Chartering a Different Course

The clear blue ocean ahead, the wind in your hair—and a meeting from 8 a.m. to noon? Indeed, cruises are a viable venue for meetings, and there are a variety of options available of which planners may not even be aware. In addition to river cruises, small boat charters, and other unusual alternatives, is the little-explored option of repositioning cruises.

Repositioning cruises, also known as repo cruises, occur primarily in the spring and fall when ships move from summer destinations to winter destinations, or vice versa. "They generally run between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean or the Caribbean and Alaska because they are seasonal destinations," says Jo Kling, president of Landry & Kling Meetings at Sea in Coral Gables, FL. Other itineraries include Panama Canal routes, transatlantic trips, and shorter trips that are all still considered repositioning cruises.

Luxurious Captivity

One advantage of a repositioning cruise is that there is more time at sea, versus in port where attendees could leave the ship. The audience is thus more captive, while remaining in a pleasant and activity-laden environment.

"For meetings, repo cruises are perfect if planners want to have the group together in a nice setting for a serious meeting without a lot of distractions," says Kim Hester, director of meetings and incentives for Travel Dynamics Group, Inc. in La Jolla, CA, and a repeat repo cruiser. "They can do a half- or three-quarter-day meeting and then still give people time to enjoy the ship. Going in to port is not an issue so you have a captive audience," Hester continues, but warns that "I would not use a repo cruise for an incentive event—those guests expect [a lot of] ports and activities."

Because ports are fewer and farther between, it is important to allow attendees to take advantage of them when available and rework the meeting agenda accordingly. Debra Tucker, CMP, of Debra Tucker Associates LLC, a planning firm in Potomac, MD, echoes Hester's belief in an alternative meeting schedule: "You have to think outside the box and forget the traditional eight a.m. to five p.m. schedule for meetings. Have all-day meetings at sea, so attendees can still enjoy the ports—otherwise, why are you doing this?"

"From the West Coast side, positioning cruises are a good opportunity for groups," Erik Elvejord, director of public relations at Seattle, WA-based Holland America, says, because many repo cruises have a West Coast departure so the travel is relatively easy. Also, "You always have at least one day at sea, which is good for meetings, and you are at sea, not passing islands, so you don't have people feeling as though they are missing something."

Elizabeth Jakeway, corporate communications manager at Miami's Celebrity Cruises, finds that guests cite the itinerary as one of the major benefits of a repositioning cruise, because "they're unique; that is, they normally feature either a port or a sequence of ports that differ from every other itinerary."

The clientele aboard repo cruises also makes them an appealing option for professionals. "Repo cruise passengers are usually experienced cruisers who have done the more popular port areas and just enjoy cruising for the cruise experience," says Hester. "You also don't see many kids on repo cruises. Most first-time cruisers, young people, and families want lots of ports and shore excursions so the social dynamic on the ship is quite different from a port-heavy itinerary."

There are a few aspects to consider from the planning side that do differ from traditional cruises. "Very often a meeting planner wants to do a site inspection on a ship following the itinerary, and often that's not possible for an unusual itinerary," Kling warns. Also, "They can be too long and they can be more expensive because it's [one-way] air."

The potential additional expense incurred from one-way flights can often be offset by the savings of a repositioning cruise. Elvejord says repositioning cruises generally run $25 to $50 less per person per day, but that varies tremendously depending on the voyage and the size of the group.

Brian Major, spokesperson for Cruise Lines International Association in New York City, says, "Because these cruises are not during the peak period and often involve longer itineraries and multiple days at sea, they are usually available at lower prices than other itineraries. They represent a value for people who are available to depart on such cruises. You can also rely on cruise companies to offer them every spring and fall," he says, so although the itineraries may vary a bit, the fact that they will be offered can be counted on.

Kling cautions that provisions from the Passenger Services Act do make some attractive itineraries impossible—a quick repo jaunt from New York to Miami, for example. "You can't just transport between two American locations; you must include international ports."


What is the Passenger Services Act?

The Passenger Services Act of 1886 dictates that for a vessel to travel between two American ports, without hitting a foreign port first, the vessel must be American-made, American-owned, and primarily American-staffed. That's much more difficult than it sounds. In the past 50 years, only one new vessel, Norwegian Cruise Line's 2005-launched Pride of America, has made the cut—and it was actually finished in Germany. Most ships fly a foreign flag (often of the Bahamas) and must therefore stop at a foreign port during their voyages, with some exceptions.

Short and Sweet

Holland America offers some shorter cruises, referred to as "coastals," which run routes such as Vancouver to San Diego and are considered repositioning cruises. Celebrity offers similarly short trips and also runs a three-night Vancouver-to-San Francisco cruise; both cruises include a stop in Victoria.

Jo Kling of Landry & Kling Meetings at Sea in Coral Gables, FL, believes that since a cruise from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, for example, can take two weeks, if a group is interested in a one-way cruise the shorter cruises are usually the way to go. Explains Brian Major of Cruise Lines International Association in New York City, "Those itineraries are often moving steadily one way or the other [north or south]. They are often part of the overall movement of the ship but the cruise line has chosen to break them into shorter cruises. It's smart for them because it opens the market up."

Although short repositioning cruises are probably more convenient for West Coast-based groups, there is opportunity for additional East Coast cruises as well. Celebrity offers an eight-night cruise from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Charleston, SC, that includes stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and the Bahamas, which could theoretically be broken into shorter trips. However, because its current departure and arrival cities have numerous flights in and out, it would seem both unlikely and economically unwise at this time. As of November 2005, Celebrity began running four- and five-night Caribbean cruises out of Miami, though, in an attempt to attract groups that may not have been able to sail on their longer voyages.

As more and more planners explore using cruise ships for meetings, the repositioning cruise offers a unique alternative. Many people have never tried cruising and only a small percentage of cruisers have tried a repositioning cruise, so it is an interesting way to provide a novel experience to attendees. Also, with new ports opening in cities all over the country, it is increasingly likely that cruises are coming conveniently close to you and your group.