Waking on Water

On a warm May day two years ago, a group of Florida business leaders walked into a Baltimore hotel conference room and, before an audience of National Football League officials, unfurled an immense, four-by-nine-foot map on the table and produced a box of toy boats. Placing the miniature vessels at various points on the map, they launched into a Southern-drawl-laced sales pitch for their hometown, Jacksonville, as the site of Super Bowl 2005. The boats? Model cruise ships -- which, they explained to the NFL staff, would serve as floating hotels along the St. Johns River, within walking distance of the stadium.

As a smallish city lacking the development and cachet of previous Super Bowl cities like Atlanta, Houston, or even Tampa, Jacksonville was a long shot as host, its greatest weakness being its lack of high-end hotel space, a key point in the NFL's minimum bid requirements. But the out-of-the-box strategy devised by the "Jax" boosters in the room turned this deficiency into an advantage. "Toward the end of the meeting," recalls Mike Weinstein, then executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, "the NFL guys themselves began moving the model ships around on the map, suggesting places for them to dock." Several months and umpteen meetings later, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that Jacksonville had beaten out Miami to win the bid, making it the smallest city to host a Super Bowl.

Whatever Floats Your Boat

The idea of using cruise ships to supplement a city's lodging space may have reached its apex with Jacksonville's "Super Bowl on the River" theme, but is not new. And while it is typically done around large-scale sporting events, its roots are in meetings: The idea was first floated -- pardon the pun -- in 1987, when Digital Equipment Corporation (now Hewlett-Packard) called Landry and Kling, self-proclaimed "DMC for the high seas," in a panic. Joyce Landry, president and CEO of the Miami-based company, recalls, "They had 60,000 people arriving [for their annual conference] in Boston during fall foliage season." Landry arranged to dock the Queen Elizabeth II and another luxury liner alongside the city's World Trade Center, accommodating 15,000 attendees in various waves over a 10-day period. And since Boston at that time had no port-area properties, shipboard attendees were closer to the center than any land-bound guest.

A similar strategy worked well in New Orleans in 1996 for an immense American Heart Association annual convention, which had been planned years prior and had subsequently outgrown the city. Landry and Kling arranged for 2,000 of the 35,000 delegates to stay on two cruise vessels a block and a half from the convention center -- again, closer than the nearest hotel. More recently, several corporations relied on nautical accommodations at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Broadcast giant NBC housed 3,000 guests in four waves on a high-end yacht from Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line. "Sydney has great smaller luxury hotels, but nothing that worked for us logistically," notes senior vice president Victor Garvey, who manages the network's events and oversees client and guest relations. "Using a ship is also a great opportunity to control the environment, plus we could tailor meals and service to guests' needs."

Water World

As with Digital Equipment and the AHA, one obvious advantage to snoozing on ships rather than in hotels is that, depending on the city, vessels can dock just steps from the convention center; besides Boston and New Orleans, North American cities with dockside convention centers include New York City, Vancouver, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa. In addition, cruise lines such as Seabourn and Royal Caribbean International can customize ships by flying the company flag on the masthead and incorporating the firm's logo into menus, daily programs, or even the liner covering the top-deck pool -- all opportunities for visibility and media attention.

As for drawbacks, savvy "snooze" ship charterers warn the option isn't cheap; fees for dockage, fresh water, sewage, dockside labor, electrical hookups, and relocating the ship from its usual itinerary are typically not included in the chartering contract. Special permission is usually needed for docked ships to sell alcohol and certain sundries, or run the shipboard casino. Cabins are often smaller and less uniform than hotel rooms, as are views (in Sydney, guests on some corporate charters complained about getting a dockside view while others gazed at the world-famous Opera House). Nor does the option work well with lead times of less than 18 months.

However, if firms want to use ships as a bit more than mere floating hotels, staging events such as banquets or awards ceremonies is often cheaper than the landlubber option, since ships' showrooms, unlike hotel ballrooms, have staging, lighting, decor, and audiovisual equipment built in. Today's cruise lines also offer sophisticated on-board entertainment (think Cirque du Soleil) that can be customized for groups.

The waking-on-water option will be put to the test in 2005 in Jacksonville, which will see the largest number of "floating hotels" -- eight to ten ships at last count -- used at one time. Landry and Kling has been named the exclusive contractor of ship housing for the event. Even so, Joyce Landry advises would-be charterers of floating hotels to talk to experts first to ensure such a setup is appropriate for them. "This option is not for everyone," she notes. "But when it does work, it works great."
Senior Editor Sara J. Welch can be reached at [email protected]