OPENING CABIN CURTAINS ON A BEHEMOTH cruise liner overlooking blue, halcyon Mediterranean waters, then heading up for a buffet breakfast in a dining room full of bronzed, leather-skinned Europeans with an average age of 70… This is not usually followed with putting on a suit, tie and brogues, and sitting in a conference discussing the latest developments in managed travel.
In fact, I was ‘cruising for business’ – a search term not recommended on a work computer, but one that’s growing increasingly popular in the meetings and events sector.
Mainly attributed to the leisure market, the cruise industry is worth £2.58 billion a year to the UK economy, according to Cruise Line International Association’s (CLIA) annual report published in June. The report shows demand for cruising is at an all-time high and has risen 68 per cent in the past ten years, with passenger numbers globally projected to hit a record 24 million by the end of 2016.
This growth has been helped by businesses’ interest in corporate cruising. A 2014 report from CLIA found 73 per cent of meetings and events professionals expected to use a cruise liner for a client’s incentive group over the following three years, while 53 per cent said they were likely to organise a conference on a ship over the same period. In fact, earlier this year, one of the industry’s leading operators, Celebrity Cruises, reported a 20 per cent rise for the sixth straight year in its group-business revenue.
But why is there such growth in this area of meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), what are the pitfalls and could it work for your business?
Speak to those in the industry and it’s the fact you are holding an event at sea that creates the selling point for delegates, who can grow tired of the seeing the same hotel ballrooms year after year.
Ken McLeod, corporate director at Advantage Travel, helped plan the organisation’s annual conference this year, which was held over four days on cruise ship MSC Fantasia. It departed Genoa and called at Barcelona, Palma and Ajaccio. The 400-plus delegates were among a total of 4,400 passengers.
He believes one of the main advantages of holding an event at sea rather than in a more traditional setting is giving your delegates “the sense of occasion”.
“I think it holds that ‘wow’ factor,” he says. “It’s unique in the sense that very few people would have experienced a conference on board a ship. As ours was a travel conference it helped that everyone got to visit four different destinations in such a short space of time, which is again something different from a normal conference.”
Global travel manager at US technology giant Symantec, Nikki Rogan, believes the intimate nature of being on a ship together for a period of time can help sessions seem more engaging for delegates. “Cruise ships can provide a great atmosphere for networking and the unique venue can encourage people to attend,” she says. “A cruise provides a captive audience with less interruption, resulting in the audience being more focused on the speaker and content.”
Earlier this year a report from the GBTA found that free, fast wifi was the most important ‘add-on’ a travel manager can negotiate for travellers – something hard to provide on a cruise ship, as Janet Parton, UK & Ireland head of sales at MSC Cruises, explains: “Of course, Wireless free internet access on board a ship is not going to be as good as broadband, as it’s reliant on satellites. But we recently announced new internet packages to reflect the habits and needs of our guests. It’s something we are continually trying to improve – and the price is a reflection of how much it costs to have a good connection at sea.”
On MSC Cruises, the price per day for the maximum bandwidth package and four devices is €19.90 but is something most buyers should be able to negotiate down for its delegates.
The task of organising an event, meeting or conference at sea – whatever the size – can throw up many challenges not normally associated with land-based events. “One major tip I would have is if you haven’t organised a conference on a cruise ship before, then find someone who has – their knowledge is worth its weight in gold,” says McLeod.
He adds: “You have to bear in mind you’re fitting into the ship’s plans. They can’t change what the other 3-4,000 guests are doing, so closing off certain venues or areas of the ship for your delegates is a big deal, and involves good communication and planning with the ship’s staff.”
Chief executive of consultancy Festive Road, Paul Tilstone, says that timing around rehearsals for speakers and stage events present a challenge. “Speakers’ on-boarding schedule and the availability of the stage meant that rehearsals and stage set-up were pretty crunched, while the sessions had to be undertaken during certain times only,” he says. “To combat this we did as much preparation as we could in advance with speakers and made them aware they may need to be more flexible than normal.” He also recommends an on-ship co-ordinator. “It’s really important to have a crew member who knows exactly what your needs are and who can make things happen.”
Rogan adds that due to the nature of a cruise ship, and the fact you are visiting more glamorous destinations than normal, it can be harder for delegates to get buy-in from senior management. “From my experience I found that due to the conference being held on a cruise ship, this was perceived by some as being a ‘jolly’, whereas a conference at a hotel would not have been questioned due to it being the norm.”
Tilstone believes it’s an alternative companies should consider, but advises to look at all the challenges that can arise. “Planners must think about the pros and cons, which include the perception that a conference at sea might be more fun than one on dry land. Companies need to truly understand the impact a ship has on formats and engagement opportunities. As long as they take all of these into consideration, it is something we may see more of in the future.”
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