The 'New' Cruise Meeting

A stateroom aboard the Norwegian Epic

Filip Pawelka had a case to make. As the sales and marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for Brunswick, a marine, fitness, bowling, and billiard company, Pawelka had to select a destination for the company’s distributors, and he was curious about using a cruise ship.

“I kept hearing ‘That’s a nice idea, but you’ll never be able to do it,’ ” says Pawelka of the reaction from others. The prevailing opinion is that a cruise is simply too expensive to be a viable alternative. “It turned out that meeting on the cruise ship was financially a very interesting option—not just compared to five-star hotels but to regular locations,” he says.  

“The typical attitude is that it will be very expensive and exclusive and we are looking for efficient meetings in interesting locations. Cost is a big focus for us—this is not an incentive trip where we are paying for people to have fun. But if they do have fun, that’s even better.” 

Make it Work 
The meeting, held on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic January 30-February 5, consisted of exclusive distributors from 18 countries around Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, with a few attendees from North America. Past events have taken place in Sicily, Prague, Cape Town, and Bangkok.

“We bring them in, exchange ideas, update them on products and services, and see how we can help them with their businesses,” says Pawelka. “At this meeting, every year, we are trying to set the tone for the coming year and support our business partners. 

“The main thing for us was to have a successful meeting,” Pawelka explains. “The ports of call were not that important in terms of choosing the cruise, but to have an effective meeting—which means time at sea.” 

“We always ask first how much meeting time they want, then we pick an itinerary that fits that,” notes Joyce Landry, CEO of Landry & Kling Inc., a company based in Coral Gables, FL, that specializes in cruise event services. “The more we’re at sea, the more time we can have meetings because we try not to meet while we are coming in to port or in port.” Brunswick ended up selecting a seven-night Caribbean cruise with three full days at sea and a couple of port days. Ports of call included St. Martin, St. Thomas, and the Bahamas. 

Keep Them Busy. Or Not
Aside from a few events like a welcome reception, awards dinner, and tickets to an onboard show, Pawelka made a concerted effort not to overschedule attendees and to allow them time to either relax or participate in excursions and activities. And a staff member from Landry & Kling was available to help attendees schedule activities of interest to them. 

“It was different for us, because we typically don’t have extra days where people can go out and do something, but because of the agenda of the cruise, we had two or three days on land where people could go and do something they liked,” he says. “Even though it took longer, and they were away from their businesses longer, people really liked it.”  

“It was a really balanced event, with a lot of meeting content, camaraderie, and time off the ship,” says Landry, adding that “people had time to share ideas because they were together more than they would have been had they done a land program.” But planners needn’t fear that a meeting on a ship means trapped executives—there is more flexibility to accommodate scheduling conflicts than planners might expect, according to Landry. 

“If people have to come and go, we can accommodate that,” she says. “Just choose an itinerary with a lot of ports.” While there are cabotage rules that dictate where and when cruise passengers can come and go, a cruise is not necessarily as rigid as many planners fear.

Choose Wisely
“It’s important to find the right type of cruise for the people who will be on the ship and for the purpose of the meeting,” notes Pawelka. “Some ships are more geared toward younger people or retirees, for example.”

And aside from the tone and atmosphere aboard the ship, the actual configuration of the vessel can determine whether it is a good fit for meetings. Says Pawelka: “This is where Landry & Kling became instrumental for us. Usually cabins on cruise ships are for two people, and if you use it for a single guest, you pay double the price. We needed single cabins.” The Norwegian Epic has interior “studio rooms” that are priced and sized for individual travelers—a perfect fit for the Brunswick group. It also afforded them the space and facilities to conduct a series of crucial meetings.

“In the old days—maybe 15 years ago—we had to encourage people to tailor the meeting to the ship, but not anymore,” says Landry. “There is real meeting space now; you’re not meeting in a coffee shop or something.” 

Have Some Fun
It also doesn’t hurt to find a hook as to why a particular ship is great for your group. For Brunswick, it came in the form of six bowling lanes—it turned out that Norwegian Cruise Line had installed Brunswick bowling lanes on the Norwegian Epic. Of course, this was a fun coincidence more than a selling point, but it gave attendees a connection to the ship. 

“As a matter of fact, one of the attendees’ companies had installed them. It was not the deciding factor, but was a really nice addition,” says Pawelka. The group used the lanes for a shoot-around activity one evening. 

While the average planner might not be able to bank on such serendipity, cruises can present a nice opportunity to inject an element of surprise into the event, adds Dan Vasquez, president of Miami-based AOM Events, a DMC and event design company. For a recent incentive, attendees were told they would be taking a cruise from Florida, but not which one. The event that followed included stops in Jamaica, Cozumel, and Labadee, Haiti (a private resort exclusive to Royal Caribbean International), as well as a teambuilding activity using shipboard amenities.  

And, adds Mark Kustwan, incentive travel and meetings industry specialist with OnTheMark, based in Murrells Inlet, SC, it’s a great way to minimize both F&B costs and attrition expenses while “throwing variety into the mix” when it comes to event destinations.