Come Sail Away

For groups that have "been there" and "done that," try a cruise.

There's a therapeutic exercise during which people write a problem on a piece of paper and send it out to sea. If the economy and your budget are your biggest worry, it's time to let that problem set sail—along with your group. Cruises can be an economical option for groups looking for an upscale, unexpected experience with a reasonable price tag.

"What are you going to cut back on to stay under budget? It's often food, activities, lighting—there is no charge for any of those things with a cruise program," says Jo Kling, president of Coral Gables, FL-based cruise event specialist Landry & Kling.

"When you're cutting the budget, there is concern about 'How does this compare to last year?' 'Will people notice that there's not lobster this year?' When you shift to something entirely different, like a cruise, you can't really have an apples-to-apples comparison, and people feel like they're getting more even if the program is a day shorter," she adds.

"Sometimes it's hard to quantify the cost savings," Kling admits, but says it's within the realm of possibility for a group of 200 to save nearly $100,000 by choosing a four-night cruise to the Bahamas over a four-star Las Vegas resort for four days.

Planners should look at shoulder seasons for great deals, says Jennifer Beam Johnson, a planner with The Johnson Meetings Group in Raleigh, NC, who spent five years working for a cruise line.

If planners are looking to head farther away, European cruises can be negotiated in U.S. dollars, which nails down prices up to a few years out, giving planners control over their budget, regardless of what the market may do.

Both interest levels and satisfaction rates are high for cruises. According to the Cruise Lines International Association's 2008 Cruise Market Profile Study, 94.8 percent of cruisers rate their experience as satisfying, with 44 percent rating it extremely satisfying; in the survey, 77 percent of past cruisers and 55 percent of people who have not taken a cruise expressed interest in doing so within the next three years. Yet, only 17 percent of the U.S. population has been on a cruise.

"The cruise industry has really spread geographically, so you have a lot of drive-to ports now," says Johnson. Kling notes that this provides great opportunities, "particularly for regional groups who have probably gone to all of the delightful regional destinations; it's nice to mix it up.

"Branch out," she says. "What's to lose by taking a look?"

Originally published Feb. 1, 2009

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