Hope Floats

If you've never planned a meeting on a cruise ship, you may want to consider it now. The major lines are rolling out new ships with dedicated spaces for groups, and all-inclusive pricing means fewer surprise charges for F&B, AV, or staff support. In fact, in many cases seagoing meetings are cheaper than land-based gatherings. And since ships are departing from more major cities than ever, cruises offer comfortable, controlled settings for events at ports that many attendees can actually drive to.

Ahoy, Meetings
One thing many people don't realize about cruising is that it only really hit its stride about 20 years ago, says Brian Major, a spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association in New York City. And when it comes to meetings on cruise ships, the market is even newer, he explains. "It's a new but growing area. All the largest lines have built new ships with new amenities to serve meetings." And most ships do offer significant meeting space.

"Certainly on new ships, such as the Voyager class, which are our largest ships, we have conference centers that can hold up to 400 people," says Jaye Hilton, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean International in Miami. "And the theaters can seat 1,300 people."

Also, says Hilton, meetings are a consideration when refurbishing older ships. "For example, our Monarch of the Seas used to have conference space for under 100 people. Since we renovated it in 2003, now it holds 228 people in three different rooms."

The dedicated meeting space on board is similar to what you'd find on land, says Richard Weinstein, vice president of corporate and incentive sales at Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. "On the new ships we've added about 1,000 square feet of dedicated, flexible conference space with built-in audiovisual, whiteboards, projectors, et cetera. The rooms can be configured classroom or theater style." And besides the conference spaces, theaters and lounges make excellent settings for larger groups.

On Cunard Line's Queen Mary II, the largest ship cruise ship in the world, 20,000 square feet of meeting space in seven rooms await events of all kinds, says the director of corporate and incentive sales, Elena Rodriguez. "Each of the rooms is outfitted with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, including LCD projectors, pull-down screens, and high-end sound systems," she adds.

The new attention to dedicated meeting space is due to demand from planners. "Business is picking up significantly overall, and even more so in the group niche. Groups now account for about 35 percent of all Carnival passengers," Weinstein says. "The meetings numbers used to be so small, because there was a lack of awareness and facilities. But now decision-makers are learning that we have secure, comfortable facilities to serve groups, and we're starting to see a lot of growth as a result of that."

But cruise lines' offerings for groups don't end with excellent meeting spaces. Many ships also have an experienced support staff that provides planners with detailed banquet event orders, just like they'd get at any other venue. And many lines offer detailed guides to their ships that deliver the targeted information planners need. "We create meeting planning guides for the ships utilizing the industry's standard terms, the same language used in hotel guides," Weinstein says. "We show things like how to access the meeting space, and what audiovisual technology is in each room. This helps planners understand what we have to offer and makes it easier to plan events. They're extremely practical."

Cruising Together
One of the few planners who've been working in cruise meetings for some time is Joyce Landry, president and CEO of Landry & Kling, a "DMC of the high seas" based in Coral Gables, FL. Landry says that growing numbers of cruise meetings have prompted the lines to provide better amenities for groups, which encourages even more groups to take to the seas. The positive feedback builds on itself. "People are waking up to the fact that they can hold serious meetings on ships, and also have the same resort amenities that they have on land," she says. "The new ships have high-tech, state-of-the-art facilities that are as good as any land-based conference room out there."

And Landry says her clients are pleased with their seafaring events. "We recently had a insurance group of 500 on a vessel that held over 2,000 passengers," she relates. "The attendees came from 26 countries and they said it was the best meeting they ever had, because they were always mingling with each other and they really got a lot accomplished." The intimate, all-inclusive environment of the cruise ship promotes such teambuilding, Landry says.

Although most oceangoing meetings occupy part of a larger ship, Landry says charters are becoming more popular for groups, and if the right match is made between the size of the event and the size of the ship, the difference in cost is minimal. And charters offer the benefits of increased prestige and customizable itineraries. "We just handled a motorcycle dealers' charter to Alaska that visited dealerships in different towns along the itinerary. And each town would roll out the red carpet for our group, and the people from the towns came on board, and it was a great interaction. They now want to charter cruise meetings for 2006 and beyond."

Another positive development in cruise meetings industry is the post-9/11 growth of "homeland ports" in coastal cities that previously did not see much cruise business, says Sandra Scheit-inger, vice president of marketing at St. Petersburg, FL-based Continuing Education Inc. The new ports of embarkation have developed out of the passengers' desire to drive to their ships and thereby avoid the hassle and cost of air travel. "A lot of organizations want to do something a little exotic without flying," says the sea meetings veteran. "In the past, most cruises sailed from Florida, Vancouver, and New York City. But now, new ports, especially along the eastern seaboard and in Texas and California, are allowing people to have exotic experiences without having to fly."

Norwegian Cruise Lines in January 2002 rolled out a homeland cruising program highlighting 10 domestic ports, including points of embarkation in Boston and Seattle. "We started the homeland cruising program as an immediate reaction to September 11, but what began as a necessity has now really turned out to be a new trend in cruising," says Marianne Schmidhofer, director of charter meetings and incentive sales. "We thought it would be temporary, but the program has really grown, because people like to drive up to their cruise and avoid air travel. Now, some of our smaller ports, like Houston, have become year-round ports. And so we're still looking to expand that."

Setting Sale
Although cruise meetings are similar to land-based events in many respects, they're very different when it comes to contracts and negotiations. In fact, cruise-meeting pros recommend that planners interested in taking groups to sea work with an expert to ensure the creation of solid contracts. And if the right deal is cut, planners can land a very good price on a water-based event.

"You can't take your boilerplate hotel contract and use it with the cruise lines," says Scheitinger, who takes about 70 groups to sea annually. "When I work with someone I ask them to give me a contract from their last meeting. And then I'll look at it and change it so it works for a cruise."

One of the chief differences in contracting a cruise meeting versus a meeting at a hotel is that cruises have to be booked much further out—six to nine months is the rule. And cruise contracts typically include complimentary cocktail receptions, comped staff rooms at a ratio of one per fifteen rooms actualized, gratuities, and get this: no attrition clauses. Also, most cruise contracts include most food and beverage and audiovisual support as part of the per-person rate. But to take advantage of these savings, says Scheitinger, you have to work with a planning company that knows its way around this kind of contract.

In the end, the price you pay for a cruise meeting will probably be close to what you'd pay for the same meeting on land, says Landry. It could be even cheaper. "One of our clients saved almost $300,000 by holding their incentive on a cruise ship," she relates. "The previous year, they had the same event on land, and they had to build a stage and lighting. But on the cruise ship, they already had that."

And even meetings that don't require extensive audiovisual support and recreational options can realize savings by taking to the seas. Lower taxes and nonunion labor contribute to the lower costs, says Landry, but as more groups get on board, the cruise lines are slowly learning to nickel-and-dime like their land-based counterparts. "We're starting to see new charges crop up every once in a while," she says. "When we do, we go to the cruise lines and usually get them waived, because we know how to negotiate."