Vancouver-based travel agency Sea Courses Cruises has developed a highly successful niche in the meetings market selling cruise-based continuing medical education (CME) programs to physicians, dentists and pharmaceutical professionals.
The agency’s founder, Martin Gerretsen, MD, got involved in continuing medical education in the early 1990s when he was a practicing family physician. The challenge he faced was finding a way health care professionals could participate in continuing professional education and have time for their medical practice, their families, and vacation travel.
Then Gerretsen went on a cruise. “I thought it would be the perfect venue for CME, because a cruise combines all three of the time elements into one scenario,” he said.
Gerretsen organized his first CME cruise – a seven-day voyage to Alaska – in 1996. “It was very popular and people were asking for another cruise – this time to the Caribbean. By 1998, I recognized that this was more than a fun project; it was a good business opportunity.”
He launched Sea Courses Cruises, and the business has grown from a couple of cruises a year to two cruises per month. A separate division of the agency handles bookings for past cruise CME attendees and their referrals.
“We have seen exponential growth,” said Gerretsen. Since it was created 15 years ago, Sea Courses Cruise has added continuing education programs on cruises for dentists and the pharmaceutical industry; he has also introduced health education programs on cruises for consumers.
Career level dictates itinerary
The choice of an itinerary for a CME cruise depends on the physician’s career stage, noted Gerretsen.
“One-week Caribbean and Alaska cruises are ideal for early-career physicians who only can take a week” away from work because of the pressures of building a practice and raising families, he said. Mid- and late-career physicians are looking for longer cruises; South America, the Mediterranean, Asia, and “exotic” destination itineraries like the Galapagos and Tahiti are popular in this category.
River cruises as venues for CME programs are growing in popularity alongside increased consumer interest in the product, Gerretsen said. The Rhine, Danube and Russian river programs are currently popular, and the agency plans to introduce CME programs on Mekong River cruises in Vietnam in 2012.
The longer and exotic itineraries present challenges for the agency because cruise lines tend to deploy their older ships on these cruises and the meetings facilities are not as advanced as those on the newer vessels. “So we often charter the ships,” said Gerettsen, noting that his company has charted Celebrity Xpeditions for CME programs on the line’s Galapagos cruises for the past five years.
“With a full charter, we can work with the cruise line to set up meetings in the venues that meet our needs, and we can tweak the itinerary” to accommodate the CME program and craft specialized shore programs, he said.
Cruise lines want meetings
Since the inception of Sea Courses Cruises, cruise lines have greatly enhanced their onboard conference amenities and added conference rooms with advanced AV equipment and technology, Gerretsen said.
The new mega ships, he said, “have incredible conference facilities, as good as those any hotel can offer.” He singled out Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships as an example. Most lines have beefed up their services for meetings groups with a dedicated staff member onboard, he added.
Cruise lines want to attract the professional education market for two key reasons, Gerretsen told Travel Market Report. One is to book business on more exotic itineraries via full-ship charters, and the other is helping fill the lines’ newer, bigger ships on regularly scheduled sailings.
Sea Courses Cruises markets its CME programs by working its database of 20,000 physicians who have expressed interest in the cruises. The agency also partners with Canadian-based and international medical, nursing and health care associations. “That is really how we get our word out,” said Gerretsen.
“Our primary market is Canadian physicians,” he noted, but the CME programs can be applicable globally. “One of the benefits of health care is that concepts are universal, so we do have attendees from around the world.”
Sea Courses entices family and friends to join CME attendees on the cruises with customized onboard “partners programs” that include enrichment lectures on health, finance, and the local cultures of the ports on the itineraries.
The agency also includes a strong dose of networking events in the program and features value-added special tours and destination-based private events for CME participants through a program available via Sea Courses Cruises membership in Ensemble Travel.
The agency has a giving back program in the destinations it visits that is particularly popular with CME program participants. For example, next year’s CME program on the Mekong River cruise will include an excursion to a vision care clinic operated by Doctors Without Borders in Siem Reap.
Over the years, the travel agency has donated more than $40,000 to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders); distributed Physician Travel Paks valued at more than $150,000 in Africa and Haiti; and donated more than $10,000 to St. Paul’s Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital Foundations in British Columbia.