Placing Bets On The High Seas

Cruise lines steer for budget-conscious executives and gaming-loving attendees with latest ships, services.

In recessionary times, cruise meeting suppliers are banking on their value proposition of all-inclusive meals, amenities, activities, venues and equipment. Among those built-in activities is gaming, and cruise lines, with each new ship, are offering larger and more elaborate casinos.

"With our recent ship refurbishments, our casinos now have a more hip and contemporary feel and are more upscale and elegant," said Crystal Cruises casino manager Mike Farrell of the luxury operator's two vessels, Symphony and Serenity. "We're mirroring Vegas in providing a similar gaming experience, not only in the look of the casinos, but in such technology as coinless slot machines and more video poker."

Although it isn't actively marketed to groups, gaming is a major entertainment component for meeting participants once they're aboard. "Gaming alone is not an attraction," said Connie Stevens, director of education at St. Petersburg, Fla.-based meetings management firm CruiseMeetings, "but the availability is there as part of the entertainment on ships."

On many ships, the casino is the main evening entertainment venue and remains open except in port, with complimentary gaming lessons available to passengers.

While Cunard Line's ships conduct a "slot clinic," for instance, Carnival Cruise Lines bills its casinos as the friendliest at sea, offering low-limit card sessions for beginners who want to try their hand at newly acquired skills after a lesson. "People enjoy the casino, whether they are experienced players or newbies just spending a little time," said Aly Bello-Cabreriza, a Carnival spokesperson.

However, groups that consider Las Vegas for meetings also look at cruises because of the gaming availability, noted Lori Cassidy, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines' director of corporate and incentive sales. Groups have reserved private lessons and even taken over a few tables on ships to hold poker and blackjack tournaments as teambuilding rallies where prizes are awarded at the end of the cruise, according to Joyce Landry, CEO of cruise meeting firm Landry & Kling of Coral Gables, Fla.

"We have even used horse racing, where we had participants earn points toward cash incentives," Landry said, describing a corporate event several years ago. The race took place on television on the seventh day of the cruise, which built anticipation and enthusiasm.

Several cruise operators are flexible in arranging group gaming, such as bingo, slots, and card tournaments, typically in the form of partial casino buyouts for several hours. On Royal Caribbean's 21 mega-cruisers¬—some of which have casinos with around 300 machines and 20 tables—the operator works with groups on accommodating the number of participants, rounds, and hours for private card games, along with dedicated dealers and attendants for an added cost. "We've had private lessons for groups of 200, but we look at every request—there are no set rules," said Cassidy.

Even at sea, meeting-goers at leisure will find the popular trend of Vegas-style specialty poker. The casinos on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 (12 tables, 122 slots) and Queen Victoria (seven tables, 82 slots) have three-card poker and ultimate Texas hold 'em, along with blackjack, roulette and craps. Likewise, the Crystal Casinos aboard the Symphony and Serenity have specialty poker tables, and the gaming areas are run by former Caesars Palace staff.

"Caesars ran our casinos until three years ago," said Farrell, "and we've retained those employees to retain that Vegas feel."

Originally published Oct. 19, 2009