How to have a cruise-based meeting
without being left at sea

Mary Welch | October 5, 2009

With reduced budgets for corporate and association meetings,  eventplanners need the best bang for their buck. For many, that means a cruise.

There are pros and cons to having a meeting at sea but there is no argument over the cost advantage.  “Having a cruise meeting versus a land meeting costs about 30 percent less,” says Aideen Mulholland, director of corporate and incentive sales for Carnival Cruise Lines.  “That’s because so many items are already included in the price. It’s not like going to a hotel or convention center where you have to pay for meeting rooms, food, AV equipment, entertainment, taxes, gratuities [and]  hotel rooms. It’s one price.”

Why a cruise?

  • Cost benefit. All charges such as room, entertainment and food are included.
  • Easy to bring partner/family.
  • Ship’s atmosphere is conducive to networking and bonding.
  • Varied itinerary.                   
  • High satisfaction level. While most people have not been on a cruise, the return rate and satisfaction rate is very high.
  • Cruise lines have dozens of ships sailing from dozens of ports, making it easy for attendees to travel to the ship.

Vanessa McGovern,  president of Vanessa’s Vacations, a Fort Lauderdale,  Fla.-based “travel matchmaker,” says a cruise offers a “pain-free meeting because most everything is included. You must need to know exactly what your needs are and articulatethem. Rarely are there any additional costs on a cruise, but that is not the case with hotels and convention centers. You can do a bare bones meeting quite nicely on a cruise, or you can go very high end. It’s harder to do a bare bones meeting on land.”

So what exactly are the benefits?

Cost,  for one. Renting conference rooms and equipment can cost up to $2,000 at top hotels and convention centers, while on ships the conference rooms are free, and some or all audiovisual (AV) equipment is complimentary or offered at a reduced price. Holland America estimates that that the average cost of renting AV equipment is $350 for a seven-day sailing.

Since food and entertainment, such as a Vegas-type show or a piano bar, are included there is a savings of about $40 to $60 per person (and possibly higher) to entertain guests on land, according to Holland America.

Another benefit is flexibility. Large cruise lines such as Carnival, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offer a wide range of ships and itineraries. “Royal Caribbean has 21 ships that can offer three-, four-, five-, six- or seven-night cruises,” says Lori Cassidy, Royal Caribbean’s director of corporate meeting and incentive sales. “If you want to hold a lot of meetings, look for cruises that have more than one at-sea day. Although the shorter Caribbean trips, such as to the Bahamas or the Western Caribbean, are the most popular, having options is not a problem.”

Cassidy says that providing downtime entertainment is easier on a cruise than on land. “Entertaining the attendees, as well as their families, is often one of the biggest challenges for meeting planners. You have to arrange shopping trips, golf trips [or] children’s activities. But on a cruise, it’s all there. We have more than 50 activities. You can have privateactivities just for your group. We can customize activities or you can have the attendees do things on their own. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Cruise meeting planners also emphasize how they can help companies with their branding. “We can do ice sculptures of the company logo – that’s a favorite – to putting special gifts in their rooms to even flying the company flag if they book a whole ship,” Mulholland says.

While cruise line executives boast of the benefits, some meeting planners have run into challenges.

Joseph Lipman, CEO of New Jersey-based Summit Management Services,  has organized corporate meetings on a number of ships. Although he calls cruising the “greatest value,” he said that planning an onboard meeting can be difficult.

“It’s not like booking a meeting at a hotel,” he says. “Instead of one person you may be dealing with several different departments. It’s getting better because cruise lines are actively pursuing this market. [But] there is still a learning curve and [it can be] challenging if you have never booked a floating meeting before.”

Be Sure to Ask About:

  • Meeting space. Know exactly what you require in terms of space and AV equipment. Can the ship can handle your whole group in one room (if that is important)? Make sure there are sufficient breakout rooms. Are some of the spaces in public areas? Is there space to store trade shows booths, etc.?
  • Internet costs. Internet access is through the ship’s satellite and is expensive. Know the costs are upfront. Try negotiating an Internet package. Tell attendees the cost of Internet access so there will be no disembarking surprises.
  • Doubling up. Most cruise lines charge per person. In order to get the list price, two paying people must be in the cabin. There is a significant charge for a solo occupant.
  • Schedule. Make sure there is enough time to hold all your meetings. Usually at sea days work best so book a cruise that offers enough at sea days.
  • Weather alternatives. If the original itinerary needs to be changed due to inclement weather, what are the alternate ports of call? For deck-side events, what will happen if the weather isn’t cooperating?
  • Branding opportunities. Work with the cruise meeting planners to identify what’s available to your group.
  • Customized options. Ask about customized opportunities such as special trips or picnics.
  • Target cruising audience. Make sure the cruise line is suitable for your group.

Clint Cora helped plan a week-long sales meeting on a Celebrity Mediterranean cruise. “It was a great cruise and meeting,” he says. What worked well, says Cora, now an author and karate world champion, were the “food, cabins [and] the ports of call.” What didn’t were the “meeting rooms were a bit tight. Meeting hours had to be pretty tight since they were held when the ship was only at sea. And a few got minor sea sickness.”

Oh, sea sickness. The condition is never a problem on land. Michael Soon Lee, president of EthnoConnect in San Francisco, planned a meeting for a group of realtors. “It was a great trip, except that the first day at sea was a required teaching day and a hurricane had just passed through the area we were entering,” he recalls. “As a result, there were 30-ft. seas, and the ship rocked up and down so much that the attendees had to take periodic barf breaks. Other than that, we had a great time. In all my years of cruising, I’ve never experienced seas like but, but you never know.”

Cruise lines admit that you can’t control the weather, but executives say that the ships have the flexibility to travel around storms and stay in port longer in order to avoid weather.

But as Carnival’s Mulholland points out, land conventions aren’t immune to the weather either. “Lots of meetings involve outdoor activities. There may be outdoor concerts planned, sporting events [or] picnics. If the weather is bad, you are scrambling to find different venues or activities. You don’t have that problem on a ship because there is always plenty to do.”

John Mckenney, associate producer for inVNT, a live events agency,  has planned several at-sea meetings and lists networking as an advantage. “You get to know them [attendees] pretty well, quickly,” he says. “Cruises are great for meetings where attendees bring family members, and the entertainment is a big plus.” The downside is that sometimes attendees feel like “second-class citizens because their room may only have a small porthole or be near the engine room.”

As with land meetings, cruise event managers suggest booking the space at least a year in advance. “While we are still finalizing some 2010 incentive programs, now is the time to get a jump on 2011,” says Rob Coleman, director of charter and incentive sales for Holland America. But be on the lookout for last minute deals. Royal Caribbean, for instance, currently is offering meeting planners a three-night cruise for $399 per person for this fall. And, with hotels, meetings can be held for as little as a handful of staterooms to booking the entire ship.

Now may be the time to think about holding a meeting at sea. “Cruises have never been cheaper,” McGovern says.