Holding a MICE event at sea may be the ultimate in luxury, says William Maxwell, but careful planning is needed to ensure it is memorable for the right reasons
DESPITE THE WELL-PUBLICISED partial sinking of the Costa Concordia early last year and a spate of norovirus outbreaks aboard cruise vessels, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) cruising options are springing up globally, with reports that the sector is set to become a thriving growth market.
Research from Amadeus and the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), conducted after the Concordia incident, found that business cruising is gaining momentum, despite the negative press, with nearly two-thirds of 1,400 travel professionals familiar with MICE cruises reporting they are likely, or possibly likely, to book an onboard meeting or event in the next year, spurred on in part by the industry’s proactive use of social media.
Cruise facilities and new routes are springing up, in part due to this demand from the MICE market. In October, Sea Dream Yacht Club’s Sea Dream II vessel will launch Malaysian routes to Langkawi, Penang, Pangkor and Malacca. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is set to gain a new cruise terminal at Kai Tak later this year, which will target the corporate events market with a 2,787sq m rooftop garden designed for private functions.
Rebecca Ballard, corporate and incentive administrator for the UK and Ireland, Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL), says that the findings by Amadeus tally with her experience. “From a MICE perspective, prices have remained steady year-on-year, and we haven’t seen any drop in the number of bookings or a dip in enthusiasm in the market. If anything we’re seeing more demand these days as people are now so much more aware of cruises and see them as a viable experiential option for their event.”
MICE cruises could be just the solution the industry has been waiting for, according to head of events at the European Society of Thoracic Surgeons (ESTS), Hannah Fletcher. “The ever adapting market means it is important that event planners are open to new, innovative ideas, and with some information and training the concept could work well,” she says. “We frequently use cruises for customer dinner events, so why not take it one step further and make it a full conference experience?”
However, others are more cautious over the potential risks of holding a cruise, including Harry Stavrou, managing director of event management specialists Beyond Certainty, who has experience of booking MICE cruises and says caution is needed. He points out that last-minute changes and additions are not possible on cruise bookings. “Logistically, cruises can become a nightmare due to their inflexibility and the myriads of health and safety requirements to overcome,” he says. “If companies were to decide to go on a cruise, I would recommend a one-day event. And remember, giving people access to an open bar on a ship, combined with unsteady water, can lead to accidents.”
Adding Value managing director Tina Morris says that a MICE cruise can be a great way to offer a new experience for delegates, and ensure that a captive audience is located in one place, guaranteeing full attention. However, she adds that negotiations are far less flexible than with venues. “I’ve found that cruise companies are flexible on price but not lead times. The less lead time you have, the less cost-effective it will be.”
But some degree of customisation is possible, according to RCL’s Ballard, with options to suit varying budgets. “We offer both private charters or the option for a group to travel as part of a regular scheduled sailing; however, the vast majority of our bookings are the latter,” she says. “The great thing about being part of a regular sailing is that delegates get to take part in the onboard schedule, and have the added option of customising their events alongside it.”
However, convincing your company to take the cruise option is still challenging in the current economic climate, according to ESTS’s Fletcher, who says competing with city trips is difficult. “‘Cruise’ suggests luxury incentive,” she says. “It would take some convincing and site visiting to believe it could be used in a corporate environment. As a sales incentive, however, it has great potential. Keeping conference options fresh in just one venue is a challenge in itself without the added pressure of being at sea.”
Cruising is not for the risk averse, according to Stavrou, who says lessons should be learnt from recent events. “Making sure everyone knows onboard safety directions and where the emergency exits are located. Also, be aware of variables such as people getting sunburnt or ill.” He flags up the issue of responsibility for delegates who have any ongoing health problems – he says most cruise ships have limited medical facilities onboard, and cites cases of outbreaks of the “highly contagious” Norwalk virus on cruises.
According to Assured Events’ managing director, Karl Perry, there are other potential pitfalls for MICE bookers. “Those booking event spaces on cruises need to bear in mind that there is often less security with your booking,” he says. “We had a clause saying that the crew reserve the right to take over the space at any stage. This uncertainty left us and our client nervous before the event.”
Agency Zibrant is no stranger to business cruises and was recently reappointed to manage incentives for card payment processing company Elavon Merchant Services this year. These included two events for approximately 40people over four days each in Dubai and Capri, both of which incorporated cruises.
Kate Smith-Wilson is office manager and executive assistant to Elavon’s president of international markets. She says the company was very careful with its planning, but was keen to book an itinerary that created memories for staff that would last a lifetime. “We chose to include cruises in the mix because they bring people together, and create an exciting and relaxing environment,” she says. “Our events with Zibrant have opened up fabulous locations, offering a wide variety of activities and memories.”
Ballard, meanwhile, says that the plumbing and builders merchant sectors are two of RCL’s biggest buyers of cruises, as well as the pharmaceutical and automotive industries.
A cruise ship can be an excellent vehicle for memorable events, whether entertaining clients, hosting high-profile conferences or team-building and motivating employees. But clearly there are challenges, and meticulous preparation and expert advice is crucial to plotting a smooth course for your business cruise.
RCL’S CRUISE OPTIONS for groups include larger vessels, such as its Freedom class of ships. Its five-night Caribbean cruises are the most popular itineraries for large-scale groups, but Rome consistently remains the top port-of-call that people want to visit as part of their cruise.
Beyond Certainty’s Harry Stavrou recommends Greece as the ideal cruise destination. “One thing about taking your staff out on to water is that no matter what, it will be a memorable experience,” he says. “And what could be better than island hopping? I would have a morning conference onboard, stop off at a picturesque island for lunch, then back onboard for the afternoon session, and sail to a different island for dinner.”
Windstar Cruises offers corporates Greek itineraries from around £1,500 per delegate, with full-ship incentive charters for between 148 and 310 participants, as well as meeting spaces and cocktail party options.
Meanwhile, other popular cruise routes suited to the MICE market include Arabia, which can be explored via MSC Cruises’ range of 19 seven-night itineraries, departing from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
River cruises up the Thames also remain a popular option. Woods River Cruises has teamed up with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s new food-event team for lunches aboard the 61m flagship, Silver Sturgeon, which boards at Savoy Pier on London’s Embankment.