While the industry has seen spectacular success with rising passenger counts (now over 20 million per year) through its decades long push to market cruising as a better vacation alternative to land-based resorts, one of the hottest growth segments is meetings at sea. While there are no industry statistics, executives estimate that the total market for business group meetings, which includes incentives, may be as high as eight percent of total passengers, meaning more than 1.5 million attendees for meetings at sea last year.
Smaller ships, particularly those in the luxury category, have long tapped into the business travel market with board meetings and incentives. Bruce Setloff, Vice President of Crystal Cruises, says at the highest end of the market, security, flexibility and keeping a low profile are helping drive more business meetings, particularly for company boards. With its new 62-passenger yacht Crystal Esprit, he says, there are requests to stay at sea for the meetings for extra security and discretion. He adds, “Some of the boards don’t want to be high profile. Ever since the AIG effect, a lot of them don’t want to see their name on a hotel events board.”
Silversea Cruises, which operates small luxury ships has two of its vessels chartered for corporate hospitality during the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Still, it’s the new class of megaships carrying as many as 6,000 passengers that is driving the growth in the meetings segment, providing an ideal canvas to lure more meetings away from traditional spots such as Orlando and Las Vegas and out to sea.
Vicki Freed, Senior Vice President, Sales, Trade Support and Service for Royal Caribbean International, says the major breakthrough was bringing high-speed Internet to its ships, including the ability to stream video as well as link in land-based colleagues.
“The cruise lines have come a long way in understanding the meetings market,” says Anne Marie Moebes, Executive Vice President of Acclaim Meetings, a planner which is focused on groups of 250 to 2,500. She adds, “They’ve followed what resorts offer with onsite meetings coordinators. Audio Visual and food and beverage are normally a large part of the cost of the meeting, and that’s included on a cruise, so there is tremendous value.”
Ken Muskat, an Executive Vice President with MSC Cruises, says its four newest ships feature 1,600 seat theatres with no pillars or obstructions, significantly upping the size of meetings that can be accommodated. A new private island that will come online at the end of 2017 will provide more opportunities to offer customized events from team-building games to concerts. The new ships also feature dedicated meeting rooms, in addition to lounges that can be converted. Muskat says, an added plus of cruise meetings is it is easy to bring along the family cost-effectively, and being on a ship fosters stronger bonds between attendees.
Katina Athanasiou, Vice President of Meetings and Incentives for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Ltd., which owns Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, says, “There are still misconceptions. There are still a lot of people who haven’t cruised or cruised for decades, and it’s the only one they remember. Education on how the ships have changed is a big point.” Freed agrees, “The old perception is you are sticking me in the main theatre.”
That’s not the case anymore. Athanasiou points out the megaships mean there are more entertainment and dining options than ever, hence more ways to make the meeting experience memorable and more opportunities to tailor offerings.
On Royal Caribbean’s megaships, it can offer meeting goers private ice dancing and Broadway shows, as well as Jumbotron events seating up to 700 under the stars. The size of the ships also means it is possible to close off entire areas to have a dedicated social event without impacting the experience of other guests. What’s more, activities ranging from roller skating to zip-lining make for impactful team building activities. “It’s the wow factor,” says Lori Cassidy, the Assistant Vice President in charge of the meetings segment at Royal Caribbean.
Who are the large groups meeting at sea? It’s a diverse cross section ranging from franchisees to dealerships, law firms, legal conferences and direct marketing groups. Typical group size ranges from 500 to 1,500, while full ship takeovers can range to 5,000 attendees. Cassidy says, it is even possible to stage trade shows on this new class of super ships, and on some ships, there is the ability to have as many as 10 concurrent breakout sessions. In the case of taking the full ship, groups can specify ports and length of cruise. Auto companies have chartered ships for new car launches, bringing the new models aboard and then rotating dealer groups from around the world.
One thing all executives agree on is there is plenty of room to grow. Says Athanasiou, a former meeting planner, “We still aren’t the first venue people think of.” Somewhat ironically, with over 10,000 attendees, Seatrade is still too big a conference to have at sea.