CRUISING: Off-shore agenda - Cruise operators are recognising the value of the meetings market by designing both ships and charter packages to appeal to corporate users, as Julia Gosling finds out

A cruise is a classic incentive reward. Winners of incentive trips might fret over the more mature demographic make-up of their fellow passengers, but a Caribbean cruise is nonetheless a glamorous prize - and certainly something envious friends and colleagues will take note of. Even seasoned business travellers are motivated by the idea of an ocean liner visiting exotic ports of call.

While associations of aristocratic wealth and exclusivity are now largely out of date - almost 1 million British passengers took to the seas last year - there are still many opportunities to make an incentive winner feel special on board. The luxury end of the market can offer substantial suites, caviar and champagne on tap, cordon bleu food and fully waited room service. The middle range can offer private islands, cabins with balconies, quality entertainment and interesting itineraries. Even the cheaper cruise lines have embraced the C&I sector with enthusiasm, and go out of their way to make groups feel separate and special. Whatever the style and grade of the ship, there is a particular excitement and atmosphere about being at sea that no land-based venue can replicate.

The latest figures from the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) show cruising to be one of the few sectors of the travel industry that has grown 2.4 per cent over the past year, despite the setbacks experienced since last September. In 2001, for the first time, the overall number of UK ocean cruise passengers went up more than in the US, the world's largest cruise market.

Bill Gibbons, director of the PSA, says: "This is the 15th successive year of growth for the cruise industry, despite a difficult year for the travel industry overall. There are now 37 new ships on order or option for delivery between now and 2006. With UK-dedicated capacity on track to become operational over the next few years, the UK industry is set to get even stronger."

The PSA expects annual cruise passenger numbers to grow by 60 per cent between 2000 and 2009. This is a booming market, with more and more options coming online for the buyer. "We are seeing even more choices of ships and styles of cruising, says Gibbons. "New operations are targeting the younger, less formal market, while more traditional cruise lines and upmarket ships still offer the elegance of old-style cruising."

With such a growth in capacity, most cruise lines are competing fiercely for business and are actively targeting the conference, incentive and events market. Many lines have now established dedicated conference and incentive sales divisions, with industry experts addressing every enquiry in detail. For example, Gill Sage is director of charter and incentive sales for the World's Leading Cruise Lines, a huge group whose members include Costa Cruises, Windstar, Holland America Line, Cunard Line, Seabourne and Carnival Cruise Lines. She was recruited in April 2001 to grow the UK business market, after the success of corporate business sales in the US.

"Previously, the majority of our business came from agencies, explains Sage. "Now, a lot more clients are making direct approaches. As end-users become more receptive to the idea of cruising, we are now in a position to address their needs."

Maarten Tromp is director of incentive, charter and group sales at Silversea, and deals personally with up to 2,000 enquiries a year for group events.

"While the conversion rate is still fairly low, at around ten per cent, and lead times can be long, there is no doubt that awareness of the huge advantages cruising offers is growing, he comments.

Those lines that do not yet offer a dedicated department for conferences and incentives are moving in that direction, producing brochures and materials specifically for the market, and many have sections on their websites for conference buyers outlining exactly how ships can work for them.

Some companies though are still cautious about considering cruising, and this is not helped by misconceptions about the atmosphere on-board ship. Some fear the sheer size of a ship will prevent a group from bonding, others anticipate sea-sickness, or even claustrophobia. However, holding an event at sea has many advantages.

The fundamental selling point is value for money, and the opportunity to control costs. "Put a five-star hotel and a six-star cruise ship side by side, and you can see what you get for the money, says Joanne Phillips, head of sales and marketing for Crystal Cruises UK. "We offer rates of £190 per person, equivalent to a 24-hour rate in a hotel in the Caribbean.

C&I buyers tend to overlook the fact this includes all food, luxury accommodation, meeting rooms, and a full-time stage manager and group coordinator on site, 24 hours a day, she adds.

P&O Cruises business development manager Chiara Whiting cites rates as low as under £100 per person per day, on three and four-day European cruises that are very convenient for the UK conference market.

Gerry Manser, managing director of agency Lynton Cooper agrees, saying cruising allows the organiser to maximise budgets. He points out the practical costs of surrounding an event are effectively free of charge on a ship. "A great deal of the extras on land are included on a cruise or charter. This covers the actual venue hire costs, including rehearsal and set-up time, and technical support which is on-board and, therefore, price inclusive. This service covers all those extras such as light, sound, special effects, props and costumes."

All-inclusive operators such as Silversea also throw in private cocktail parties, excursions and all drinks into initial quotations, allowing organisers to plan and budget any activity well in advance.

Another key advantage is that delegates at sea are, essentially, a captive audience. "Where you have a reasonably 'captive' audience on board ship, it is simple to endorse the theme of the conference or event, and to build momentum through complementary activities in other areas of the ship if required, adds Manser.

When the conference market first started holding events on ships, groups had to work around the other passengers, often having to make do with public areas roped off and swiftly converted for private functions or meetings. Today, however, many newer ships have dedicated conference facilities, and the cruise lines are much more geared up to dealing with the demands of groups.

"The build quality, facilities and layout of most of modern ships have been designed to cater for incentives and meetings, says Manser. "There are often hydraulic risers built into theatre stages, lighting gantries are left in place, and theatres are designed with adjacent smaller break-out rooms."

Nicki Lewis, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises C&I sales manager, points out that all the operator's ships have dedicated conference centres seating up to 400 people.

Cruising offers a huge variety of destinations - worldwide, there is almost no major port that remains untouched by the cruising industry.

The destination chosen depends upon the objective of the event, as well as the logistics of travel, and the season. Geraldine Noon, manager for corporate and incentive sales at Norwegian Cruise Line Group, believes it is the duration of the trip, rather than the destinations visited, that tends to sway buyers' decisions.

"Three-, four- and five-night cruises out of Miami into the Caribbean are convenient and popular for sales launches or conferences, and at certain times of the year, five-night itineraries in the Mediterranean are popular.

For incentives, unusual destinations can be more attractive, but trips to Alaska, the Far East or South America tend to be longer, lasting seven to 12 nights."

Cruising is a safe option for buyers. Not only can they be confident about budgets, there is little to organise. "There is no traffic, crime or logistical concerns, says Radisson Seven Seas Cruises managing director UK Graham Sadler. "We offer a one-stop shop - everything you may need is on board."

The Radisson Diamond is one of the few ships built specifically for the C&I market and is being chartered by groups for 185 days this year, exemplifying the convenience and suitability of cruising for groups.

Silversea's Tromp says groups need do nothing more than embark and disembark at the ports. "You check into a hotel, and let us move the scenery for you, he notes. "Clients can travel virtually anywhere by ship, especially on a charter, where groups can choose their own itinerary, and are not restricted by pre-set routes. Rather than worrying about transfers, deadlines and travel documents, organisers simply check their group on at the beginning and off at the end, having visited a variety of destinations en route."

Ships are also perfect venues for spouse programmes. Royal Olympic Cruises group sales executive John Atkinson finds this is a good selling point.

"If a company is inviting partners to a conference, buyers have their partner programmes laid on for them. They can take advantage of the diverse activities on a cruise, and spend more time concentrating on the business aspect of the event."

Many cruise itineraries are seven days or more, and with travel to the ship and the journey home, this can add up to nine days away. While budgets and time are at a premium, many companies will not endorse long absences from the office. However, there are lots of innovative ways in which event organisers can take advantage of cruise ships. There is an increasing number of short cruises coming on to the market with three- to four-day itineraries, some of which fall across a weekend. Sailings from UK ports, such as Harwich and Dover, are on the increase, further cutting back on travel time.

"We have had orders for just the one cabin across ten consecutive weeks, says Mediterranean Shipping Cruises director, UK and Ireland, Peter Pate. "A lot of companies don't want all their dealers away at the same time, but this approach enables a number of personnel to be rewarded across the year, while minimising impact on sales activity."

Tromp is promoting an "executive suite", where a global organisation with an international sales force can rent and brand one of the ship's suites. The company can build its own incentives to fit in with a ship's itinerary, while holding the suite for individual incentives and corporate hospitality.

If buyers can negotiate their way through the myriad choices available, and pinpoint a ship and itinerary to suit the objective and profile of their event, the signs are that the chosen cruise line will bend over backwards to be flexible, and work hard to make the meeting or incentive a total success.

CASE STUDY
Company: Somerfield Stores
Event: charity ball
Date: 5 April 2002
Group size: 1,500
Venue: Aurora (P&O Cruises)
Budget: £300,000 for full ship charter plus undisclosed amount for
entertainment

Every other year, Somerfield Stores holds a high-profile charity ball. The previous four events were held at the Grosvenor House Hotel. This year, however, the ball committee chose a completely different venue - a cruise ship.

"We decided on a change because our guests, being in the food industry, are used to attending events in large London hotels, explains Sue Cronin-Jones, chair of Somerfield's Ball Committee.

She had a difficult task - to find a venue for the ball to seat 1,500 guests for dinner, while also providing quality overnight accommodation.

"We thought of cruise ships primarily because of their size. Having talked initially to Cunard and P&O Cruises, we were impressed by P&O's speed of response and enthusiasm, and Aurora had a substantial amount of deck space, which P&O felt could be used to our advantage."

Guests arrived in Southampton in the afternoon, and were entertained with a band and living statues during embarkation, and had afternoon tea, before casting off with fireworks and a brass band on the quayside.

Dinner was preceded by a champagne reception, and a charity auction and raffle provided the focus of the evening.

Somerfield fulfilled its main objective by raising £1.2m for the Meningitis Trust - testament to the event's success.

Cronin-Jones was taken by the impressive levels of service on board, which added to the success of the event. "The presentation of the food was very good, and the quality standards in terms of the presentation of the venue were amazing. Despite the late night and the size of the party, the ship was immaculate again by 8am."

But, for Cronin-Jones, the main advantage of using Aurora was the impression she made on her guests. "Many of our guests had never been on a liner before. Driving into Southampton, we were all staggered by the size of the ship - and the fact that she was there just for us."

Post-event surveys report high levels of satisfaction, and Somerfield is considering using Aurora again in 2004.

FACT FILE
Cruise line           Description
Carnival Cruise       The largest cruise line in the world. A fleet
Lines                 of 16 'floating resorts' with new
                      ships coming online in 2002
Celebrity Cruises     Established in 1990, Celebrity Cruises is
                      a five-star, luxury line with an emphasis on
                      high standards of service
Costa Cruises         Italian-operated, with eight ships and
                      a cosmopolitan passenger mix
Crystal Cruises       Deluxe market. Crystal has the largest
                      six-star fleet capacity, with the new
                      Crystal Serenity launching in 2003
Cunard Line           Itineraries from two days to three months.
                      Fleet includes the famous QE2, with sister
                      ship QM2 to be launched in 2004
Festival Cruises      Started in 1994, now a worldwide
                      four-star fleet with new ships on order
Fred Olsen            Its three cruise ships are all based in
Cruise Line           the UK.
Holland America       Holland America Line has 11 luxury
Line                  five-star ships sailing to more than
                      280 ports of call
MSC                   Italy's largest privately owned cruise
                      line, offering Italian hospitality and
                      personal service
Norwegian             Founded in 1966, a four-star fleet with
Cruise Line           a strong emphasis on activities and
                      entertainment
Orient Line           Founded in 1992 to offer affordable
                      cruising to exotic locations. Ideal
                      for more experienced cruisers
P&O Cruises           Traditional British cruising on board
                      contemporary ships, including Oriana
Page and Moy          Exclusively chartered cruises aboard
Cruises               three ships, ex-UK or fly-cruising to Europe
Princess Cruises      Part of P&O Cruises, these are four- and
                      five-star ships, calling at 230 destinations
Radisson Seven        The Radisson Diamond was built for
Seas Cruises          the C&I market. Small, luxury ships
                      which work well for chartering
Royal Caribbean       One of the world's largest lines, with
International         large ships and a comprehensive array
                      of meeting and leisure facilities
Seabourne             Positioned at the top of the luxury
Cruise Line           market, Seabourne's ships are
                      exclusive, smaller vessels, offering all-
                      suite accommodation and open dining
Silversea             Positioned at the top end of the
                      cruising market, available for charter
Star Cruises          Sails in Asia only. Four ships sold in UK
Windstar Cruises      With small ships and masted sails,
                      Windstar offers unusual itineraries,
                      visiting ports that large ships cannot reach


Cruise line          Fleet   Ship Capacity     Contact
Carnival Cruise         16          3,000+     020 7940 4466
Lines
Celebrity Cruises        9     1,350-1,950     0800 018 2525
Costa Cruises            8       760-2,112     020 7940 4490
Crystal Cruises          2             940     020 7287 9040
Cunard Line              2       677-1,740     023 8071 6605
Festival Cruises         6       728-1,500     020 7734 0005
Fred Olsen               3         412-761     01473 292 222
Cruise Line
Holland America         11     1,200-1,440     +1 800 4260329
Line
MSC                      3       600-1,064     020 7637 2525
Norwegian                9     1,056-2,200     0800 525 483
Cruise Line
Orient Line              2   826 and 1,026     020 7591 8200
P&O Cruises              4       726-1,950     0845 355 333
Page and Moy             3         450-800     0870 010 6430
Cruises
Princess Cruises        12       640-2,900     0845 335 800
Radisson Seven           5         180-700     020 7287 9060
Seas Cruises
Royal Caribbean         15    1,500-3,000+     0800 018 2020
International
Seabourne                6         115-740     023 8071 6605
Cruise Line
Silversea                4         296-382     020 7920 7053
Star Cruises             7       800-2,000     020 7591 8016
Windstar Cruises         4         148-312     020 7940 4488

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