April 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: As You Like It - April 1998 Current Issue
April 1998
As You Like It

Planners chart a course for customized meetings at sea


Joyce Landry, partner and co-founder of Miami-based Landry and Kling Corporate Cruises, found an almost-perfect cruise ship for her client, a U.S.-based technology company planning its incentive program for the year 2000. Norwegian Cruise Line's Dream had just the right amount of state rooms, suites and public space. It was in the right place (the Mediterranean Sea) at the right time (October) and for the right duration (six days).

Yet, there were drawbacks. The ship offers a different kind of experience from that which the client's international sales force is accustomed. But that hasn't deterred Landry. Determined to make the glass slipper fit, she proposed the ultimate cruise ship customization (the contract was still under negotiation at press time). From bow to stern, she plans to add all the accouterments of a luxury liner to the mid-price ship. State rooms would have 24-hour butler service and fancy amenities like robes and botanical bath products; the food-and-beverage budget would be beefed up to pay for additional chefs, gourmet food items and round-the-clock room service, and a string quartet would play at high tea. "We had to look at how we could tweak [the ship] so it met the standards [the sales force] was used to," says Landry.

Will Norwegian go for it? It's likely, according to Cindy Wolf, director of corporate and incentive sales for the Miami-based cruise line. With one transaction, the entire ship is booked and meets its budget for that itinerary. And the line doesn't have to worry about travel arrangements or cancellations that's handled by the client.

A decade ago, most cruise lines probably would have thrown Landry's far-fetched plan out to sea. But today, it seems that customization is not about what the planner can or cannot do, but how creative she wants to be.

In fact, a growing number of meeting and incentive groups are setting sail on customized cruises. Planners can fully charter a ship of any size and direct it to their ports of choice or, for smaller groups, create a tailor-made cruise within a scheduled itinerary.

Larger ships with dedicated conference space are supporting meetings at sea. Shorter itineraries also appeal to the group market. From 1980 to 1996, the number of two- to five-day cruises was up close to 400 percent, according to New York City-based Cruise Lines International Association.

"The meeting and incentive industry is a big part of our business," says Maggie Mantia, vice president of charter and incentive sales for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Revenue from these markets has increased 25 percent each year since the line's 1993 inception, according to Mantia. So, when it comes to accommodating special requests, she says, "We don't like to say 'no.'"

But before asking a cruise line to say "yes," planners need to consider several factors, such as the length of time in ports, the amount of space on board (and the availability of that space), scheduled itineraries and total passenger count. While customization is trickier when other passengers are present, it's also more important to make attendees feel special. Following are some good customization techniques.

ON SOLID GROUND Not all group events have to be on the ship. Tour operators will help scout ports for spectacular function sites. While docked in Kusadasi, Turkey, Joyce Landry, partner and co-founder of Miami-based Landry & Kling Corporate Cruises, treated an 800-person incentive group to an evening among relics.

The group was met by a trio of string musicians as they entered Ephesus, site of ruins and a temple to Artemis that date to 15 B.C. A guided tour was followed by a symphony, held in a 60,000-seat ancient amphitheater where St. Paul the Apostle is said to have spoken to the Ephesians. The group then returned to the ship for an elegant dinner.

The evening may sound extravagant, but the price tag wasn't. With no rental fee for use of the ruins, and by dining on the ship already included in the charter the only extras were for transportation and entertainment, says Landry. C.B.

Go Public
When it's time to shop around for the right cruise ship to customize, consider its layout and how to manipulate various public spaces for group functions. The latest breed of megaliners, for instance, offers a slew of intimate lounges and a choice of dining rooms. On Princess Cruises' 2,600-passenger Grand Princess, which sets sail next month in the Mediterranean, passengers will have seven restaurants and 12 bars from which to choose.

To carve out a niche on a big ship, first get a detailed layout and daily activity schedules from the cruise line to find out where certain public spaces are located and when those spaces are generally not in use. For example, it's unlikely that groups can take over the pool deck during prime tanning hours on a day a ship is at sea, but it could be a beautiful setting for a late-night cigar party. The main theater is usually in use every night, but groups can most likely make it the venue for daytime meetings. Ships generally design their discos with festive decor. Before the late-night dancers strut their stuff, get the in-house technician to turn on the party lights and make it an upbeat gathering spot for your group.

GOOD GIFTS Leave the typical turndown trinkets at home. Have a ground operator go on a shopping spree for pillow gifts handcrafted in ports of call. Spices from Grenada, batiks from the South Pacific they're more memorable, and you'll save money on shipping costs. C.B.

Borrow from Shore
Cruising allows for the constant change of scenery and culture. From the hillside villages of Italy's Amalfi Coast to the centuries-old ruins of Greece, ports cry out with opportunities to customize the on-board experience.

Music is a simple way to incorporate local culture into an itinerary. Cruising the Caribbean? Bring on the steel drummers. Planning a leisurely sail on the Rhine River? It's the perfect venue for a German oompah band.

Entertainers aside, there are many other ways to incorporate local culture. For example, Judy Ferrara, vice president of sales and marketing for OnBoard Conferences, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., invites diplomats from U.S. embassies to talk about a region's local lore. Arrangements should be made several months in advance, says Ferrara, to set a date and attain on-board security clearance for the representative. For medical education seminars, Ferrara often arranges visits to hospitals near the port.

Another great way to enrich an international experience is to coordinate the trip with a festival.Nancy Merino, director of incentive sales for Seattle-based Windstar Cruises, keeps clients posted on events, such as World Cup or festive holiday celebrations. One group managed to partake in both the Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo on the same itinerary. To do your own world party research, consult Tom Clynes' Wild Planet: 1,001 Extraordinary Events for the Inspired Traveler, from Detroit-based Visible Ink Press ($18.95). The author has scoped out parties and events around the world everything from Singapore's Birthday of the Monkey God to Turkey's Oiled Wrestling Championships.

DECOR ON THE GO Don't lug decorations for that final banquet at sea buy items as you port-hop. Karen Flannery, president of ARTA Travel, an agency in Plano, Texas, recently planned an elegant on-board affair that she wanted to dress up with candelabras. She convinced her Italian port operator to buy candelabras, bring them on board for the evening, then pack and store them until the ship arrived in Spain. Her florist there agreed to accept the candelabras as payment for flowers. C.B.

Can the Can-Can
Does cruise line entertainment conjure up visions (or maybe nightmares) of B-rated Broadway revues featuring scantily clad dancers? Don't leave showtime to chance.

Silversea Cruises once hosted a group that projected a laser show onto the rock cliffs of Greece's Santorini island and topped it off with fireworks. On request, Norwegian Cruise Line's production company will surprise your group with customized song lyrics or comedy acts. Once the scheduled act has concluded its show in the main theater, your group can take over the space for a private performance.

For special events, one way to stay within your budget is to build on the ship's pre-planned itineraries instead of creating entertainment from scratch. Merino offers the planner a rundown of activities that can be tweaked or augmented. For example, groups chartering a Caribbean sailing could take the deck barbecue, already included in the cruise itinerary, and transform it into a Gilligan's Island or reggae theme party.

On board, a private dining room also affords some freedom; planners can theme it as they would a hotel ballroom. Landry once brought cowboy hats, bandannas and spurs to dress up the wait staff for a country-and-western party.

Write Your Own Menu
Don't assume menu-tinkering is off-limits. Talk to the chef about serving local favorites from the day's port: Italian pastries in Portofino or vintages from Provence when in the French Riviera, for example.

Norwegian Cruise Line actually sent chefs to European cooking schools to prepare for a charter of mostly French passengers who refused to eat any American-style meals.

When attendees are dining with the rest of the crowd, customization will be more subtle in order to fit in with the ship's general schedule. Cruise lines are often willing to print special menus emblazoned with a company logo. Or, have reserved tables set with customized lay plates. Chefs may agree to prepare a set menu for the group, or whip up a fanciful dessert that cleverly incorporates a company logo.

Remember, cruise lines can't blatantly coddle groups, lest individual travelers feel slighted. "We like for the group to be assimilated into the whole ship, so it doesn't appear to other passengers that they're receiving special treatment," says Mantia of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises. For this reason, Radisson seldom allows private dinners, but groups can reserve a section of the main dining room, and private cocktail parties are accommodated.

Another option: Open up special events to others. For one cruise meeting of 800 brewery company representatives, planner Landry helped her client throw a blowout deck party for the entire ship including free product samples. As far as Landry knows, no leisure passengers complained.

1-800 CUSTOMIZE Here's a catalog that won't go directly into the recycling bin. Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have put together a collection of everything that can be customized for a meeting or incentive, from pre-trip mailings and water bottles to theme parties and fly-overs planes with customized signs in tow to welcome on-board groups. Called the Insignia Collection, the catalog is due out this month and is available through the cruise lines' incentive sales departments. C.B.

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