Cruise Industry Sails Onto Meeting Planners’ Radar

by Ana Figueroa

The cruise industry is in “full-steam ahead” mode when it comes to pursuing the lucrative meeting and incentives market. New initiatives and evolving ship design are combining to make ships more attractive than ever as potential business venues.
CLIA’s big push
“Cruising is a great way to engage and motivate employees, customers, and channel partners in a unique setting that provides great value and experience through incredible built-in features,” Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA),  told Travel Market Report.

Buoyed by a meetings industry background that includes a stint as president of Maritz Travel Co., Duffy has worked hard to promote shipboard meetings. Earlier this year she announced a task force that is partnering with the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Foundation to raise the profile of the meetings on ships concept.

An evolving appeal
There are positive trends for planners with an interest in pursuing cruise meetings, according to David Kliman, president of the Kliman Group, a meetings consultancy.

“Business meetings and trade shows that typically meet in hotels don’t have a long history with cruise ships. But that’s changing,” said Kliman, a former international chair of MPI who moderated two CLIA task force panels this year.

A primary driver behind the change is the advent of cruise ships built with customized meeting space, he noted.

“It’s phenomenal what ships are doing in terms of bespoke space,” Kliman said. “You have full-blown conference centers with breakout rooms that can be configured in different ways.  That’s gotten the attention of meeting planners.”

While the number of large-scale hotel projects in the pipeline has slowed considerably, cruise lines continue to introduce ships that capture the public’s imagination with new amenities, specialty dining venues, activities and itineraries, Kliman noted.

“Cruise ships offer a cost-effective way of producing a meeting that doesn’t look and feel like every other meeting,” he said.

The cost-effectiveness can’t be underestimated, he said, noting that the all-inclusiveness of the typical cruise ship product is hard to duplicate in a land-based venue. In addition to accommodations, meals and entertainment, cruise ships offer their conference centers at no extra charge. Most lines also provide standard audio/video equipment on a complimentary basis.

Those cost savings typically offer a 20% to 30% financial advantage over land-based meetings, according to Kliman.

Perception issues remain
The cruise industry still has work to do when it comes to effectively winning over the meetings sector. In some cases, old perceptions are hard to change.

“Cruise ships in many people’s mind symbolize all play and no work. So, that can be lead to resistance when you first suggest a cruise ship as a venue,” said travel agent Cherie Isik of Anchors Away Cruise Center in Roseville.

Another perceived obstacle is that cruise ships don’t offer as many private venues as meeting planners may like.

“Today’s cruise ships may be huge, but most of the space is public space. The ships are usually reluctant to close off an entire area just for your group. But, more and more they are willing to be flexible. I’ve had events in the ice skating rink, for example,” said Angie Pfeifer, Assistant Vice President of Corporate Meetings, Incentives and Travel, for Investors Group Financial Services Inc.

Is it deductible?
Tax considerations can also put cruise ship meetings at a disadvantage. The fact that most ships serving the U.S. market are flagged in foreign countries lessens the deductibility of onboard meetings as a business expense.

However, lost tax savings are mitigated by the overall cost savings that cruise ships typically offer over land-based meetings, Kliman said, also noting that “the tax issue with foreign-flagged ships is essentially the same as when a company travels internationally for a land-based meeting.”

New options locally and globally
In addition to the value and customized space available on board cruise ships, planners have much more inventory to choose from now.

“Proximity makes cruise ships more attractive than ever,” Kliman said. “Fifteen years ago, there were only a handful of ports that had ships cycling through them. New home ports have really opened up the field. But, not all meeting planners realize that there are ships based in places like Galveston or Baltimore.”

Moreover, the increasingly global focus of North American cruise lines provides myriad options for meeting locales. Planners bringing together international groups can take advantage of itineraries from Alaska to Australia.

Choosing the right ship
The right ship will vary depending on the business gathering in question, Kliman said. “If your meeting would otherwise take place in a five-star hotel, you would choose the ship accordingly.”

Regardless of the cruise line, conferences on ships can be personalized more than their land-based counterparts. Meeting planners can charter ships, brand it with their company logo and even customize the itinerary. The same option is available to smaller groups on larger ships.

Satisfaction rate
Another reason for planning a shipboard meeting is the satisfaction rate among passengers, Duffy said.

“Cruises have a higher percentage of satisfied customers than any other vacation experience, as 94% of consumers rate their cruise vacation highly,” she said.

“When you combine great value and high customer satisfaction scores, cruising delivers the ROI that every corporate executive is expecting from their corporate event or incentive travel program.” 

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