following a two-year qualification period. This meant that two levels of incentive attendees, one group that was used to locations like Paris and another group that was used to family fun in the sun, would somehow have to share an experience—a truly rewarding, different experience.

With that as his goal, Eldon Gale, director, meeting & event management, booked a resort and began to create a great program. But four weeks before the conference was to be announced, he got a call. Did the program have enough sizzle? Maybe a Caribbean cruise was in order!

After he recovered from the shock, Gale called Shari Wallack of Buy the Sea. “I said, ‘I need a quick response,’” he recalls. “The best thing Shari does is to understand what you are trying to accomplish. Cruise brokers have tremendous value because they understand the differences between cruise lines.”

Says Wallack, “There is a cruise product for everyone. Give us your budget and what you’ve done before and we’ll find your ship.” She gave Gale three ideas. "I picked one that was just coming onto the market, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas,” he says, then took a two-night cruise to get a feel for the experience his people would have. “The Oasis blew me away. It felt like a grand hotel in Vegas.”

READ MORE: What’s the difference between a luxury ship and a mass-market ship?

But Gale had two concerns about the ship’s astonishing size: With a capacity of 5,400 passengers and 2,165 crew, would it feel crowded? And would his group, at less than one-quarter of the total, even see each other? Would Nationwide lose the cohesive “conference” feeling?

The first concern was quickly erased during Gale’s planning visit a year later. “There are 6,000 people on board but you can go to areas of the ship and not see a lot of people. It is is so cleverly laid out, in seven ‘neighborhoods,’ and there is so much to do,” he says. "There's something for everyone and it really helps to control the masses."

The Branding Challenge
Resolving the other concern took some imagination. On their planning cruise, the meeting team noticed members of a family reunion wearing matching T-shirts. That got them thinking: How about a whole kit of branded, wearable items? And to really stand out, all the items would be “obnoxious orange.” First was the lanyard for each passenger's “sea pass,” which serves as both room key and shipboard credit card. The ID kit also contained bracelets, hats, watches (note: no clocks on ships!), and silk scarves that could be worn or tied onto a bag. “It turned out to be a huge success. Everywhere we went someone had a little bit of orange,” Gale says. Royal Caribbean offered branding ideas, too, such as customized menus, but Gale pushed to go beyond what had been done before. For his welcome reception, the ship hung huge Nationwide banners between lampposts. They were up only a short time, but to dramatic effect.

While large group private dinners were not possible, Nationwide did get its own floor in the dining room, and waiters wore custom Nationwide ties and lapel pins. But Nationwide didn’t stop there. A popular shipboard shop is the Cupcake Cupboard—and cupcakes are not part of the all-inclusive price. (In fact, they’re $2.50 a pop.) “We wanted our people to experience them, but we also wanted it to be clear that the purchase came from Nationwide,” he says. So they created individually numbered vouchers, each good for one cupcake. The meeting staff handed out vouchers to qualifiers, and the cupcakes were served with custom-branded cupcake “picks” on a Nationwide napkin.

Conference Unity…
In addition to the branding, Gale says, “our goal was to touch attendees once a day, then they could go disappear if they wanted to.” Day one was the registration reception, and during mornings at sea, they used the ship’s theater for general sessions, primarily for recognition.

At a private-island stop, the company set up a beverage station where attendees could gather. And at two other ports of call they worked with destination management companies to make sightseeing simple for guests. In Jamaica, a shuttle was waiting to take attendees to the main shopping area. In Mexico, the DMC negotiated with the taxi union, pre-paying and vetting drivers, who drove Nationwide-branded cars.

…and Differentiation
Top producers had an exclusive event the evening before departure. On board, all attendees had magnetic plates on their doors indicating their qualification level, with the highest-level qualifiers in suites. The type and frequency of room gifts varied by level as well, and in Jamaica, one group attended an exclusive lunch at The Ritz-Carlton, Rose Hall.

But for all levels, the cruise achieved its goal of delivering real “sizzle” after two years without an incentive program. “This was our highest-rated conference ever,” Gale says. “It was a magical experience—a fantastic week.”

6 Tips for Booking a Ship

Eldon Gale, director, meeting & event management, at Nationwide Insurance, learned a lot by planning and executing his first major incentive program on a cruise ship. He shared his best advice with us:

1. Know that it’s not a hotel.
“That’s the first thing a planner must understand and embrace,” Gale says. “Play to a ship’s strengths and be flexible.” Or, as Shari Wallack, president, Buy the Sea, puts it: “If you expect it to be different from a hotel, you’ll be fine. If you expect it to be the same, you will be frustrated.” There is no rating system for ships, so unless you’ve actually sailed on them you don’t know what you’re getting. Rely on your cruise broker.

2. Learn to work with a ship at sea.
“The hard part is that when you’re working with the ship in advance of your sailing, the ship is at sea,” he says. “So the convention services manager is on land in Miami. They turn over the approved program to the ship’s crew, and you don’t even meet the staff until you arrive on the ship!” Again, use your cruise broker’s experience. The ship might say no to a request, and the broker might say: “But you did this with X group last year.”

3. Ask for extra staff.
“We had a fantastic team from Royal Caribbean sales and operations, including four people who don’t typically sail who came to focus on our group,” Gale notes.

4. Help the ship help you.
“The ship runs itself, which is the amazing thing and the frustrating thing,” he explains. Frustrating because any variance from the set script takes lots of persuasion. But he pushed. “I said, ‘I think you can do more.’ They learned some things they could do with groups after our program.” As Wallack tells it: “Eldon would ask multiple times until he got a yes.”

5. Overnight your group before departure.
Even one person missing the departure is a major disruption. Nationwide had a handful of people who had to catch up with the cruise. “It’s an extra expense, but for peace of mind next time I'd pick a good hotel and overnight them,” Gale says.

6. Hop aboard the previous cruise.
Consider having a couple of meeting staffers board the ship during the last few nights of the previous cruise, so the office can be set up and everything can be ready. Otherwise you’re boarding at the same time as your group, and getting organized before departure is almost impossible.


Know the Ship Categories

Here’s a rundown of the general categories of ships sailing today from Shari Wallack, president, Buy the Sea:

1. Luxury

  • Fewer than 1,000 passengers
  • “All inclusive” includes alcohol, port fees, tips
  • Luxury touches like leather document wallets and luggage tags, premium room amenities, and open seating for dining
  • Lines: Crystal, Regent, Sea Dream, Silversea, Seabourn

    2. Boutique

    • From basic to elegant, from river barges in Europe to high-end yachts visiting intimate or exotic ports of call
    • No large suites, not as all-inclusive
    • Fewer public areas, so these ships usually are chartered
    • Lines: AMA Waterways, Avalon, Star Clippers, Windstar, Variety, Sea Cloud, Iberostar, Ponant, Galapagos Explorer, Viking, Azamara, Oceania, Paul Gauguin

      3. Mass Market

      • Don’t be put off by the label: “mass market" just means "large”
      • The ship is the destination
      • You've got Cirque-du-Soleil–type entertainment, incredible features, décor, and activities built into your price
      • All inclusive does not include alcohol or private events
      • Best choice for family-friendly programs
      • Lines: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Costa, MSC, Carnival, Norwegian, Disney