by Gretchen Kelly | November 05, 2008
For most travelers, getting on a plane these days causes anxiety: cramped spaces, delays, long lines, and security procedures. The embattled airline industry has borne unexpected fruit for cruise meetings, as a result.

"Meeting planners are looking for ways to avoid air travel, and cruising is a new way to do that," said Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Seattle-based booking company World Voyager. The company has done so well with meetings on shipboard that it has a specialized division, Meetings on Ships, to handle cruise bookings.

"The new trend is driving to ports like Seattle, Galveston, New Orleans, and those in South Florida and then meeting aboard a three- to five-day cruise," Vaughn explained. New ports are popping up around the U.S., and existing ones are increasing their number of cruises. "In 2000,we had no cruises sailing from Seattle to Alaska," he said. "Now, we have nine big ships cruising to Alaska. Meeting planners love the convenience of being able to drive to ports and then cruise for the rest of the meeting. And then, there is the all-inclusive price aspect and the ease of logistics. The market for meetings on ships is just going to continue to grow."

Shari Wallack, president of Buy the Sea, a Plantation, FL-based firm selling cruises to incentive planners, agreed.

"When was the last time you were excited about a hotel?" she said. "The new cruise ships are fascinating ... there's a mystique there. They are where the most exciting trends in travel are happening. We are sold out on group bookings for the January and February cruises of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas (the new cruise ship featuring whole 'neighborhoods' and suites re-branded as 'lofts').When was the last time a land venue created that much buzz?"

Wallack pointed out that while other areas of travel are suffering downturns because of the economy and the price of flying, the cruise industry is growing. "There are a lot of new U.S. ports of call, and a lot more companies that were not so open to a cruise are saying, 'Let's do this, we want our people to have fun.' And, there's no question that for the incentive market a cruise is a better value than any land vacation."

Then, there's the increasing wild card: weather. "If you're on a cruise and a hurricane is brewing ... you just move," she said.

Although the new U.S. ports of call do make it easy for meetings and incentive travelers to drive and then cruise, Wallack explained that because of U.S. shipping laws, vessels that fly foreign flags (most of the larger cruise lines) cannot pull into port at more than one U.S. destination without first stopping on foreign soil. That means meetings and incentive groups on the desired 3-to-5-day trips are looking at Alaska, Bermuda, and Bahamas cruises rather than smaller American-flag-flying cruise lines that can stop at multiple U.S. ports on a single journey.

Other caveats for meetings on ships include the berth booking system. Carol Krugman, director of client services for George P. Johnson Co., in Boston, pointed out, "On the cruise ship, it's only more cost-effective if you have two people in a cabin. Unlike a hotel room, which is often the same rate for one or two people, on a cruise ship, rates are charged by berth, which is usually two per cabin."

Krugman said the primary market for meetings on cruise ships is the "meetcentive" market: part meeting, part incentive. "You need the meeting aspect for the tax breaks," she explained.

She also pointed out that cruising, by the very nature of the public perception of luxury and privilege, is not the venue for the pharmaceutical industry or public policymakers.

"Even if a pharma meeting was on the worst cruise ship possible, people are going to assume that it's luxury time."

Originally published Oct. 20, 2008