1. Find Your Ship
Shari Wallack, president of cruise broker Buy the Sea, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has a couple of thoughts for planners who have never booked a meeting or incentive program on a cruise ship.
First: “There is a cruise ship for everyone and every budget, from two nights in the Caribbean to nine nights in Asia. Give us your budget, what you’ve done before, and we’ll find your ship.”
And second: “Don’t be scared. You don’t have to know the cruise industry.” That’s what Wallack and her team do.
Here’s her guideline to the categories of ships operating today.
These ships hold fewer than 1,000 passengers, and “all inclusive” is truly “all inclusive” (i.e., includes alcohol, port fees, tips). These ships include luxury touches such as leather document wallets and luggage tags, premium room amenities, and open seating for dining. Luxury ships often get chartered, Wallack says, and are comparable to land-based programs at a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton.
Lines: Crystal, Regent, Sea Dram, Silversea, Seabourn
These are ships that don’t fit any other category, and they run the gamut from basic to elegant, from river barges to expensive yachts. They aren’t technically luxury ships because they don’t have large suites and are not as all-inclusive. These are the barges cruising the Rhone, Rhine, Danube, and Seine, and the yachts visiting exotic ports of call.
“They’re smaller, and there is not much public space so usually you will want to charter these ships,” Wallack notes. Bottom line: You’re picking the destination, not the ship.
Lines: AMA Waterways, Avalon, Windstar, Star Clippers, Variety, Sea Cloud, Galapagos Explorer, Iberostar, Ponant, Viking, Azamara, Oceania, Paul Gauguin
Don’t let the name fool you: “Mass market just means large,” Wallack says. “With the 2,700-cabin Oasis of the Seas, for example, the ship is the destination. It’s a cross between Vegas and Gaylord and Atlantis—a huge resort under one roof.” With Cirque-du-Soleil–type shows at its aqua theater; a Central Park neighborhood with trees, flowers, bars, and shops; and activities such as zip-lining and ice-skating, you’re getting a program with activities, décor, and entertainment built in to your price. (Not included: alcohol and private events.) Mass-market ships are your choice if you are looking for a family-friendly vessel.
Lines: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Costa, MSC, Carnival, Norwegian, Disney
2. Making the Charter Choice
Should you charter a ship or not? Wallack suggests asking yourself: What can we live with and what can’t we live without?
“You can create an upscale experience with a small group on a big ship,” she says. “You could use all the suites on a Celebrity ship, for example, with butlers.” The advantage of being on the “mass market” ship is that you have access to all the activities and entertainment. However, while you can do private events on big ships, you can’t do large private dinners.
With a charter, of course, you can customize everything, including the itinerary. “Another reason why my clients use cruises is for security,” Wallack says. “On a ship, the only guests allowed onboard are registered passengers. You go a step further with a charter—where the only registered passengers are part of your group.” All ships travel with security guards as well, she adds.
3. Know that a Ship Is Not a Hotel
No matter what ship you choose, Wallack cautions, “you must compromise because you are not meeting in a hotel.” Be ready for differences in these areas:
Your awards banquet.
You’ll have to rethink this, because while you can use a ship’s theater for awards presentations, it’ll have to be in the morning—and there is no ballroom for your gala dinner.
Your planning process.
“At a hotel, you talk directly to the convention services manager,” Wallack says. “With a cruise ship, you never talk to the ship. It’s out sailing.” Instead, you talk with Wallack or the “land ship,” and the land ship communicates with the ship. “The land office keeps the records, then they deal with whoever is currently on the moving ship. So you need more patience,” she says. “The process is slower.”
Simply put: “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.”
Your access to staff.
On the plus side, doctors, the hotel manager, and anyone you might need at any time is living right on the ship with you, available 24 hours a day.
Learn more at the Buy the Sea Web site.
Another well-established cruise broker is Landry & Kling, which also offers comprehensive cruise information at its sister Web site, seasite.com.