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February 25, 2013

Ships Ahoy - Part 1: Cruise Ships Aggressively Sail into the MICE Sector




Increasingly, meeting planners are looking out to sea and onto global rivers in search of the best venues for corporate meetings, incentive travel, trade shows and conferences. 

What’s the draw? “The main benefits for the MICE sector of going the cruise-ship route are state-of-the-art facilities, value for money and the allure of traveling to multiple destinations,” believes Jo Kling, president and co-founder, Landry & Kling, a Miami-based specialist in creating events at sea. “That’s a ‘wow’ combination that’s tough to beat.” 

While a few high-profile incidents at sea -- Carnival Triumph’s recent fire being one -- have created negative headlines for cruising, many travel agents say those events are rare. They say consumers “get” that accidents can happen anywhere and that overall, cruising is very safe. 

“Guests don’t have to be on a ship for something unplanned to happen,” emphasizes Phyllis Dale, co-owner and travel specialist, Great Escapes Travel, Lake Mary, FL. “An uncomfortable situation can happen anywhere we are...even in our homes.”

Cruise Lines International Association, a cruise industry trade association, reports that more than 17 million passengers cruised safely in 2012. Research shows that cruising also has the highest guest satisfaction rating of any segment in the travel industry. 

In addition, cruising is increasingly popular with consumers. A fall 2012 Landry & Kling survey of 1,500 consumers across the U.S. showed cruising as the number one choice by both women (42 percent) and men (35 percent) when they were asked what type of four-night incentive trip would motivate them to reach challenging, work-related goals. The respondents picked a cruise getaway over stays at a Dominican Republic resort and hotels in Las Vegas or Orlando. 

The burgeoning interest in cruising has resulted in strong MICE growth for some cruise lines and the development of “MICE divisions” of some cruise selling travel agencies. In 2012, Crystal Cruises hosted five incentive groups, while this year, the luxury line has booked 13 such groups, a 260% increase. Groups represent fine fabric manufacturing, insurance and finance, among other business sectors. 

“The value of holding a meeting on board a ship is tremendous,” according to Hedwige Roessler, Crystal’s manager of incentives and sales administration: “Crystal offers its meeting rooms at no cost, AV at no extra cost, and if any refreshments or continental breakfast are needed, it is all included. Shoreside venues charge for all of these extras.” Crystal says it has many MICE bookings and “strong interest” looking ahead to 2014. 

Built in 1995, Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony underwent an extreme makeover in 2012 that included a dramatic re-design of its Hollywood Theatre (pictured below), Galaxy Theatre and Bridge Lounge (pictured above). All are used for meetings, depending on the group size and schedule. 

The theater now has new stage lighting, enhanced surround-sound audio processing from Bose and Meyer, a Barco high-definition projector and updated lecture, recording and presentation control systems. The Bridge Lounge has a new podium and boards to display visuals. 

Next: Silversea, Celebrity and More 

 

Silversea Cruises also has hosted a significant number of full-ship charters in recent years. “Our vessels are mostly chartered by corporations looking for a creative venue for their top tier incentive reward program,” emphasized Sean Mahoney, Silversea’s global vice president of corporate and incentive sales. He reports 15 percent to 25 percent of Silversea’s overall business mix is corporate and incentive. 

Accommodating 100 to 540 passengers, Silversea’s vessels feature meeting facilities, including fully dedicated conference rooms and multi-purpose venues. Space varies by ship, but each ship’s show lounge is “ideal for large multimedia and awards presentations,” according to Mahoney. 

Silversea’s ships also have been chartered for many sporting events and have served as “floating hotels” for the Grand Prix of Monaco, World Cup Soccer, America’s Cup Yacht Racing, World Cricket Championships, Cannes Film Festival, the Summer Olympics and the Super Bowl. 

Mahoney says it’s clear why some MICE planners are increasingly looking at cruise ships as value-added venues: “Most cruise line fares include accommodations, all meals, entertainment and a variety of activities or services throughout the voyage…from culinary demonstrations and thought provoking lectures, to exciting night clubs and state-of-the-art spa and fitness facilities.” Some luxury lines also include port charges, taxes, gratuities, fines wines and spirits throughout the voyage. 

“It’s one stop shopping,” says Gretchen Bell, vice president of sales for the Americas, SeaDream Yacht Club. “All the meals, beverages, parties and meetings are in one place so you don’t have to spend a lot of time doing ad-hoc.” 

About 25 percent of SeaDream’s business is comprised of corporate groups and charters (pictured above), with strong interest from the auto and insurance segments. SeaDream I and SeaDream II are mega-yachts, serving just 112 guests each. That makes them appealing for corporate incentive groups, executive retreats, product launches and global meetings. Bell also says groups like that they can reserve rooms on the same deck. 

Not all MICE choices are in deep blue water. Some small oceangoing vessels hug coastlines and take guests to such places as Alaska or Hawaii. “Planners need to understand that there are as many different kinds of cruise experiences as there are hotel experiences,” stresses Kling. 

River cruise lines also charter their vessels – typically carrying 100 to 250 guests -- to business or incentive groups. Onboard, guests enjoy fine dining, wine and beer with dinner, regional entertainment, onboard activities, lounges, lectures, exercise facilities, and often a hot tub or even a small pool. Shore options are plentiful. 

If a small group of corporate executives want a quiet “think tank” retreat or an intimate, team building getaway, one option is a luxurious hotel barge serving just four to 21 guests. Many barges ply waters in France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. They sail more slowly than river boats and see a smaller patch of Europe in depth. 

One helpful resource on upscale hotel barging is Ellen Sack, known as “The Barge Lady.” She will help meeting planners select the right barge for their specific group. She also pays commission to planners. Visit her site at www.bargeladycruises.com for a good sense of the European barge experience, the range of barges and their onboard facilities. 

When selecting an oceangoing ship for a large meeting, the choices seem almost endless, says some experts. If a planner wants the latest razzle-dazzle features, one option is the new Carnival Breeze of Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com or www.goccl.com), which launched in 2012. It offers a multi-function 4,100-square-foot conference room that may be separated into three meeting spaces of 2,050 square feet, 1,250 square feet and 800 square feet. 

Celebrity Cruises (www.celebritycruises.com or www.cruisingpower.com) new 126,000-ton Celebrity Reflection, also launched in 2012, has a dedicated, flexible meeting complex with multiple spaces and full banquet catering at sea. The facility can accommodate 220 guests in a ballroom or conference layout, 96 guests in a banquet layout, or 64 guests each in multiple classrooms. The complex has four 70-inch LCD TVs. 

And there are many other new ships; visit www.cruising.org to learn about what’s new for the CLIA fleet. New ships certainly have strong appeal, but many existing vessels are also refreshed and refurbished regularly, much as a luxury resort might do. 

For example, Royal Caribbean International’s (www.royalcaribbean.com or www.cruisingpower.com) $300 million “Royal Advantage Program” has given new sparkle to the line’s existing vessels. Ten Royal Caribbean ships have already received such updates as new soft goods, new dining options, new Royal Babies and Tots Nurseries (perfect when incentive groups are bringing their families), new outdoor LED movie screens and much more. Another three ships will receive updates this year and four more will get the perks in 2014. 

Cruising also provides a wide range of accommodations, perfect for meeting groups. Ritzy suites are available for executive use and often double as a special gathering spot for evening receptions. And the suites aren’t just on luxury, upper premium or premium lines. Many affordable contemporary lines including Norwegian Cruise Line have created incredible suites.

At up to 5,000 square feet, the Garden Villas on Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Star are the largest at sea. These villas have a spacious, vibrant living area with expanses of glass as well as a humongous outdoor teak deck conducive for a business group reception under the stars. 

Landry & Kling has identified eight suites at sea it considers the best for meeting, motivating and rewarding people; check them out at www.slideshare.net/LandryandKling/top-8-suitesnew.

One of the benefits of holding a meeting on a ship, says Kling, is that it’s a more intimate environment. Unlike a meeting a hotel, guests must all arrive and depart at the same time. “There’s more quality time together, more bonding on a ship because of the leisurely meals together, entertainment that people attend together, fitness activities, classes that bring people together without everything having to be planned in advance,” Kling says. “They leave the cruise having had more spontaneous fun together, and that’s what creates the lasting memories.” 

From Mahoney’s perspective, “many decision makers and meetings planners also choose cruises because of the built-in activities and programs…an issue they often struggle with in land-based destinations.” And he says heading to a floating resort also keeps meeting costs down, given cruising’s highly inclusive nature. 

“Meetings at sea are a clear ‘win-win-win’ situation for everyone involved,” emphasizes Joni Rein, Carnival’s vice president of worldwide sales. “The hosts are able to maximize their budget, planners are able to put together a program with ease and the attendees are highly satisfied with the experience.” 

Meeting planners who may be hesitant about choosing a ship for a meeting at sea should definitely seek out an experienced cruise-meetings professional, Kling suggests. Topics of discussion should include everything from the personality and focus of the group, expectations for onboard programs, type of dining, entertainment and activities desired, and the budget. 

Also evaluate whether it’s best for a particular MICE group – based on program requirements and group size – to book into a regular cruise sailing (with other guests onboard) or, alternatively, to charter the full ship for an exclusive corporate or incentive program. 

Overall, Kling says the most important benefit of using a cruise venue for a meeting or incentive group is the ease of it all: “You have everything you need onboard. Your F&B is provided. You have nicely decorated meeting space – no sterile meeting rooms. You have activities and entertainment galore. And you have loads of amenities, a spa, gym, specialty dining and more, all on your chosen ship.”

Stay tuned for the next three articles in this Floating Resorts series. Early next week, Part Two of this series will discuss differences and pros/cons of choosing a regular cruise sailing or a full ship charter. Part Three will cover security benefits related to full ship charters and Part Four will address the U.S. tax benefits of booking a MICE event on an American flagged line, providing certain itinerary conditions are met. 


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