Meetings Ahoy

As the saying goes, don't judge a book by its cover. Well, don't judge an industry by its headlines either. The cruise industry has had its share of bad press lately: The University of Pittsburgh terminated its sponsorship of the Semester at Sea program due to safety concerns when a rogue wave hit the ship in the Pacific Ocean, tossing around and injuring some of the 700 students aboard. In addition, there have been a series of Norwalk virus outbreaks on ships, leaving some potential cruisers with a bad taste for the industry as a whole. But let's look beyond the few-and-far-between headlines to get a clearer picture of what the cruise industry is about, especially for groups.

According to Carol Krugman, president and CEO of Krugman Group International, Inc. in St. Petersburg, FL, the rogue-wave occurrence was just so unusual that of course it's going to be big news. "Think of how many ships are at sea day in and day out and never have a problem. One of the things I like so much about doing cruise meetings is precisely the safety and security aspect." According to Gary Gerbino, public relations vice president at M. Silver & Associates in Fort Lauderdale, FL, who represents the Cruise Line International Association, there are always over 150 ships at sea, every day.

Krugman adds that all of her guests are in a controlled, secure environment, so "I know where they are at all times. Even if they drink too much or indulge too much on food, there are facilities on board to look after them and it's not as if anyone is driving home or will get lost."

Sean Mahoney, vice president of worldwide charter & incentives sales for Silversea Cruises, Ltd. in Fort Lauderdale, FL, agrees with Krugman. Mahoney comments that the rogue-wave incident and the Norwalk virus have not had a negative impact on the cruise industry. "In terms of the number of people who travel by passenger cruise ship today, it's one of the, if not, the safest forms of travel today," states Mahoney. "Plus, the Semester at Sea ship was in a part of the world [the Pacific Ocean] that passenger-cruise ships avoid at that time of the year [January]." Mahoney explains that cruise lines take safety and security very seriously for both their guests and their crew—and will never put passengers at unnecessary risk. "In fact," says Mahoney, "I would argue that because a cruise ship is portable, unlike a resort, it is to some degree even safer because you can avoid bad weather and other occurrences that may endanger attendees. For instance, if a ship was scheduled to sail into a port and the day before there was some disturbance, the captain would just adjust the itinerary. On the other hand, if you were to fly into that resort for a meeting you would have very few choices."

All Aboard

Since September 2001, the cruise industry has begun to flourish. With all-inclusive rates and the safe haven of the ocean, cruises became a more attractive group travel option. Says Mahoney, "There is just incredible potential for cruising, and part of what we are trying to do as an industry is educate meeting planners who, for one reason or another, have not considered cruise ships. After 9/11, companies canceled meetings abroad and were forced to look at alternative options. Also, budgets were tightening as the economy was faltering. I think many firms were forced to look at cruising as a cost-effective alternative to some of the resorts that they were going to in the past."

Statistics confirm the jump in cruise popularity. The Cruise Lines Inter-national Association reported in the spring of 2005 that the industry is experiencing an annual growth rate of 8.1 percent since 1980. Since then, 100 million passengers have cruised: Of this number, 61 percent of total passengers have cruised in the past 10 years and 37 percent in the past five years. And over the next three years, about 48 million North Americans indicate an intent to cruise. However, the industry is still a small part of the American travel mix: To date only 16 percent of the U.S. population has ever been on a cruise.

This actually makes cruises more attractive as meeting venues because they're still a unique experience for most attendees, says Krugman. "Going on a cruise is something that most people would love to do. So having the opportunity to make one of your travel dreams come true while at the same time achieving a business objective is unique."

It is an interesting dichotomy that over 80 percent of the U.S. population has never set foot on a cruise ship, but in the past five to six years the meetings industry has gotten its sea legs. Says Krugman, "The good news is that there are more ships available now that are conducive to holding meetings than there were in the past. Formerly, meetings on ships would take place in a lounge or a restaurant. But now, you have several cruise lines that have built dedicated conference and meeting space with state-of-the-art AV." Mahoney states that cruising is perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the meeting and incentive travel industry in particular, not only because of the recent rise in dedicated meeting space, but also because of its all-inclusive rates, which render food & beverage a non-issue.

Rough Seas?

There are, however, several factors to consider before booking a cruise to host your meeting. Some meetings are just more conducive to using land-based resorts. "Cruises are a great venue for meetings; however, meetings are not always great for cruises," comments Linda Bailey, manager of group events for TQ3Navigant in Raleigh, NC. "The major players in the industry are trying to get their arms around this segment of the market, but the long and short of it is that cruises are geared towards leisure travel, and meetings take a back seat," admits Bailey. "The new mega-ships have built conference centers along with all the basic AV needs, but they do not all have the support staff behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly." Bailey recalls needing a new bulb for a LCD projector, yet the ship didn't have a replacement. She had to wait until the next port (a day's worth of delay) and search the island to get a new bulb so her meeting could continue.

Bailey has also experienced several forgotten breakfasts and lunches that the ship was supposed to arrange and provide. Says Bailey, "They had forgotten a continental breakfast for an 8 a.m. meeting in the theater as well as the planned lunch—and this has happened for two consecutive years with the same cruise line, and after carefully reviewing itineraries and providing detailed information on the group's agenda to the on-board group coordinator the day before each event." Adds Bailey, "Hotels know what it takes and embrace the fact that meetings and business groups are their bread and butter. Staff are always around checking F&B setups, and AV personnel are on the radio and available in minutes. Cruises are a great venue for simple meetings, but not so much for detailed F&B needs, breakout sessions, and room turnarounds. I still book them, but I know when I am on site I am going to work my tail off to ensure things happen the way they are supposed to."

Meetings that are suitable for cruises are simple ones that don't require break-out rooms: general sessions, executive board meetings, awards presentations, and others that don't involve hundreds of people broken into small groups, as at an annual conference, say both Mahoney and Deb Levy, president of Key Communications in Stafford, VA. "A cruise is a great way to capture your audience," says Diane Taylor, regional manager at HelmsBriscoe in Ramson Canyon, TX. "However, seven to 10 days is a long time on a cruise for an annual conference, and if some of the attendees have never cruised before you will need to be concerned about seasickness and those who will feel too confined." Joe Mascari, regional manager for HelmsBriscoe in Scottsdale, AZ, states that he would recommend "a cruise only for an incentive or a small, high-level corporate group where a rigid meeting schedule would not interfere with the countless activities offered on a ship and the schedule would not prohibit disembarking at ports of call." Just as there are 10- to 20-day cruises for leisure travel, says Mahoney, many cruise lines also offer shorter itineraries that work better for meetings, like two- to four-day cruises.

Levy comments that the positive elements cruises offer include: no additional F&B charges and many included activities. Mahoney adds that "clients are slowly realizing that they can do their meeting on our luxury ships and get the same service as they would going to a five-star resort, but for half the cost."

According to Levy, on her voyage to Alaska via Royal Caribbean, her attendees felt immersed in the program on board. "They were able to interact with each other in an in-depth yet relaxed manner. We got glowing reviews for hosting this meeting on a cruise ship."


Tips for Cruising

Gary Gerbino, public relations vice president at M. Silver & Associates in Fort Lauderdale, FL, explains the benefits of renting out a full-charter ship. "If a group is able to charter a small- to mid-size ship, then they can customize itineraries to revolve around meeting schedules to include as few or as many ports of call that the meeting schedule requires. Groups can also personalize activities and create themed events."

Dianne E. Torba, director of meetings for Austin Meeting Services in Melville, NY, points out that when planning a cruise meeting, it's best to block space for the most popular shore excursions well in advance, because those activities get filled up by leisure passengers very quickly. Unfortunately for Debi Garrett, trade show meetings manager for Mitchell 1 in Poway, CA, she waited right before the cruise to arrange shore excursions and found that they were all booked. She instead had to go with a DMC at port to organize the same types of activities. "I definitely learned my lesson," says Garrett. "For this year, I booked well in advance and overbooked other popular activities just to play it safe."

Garrett notes that preparation is essential when cruising because there is zero room for flexibility on the ship's end. "If you need another cabin or need to change an attendee's room, it's very unlikely that the ship can accommodate that. Also, if you need to change the time for your meeting or lunch, there is no room to do so since there are other groups waiting for that room at that specific time."

Sea Legs

Worried about motion sickness while cruising? Don't be, says Anne Carey, planner at the Illinois Podiatric Medical Association and Midwest Podiatry Conference. "I am very sensitive to motion sickness, so I carry my 'sea bands' with me everywhere I go." Sea bands are wristbands with buttons strategically placed to hit your wrist pressure points to relieve seasickness. Passengers can find them on board in the ship's gift shop, or at any pharmacy.

Adds Carey, "if your guests are worried about motion sickness when sleeping, the best area to stay is low down, like the lowest passenger floor, and in the center of the ship, where the ship's stabilizers are."

Cruise Advantages

Here's what Royal Caribbean Cruise lines offers in its all-inclusive rate, which varies in price depending on the number of days at sea:

Accommodations; meals; entertainment; meeting space; staging; AV; taxes and gratuities; private one-hour cocktail party with open bar and hot & cold hors d'oeuvres; confirmed dining room seating if desired; 24-hr room service; duty-free shopping, water sports, golf, and spas; a cashless environment; payment to a single source for entire all-inclusive program; and shore excursions in exotic or historic places. This is often less expensive than a comparable ground program.