by Lisa Grimaldi | May 01, 2005

IllustrationWhen a meeting is held offshore literally a sea change in planning tactics  is in order. Following is a comprehensive look at how to plan a cruise meeting, from determining a group’s needs in advance to site inspection to actually setting sail.

Diving In
Ideally, cruise meetings require 12 months lead time, although some lines can accommodate groups on shorter notice. The proper starting point for planners is typically a cruise line’s meeting/incentive/charter department; for contact information, visit, the website for New York City-based Cruise Lines International Association.
    Before sending out requests for proposal, determine the following.
    Count heads. What is the total number of attendees expected, and how many cabins will be required? Groups of up to 30 will have a wide range of choices when it comes to cruise lines or vessels that can accommodate them, while those with 500 or more are limited to the larger lines.
    Set a guest policy. Will attendees be accompanied by guests? Are families included? Some cruise lines are geared toward the family market, with activities planned for different age groups (from tots to teens) and cabins that accommodate up to four guests, while others have limited accommodations for the under-21 set. 
    Consider charters. Cruise lines set limits for group sizes that can be accommodated on regular sailings. At Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, up to 50 percent of the cabins on a given ship can be booked by groups, according to Richard Weinstein, Carnival’s vice president of corporate and incentive sales. Carnival ships range in size from 742 to 1,487 cabins.
    At Seattle-based Windstar Cruises, limits are set at 25 cabins for the Wind Spirit and Wind Star, which accommodate 148 passengers each, and 75 cabins on the 308-passenger Wind Surf.
    For groups exceeding such limits, the meeting host has the option of chartering a vessel. For the two 110-passenger ships in the SeaDream Yacht Club’s fleet, groups of more than 50 must charter, because “more than that might influence the demeanor of the voyage,” says Bruce Setloff, director of the Coconut Grove, Fla.-based luxury line.
    Other reasons to consider charters: 
    " Is the meeting content highly confidential? If so, having the entire vessel off-limits to any outsiders is a big plus.
    " Want to tweak the itinerary? With a charter, that might be possible, notes Jo Kling, co-founder of Coral Gables, Fla.-based planning firm Landry & Kling, Meetings at Sea. However, you cannot choose where the cruise begins and ends,  and extra charges might apply if you’d like to stop at different ports or if the desired route requires more fuel.
    " Will your group fill most of the staterooms? Chartering can be expensive if your numbers fall short of expectations. At Seattle-based Holland America Line, “If someone charters a ship, they own all but three staterooms on board,” says Paul Shortall, senior director of charter, incentive and international sales. “If they do not fill the ship with guests, they actually get penalized.” 
    " Would half the ship suffice? Larger ships might offer half-charters. Carnival’s Richard Weinstein suggests this option to planners who want all attendees to have ocean views, for instance. “They can also get the late dinner seatings and shows to themselves,” he notes.

Fitting in Meetings
How many meeting rooms are needed? When will meetings take place? What are the necessary room sizes, configurations and seating capacities? Other factors to keep in mind:
    Check on A/V. What type of audiovisual and technical equipment is needed for presentations? Most ships have sound and lighting systems, stages and theaters. And they have staff trained to operate the equipment at no extra cost. But for truly sophisticated A/V needs, planners might prefer a modern ship with purpose-built meeting space or else be willing to make a few adjustments.
    “If you have to do everything the same way you do it at a hotel, you will drive yourself crazy,” says Jo Kling. For example, she says, planners might find the ship does not have a single 50-by-50-foot screen, but its three large screens might serve just as well. 
    And, if a few compromises are out of the question, firms can bring in their own heavy-duty displays, props and production crews. This needs to be hammered out before a contract is signed, notes Kling.