Sea Worthy

Could a cruise ship be the venue of your next meeting? It's an idea more and more budget-conscious planners are mulling over. In a recent survey, 79 percent of planners said they would consider holding business events at sea. Fact is, cruising is a way to host get-down-to-business events, without sacrificing cost or quality. And with prices dropping over the past few years, and the number of ships with meeting facilities rising, it may be time you took a serious look.

Planners who hold meetings at resorts are the main converts, suggests a recent study by EventSource, Landry & Kling, Meetings at Sea, and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. These planners' events include incentives, meetings, and conventions or trade shows. Sandra Scheitinger, chairman of Continuing Education, Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida, has planned cruise meetings for nearly 20 years, and understands the benefits of meetings at sea. "If planners have gone to a particular hotel with all their meetings," she says, "they know what to expect. If you stick to that, you're not going to [get it wrong,] but you're not going to be a hero, either."

The link between cruises and meetings was a gradual one. Previously, "Incentives were the main reason businesses used cruise ships," says Laura Shaner, manager of incentive sales at Miami, Florida-based Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruises. "But as years went by, more people started combining incentives with product launches and other business-related add-ons."

In the past few years, there's been a marked increase in stand-alone meetings, she says. Although she estimates that 80 percent of business cruising is for incentives with a meeting component, 20 percent "and growing" is pure meetings.

Let this be a lesson to you

Dr. Anthony Sehon is well versed in planning educational seminars. Along with an associate, he runs Vancouver-based Psychiatric Update, a conference on psychiatry for family physicians. In the past 13 years, he's planned over 100 meetings across Canada.

But Sehon faces a common problem: keeping participants coming back to subsequent events. A few years ago his surveys started to show that physicians had an interest in continuing their education classes, but wanted the conferences in different locations. In 1995, he learned about cruise meetings. "As long as we have the AV and the facilities, why not?" he says.

There were, however, some obstacles. "A lot of physicians have misconceptions about cruising," says Sehon, "like, all people do is eat and do nothing." With Eric Tan, director of business development of Vancouver-based, he worked to create and market a trip that would be appealing to physicians on an educational level, while dispelling the do-nothing myth. "We developed a program that provided on board everything they'd had on land," says Tan. They sent out brochures to thousands of family doctors in Canada, outlining the continuing medical education (CME) seminars and dozens of recreational options. Rather than completely working against the perception that cruising provides a relaxing vacation, Sehon capitalized on that aspect to lure physicians' families, which helped in the popularity of the program.

Changing people's minds about the nature of cruise ships wasn't the only issue. Sehon and Tan had to be sure the conference was economically viable. In the past, says Tan, cruising wasn't considered a choice for meetings because of cost. But things have changed. "Many cruise ships are ideally suited for meetings," he says, because they're all-inclusive, with no extra charges for meeting rooms, coffee breaks, food, or on-board entertainment. "The cost of cruising has dropped in the past few years," says Tan, "so it's starting to be looked at as a very economical option."

An added benefit of cruise meetings is that attendance is often very high at sessions. "With a land-based meeting, participants can hop in a cab and go to the beach or go sightseeing," says Tan. "A cruise is self-contained and people can be accountable [for their whereabouts]."

Most of Sehon's experience with cruise meetings has been smooth sailing. But there are a few caveats. "The biggest issue is conference facilities," he says, "which can range from poor to great." On ships that don't have formal meeting rooms, lectures are held in unusual places, such as the observation deck or lounges. After years of doing cruise seminars, most often on Norwegian Cruise Line, Sehon knows which ships can accommodate his needs, and has booked them far in advance. Such foresight locks in the ship, if not the price.

Over the six years he's been doing seminars at sea, Sehon says business has boomed. "We've had an overwhelmingly positive response," says Sehon. "The physicians realized it was a great way to have CME. They wouldn't go if it were just a write-off." In fact, over 95 percent of people who experience his cruises want to cruise again. That figure mirrors the high satisfaction rate with cruisers in general, where 71 percent of all first-time cruisers indicate their first cruise experience exceeded expectations. "We've had people who've been on five or six of these. And we'll continue to have repeat business as long as we offer different locations."

Tan chimes in, with the pleasantly pained expression of someone with too much business, "They used to do two a year, now it's six a year, and they still want to do more."

Riding the storm out

Like Sehon, Linnea Johansson, director of certification for Tampa, Florida-based American College of Physician Executives, has also cultivated and benefited from seminars at sea. Each year she organizes one cruise-based meeting, usually on Holland America or Norwegian Cruise Line, that offers participants the chance to see the world, gain CME, and do site visits to health-care facilities of other countries.

Squeezing in educational content between ports of call may seem like a tough test, but there's actually plenty of time for sessions. "You can have 18 to 20 hours of meetings in a seven-day itinerary without competing with on-land activities," says Scheitinger, which is what Johansson's group did. They wanted two visits - hospitals, rehabilitation centers, or clinics - at different ports along the way, so they scheduled meeting times, sessions, and lectures around ports of call.

Some people who haven't tried this style of meeting are concerned with the sense of confinement on a ship, but the intimate quarters can be an unexpected benefit. "It's a closed community for the time that we're together," says Johansson, "so people tend to strike up relationships." To take advantage of the surroundings, she plans dinners wherein faculty sit at a different table each night so education can continue, albeit more casually.

Being on a ship requires a little flexibility, she cautions, to get used to sharing facilities with other, non-CME cruisers. Meeting space is not on 24-hour hold. Art auctions, religious services, or other meetings might precede or follow hers.

Other situations call for adaptability on participants' part. One dark and stormy night on the Black Sea, Johansson had dozens of attendees standing by, hoping to ride out the tempest so they could make port and deliver a half-dozen boxes of donated supplies to a local hospital. But the sea was too rough and they had to move on.

How did she deal with the unexpected? Like any good planner, she quickly formulated a Plan B. At their next scheduled docking, the group made a call to the local hospital and successfully donated the supplies.

All techs on deck

Howard Moses, president of Marietta, Georgia-based The Cruise Authority, had the task of planning for a multinational division at IBM's Tech Connect to educate resellers of IBM Web server equipment.

Moses went to work, setting up seminars, classes, and live product demos on one of Disney's cruise ships. "There was a great deal of excitement among participants," says Moses, "because a cruise ship is perceived as a more luxurious type of venue." That perception, though, brought a raised eyebrow from cost-conscious executives. But, dollar comparisons often show a cheaper sticker price for a cruise's all-inclusive package, and, says Moses, "The inherent value is apparent because of the success of these events." Once execs, planners, and participants got on board and saw what cruising has to offer and how willing the cruise line was to work with them, "They were blown away."

Amid seminars and a stop at Disney's own Castaway Cay, attendees at the IBM event engaged in myriad recreational activities, with or without kids in tow. "Our ships are purpose built," says Ann Hamilton, director of resort and cruise line group sales at Lake Buena Vista, Florida-based Walt Disney Company. "There are separate areas for families, children, and adults. Meeting attendees see fewer kids [than if they were at a hotel] because they are relegated to different decks." Certain pools, lounges, and restaurants are kid-free, too. of different countries, whose only common language is in bits and bytes, get down and relate? They did. There was "general conviviality," says Moses. Although the relationship-building focus was between the company and the people, rather than among the attendees, everyone left feeling "warm and fuzzy." Warm and fuzzy feelings for a corporate giant? Maybe that's part of the magic.

But even Tinkerbell can't wave her magic wand and make everything perfect. "One of the problems with cruise meetings is inflexibility," says Hamilton. "You can't come late, and you can't leave early." So what's wrong with that? It means no sneaking off early to go to the beach.

"If they're planned correctly - and they do take a lot of foresight - cruise meetings will go really well," says Moses.

Any last thoughts on problems?

"I don't know . . . Do sunburns count?"