Meetings on the Promenade Deck

Cruise linersEnvision a meeting where waves softly lap outside the meeting room, a coffee break may be a cup of tea from a lounge chair on the promenade deck and the afternoon activity is an afternoon in Lisbon, or Rio, or Hong Kong. Is this a dream or reality? It can be both. It’s a cruise.

Cruising represents the last vestige of a true getaway in a world of e-mails, cell phones, deadlines and quotas. A meeting at sea is stress free. It’s devoid of traffic jams, beepers and fast food lunches. And it translates to nights at the theater with no need for reservations, or for packing and unpacking.

Paula Kelly, meeting planner for Delta Life Annuity in Memphis, TN, has taken insurance groups on numerous cruises. Her most recent on-water incentive was for 46 awardees on Silver Seas’ Silver Wind. “Sailing out of Istanbul at midnight is matchless,” says Kelly of last spring’s cruise, which also included a tour of Olympia (site of the first Olympics), a stroll through Dubrovnik and a cup of cappuccino in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

As a long-time cruise advocate, Kelly notes that while on a cruise, one can choose to do everything or nothing. Attendees are given the option of going ashore on a tour or staying on board and lounging. “I recommend a minimum number of days at sea because ports provide opportunities. I like to give my group options, whether they take advantage of them or not.” One of the options given to the Delta Life group was lunch at a Corfu villa overlooking the Mediterranean.

“Do your homework,” urges Kelly. “Check out the weather. Don’t book an Alaskan cruise in May or a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season (June-November). And research national holidays; you don’t want to be in Vienna during May Day because everything is closed. But you want to know when the Jazz Fest is in Prague.”

San Francisco meeting planner Gregory Howell of GHA Travel, San Francisco, CA, took a group of 140 from the University of Rochester on Peter Deilmann’s 69-cabin Prussian Princess. This Danube River cruise sailed from Vienna to Passau, one of Germany’s oldest cities. Howell’s group toured a Volkswagen plant and the group’s farewell party was thrown at a beer garden in Munich. Booking the cruise at the end of March, only four days before the start of the regular tourist season, spelled a good value.

What are the benefits of a cruise? “You have a captive audience,” says Howell. Everything is on board, from the audio-visual to the meetings. The rate can include everything — port charges, cabins, meals, basic AV equipment, even shore excursions.”

Why did Howell select a smaller river cruise? “With a smaller group, I’m concerned about a loss of identity. A planner has to work harder to maintain exclusivity. Of course, a smaller ship can be limiting in what it has on board as well as the destinations it visits.”

Every cruise line is unique, every ship is different. Whether selecting a river barge or a super liner, meeting planners who choose to go to sea have plenty of choices. The following is only a sampling of cruise lines courting the meetings scene.

Carnival Cruise Lines.

In many ways this cruise line, whose vessels are called “The Fun Ships,” sets trends. Nautica Spa selections are available at every meal for dieters. Paradise is the world’s first smoke-free cruise ship (staff and crew included). This smokeless sailing venue sails every Sunday from Miami, FL, on alternating Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.

And the line’s Elation features the first dedicated conference facility (1,075 square feet) in Carnival’s fleet. “A common objection to a cruise ship meeting is that a ship does not provide a serious enough venue for a truly productive gathering,” says Cherie Weinstein, Carnival’s vice president of group sales. “The reality is that rooms can be completely closed off and a meeting can be conducted just as intensely focused and productive at sea as it would be on land.”

Crystal Cruises.

This luxury line, comprised of 940-passenger sister ships Crystal Harmony and Crystal Symphony, derives 75 percent of its business from groups. Its Crystal Visions Enrichment Lecture Series has featured such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, Caspar Weinberger and Debbie Reynolds. And its cutting-edge Computer University@Sea is conducted by experts, offering hands-on experience. In contrast, Crystal’s “Mozart Tea,” where the wait staff don period costumes of velvet, brocade and lace and the white tie and tails elegance of “English Colonial Tea,” transports passengers to the regal past.

Cunard.

The world’s most famous superliner, Queen Elizabeth 2 (1,715 charter capacity), was launched by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967. Retrofitted from bow to stern, the QE2 reintroduced itself last December with such features as five-star restaurants, Royal Promenade designer boutiques (including Harrods), the ritual of afternoon tea and dancing to a 12-piece orchestra in the Queen’s Room.

On the Cunard drawing board is the Queen Mary 2 project, described as a classic, grand, transatlantic liner, not a “cruise ship.” Designed to combine old-world elegance with modern technology, the mammoth (2,800 passengers) vessel’s hull will be longer than three football fields and her whistle will be heard from as far as 10 miles away.

Disney Cruise Line.

The 2,400-passnger sister ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, are not just for kids. In a bid to court the meetings market, both ships offer a wide range of meeting venues, from a 1,387-square-foot conference center to the Walt Disney and Buena Vista Theaters. And the outdoor 6,363-square-foot Grouper Pavilion, located on Disney’s private Bahamian island, Castaway Cay, can accommodate 300 guests.

Disney’s three- and four-day cruises to the Bahamas can be combined with a multi-day visit to the Walt Disney World Resort, incorporating a visit to a Disney Theme Park, a personal and professional development seminar through Disney Institute and follow-up through on-board speakers.

Holland America Line.

This year featured the inaugural seasons of three new Holland America Line ships: the 1,440-passenger sister ships Volendam and Zaandam and the 1,380-passenger Amsterdam. Volendam is the line’s first vessel to feature an Internet center at which guests are able to go on-line, check their e-mail and surf the net.

Rotterdam, the cruise line’s flagship, broke new ground with unique elements like alternative gourmet restaurants and a Concierge Deck for suite guests. And the ship’s top cruising speed of 25 knots (25 percent faster than today’s average ship) permits longer and more frequent ports of call.

Holland America Line vessels are enhanced by collections of 17th and 18th century art and antiques, themed to Dutch world-wide exploration.

Princess Cruise Line.

Having become somewhat of a cruise line celebrity more than two decades ago due to the popular television series Love Boat, Princess is a well-known choice. Flying under a British flag, its variety of vessels range from the 640-passenger Pacific Princess to the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess. Princess’ next new ship, sister to the popular mega-ship Grand Princess , will be called Golden Princess and is set to sail next April.

Golden Princess, like her sister ship offers “a big ship choice with a small ship feel.” Its features will include a swim-against-the-current lap pool, two alternative restaurants, three separate show lounges and 710 cabins with private balconies.

Seabourn Cruise Line.

Referred to as the caviar of cruises, Seabourn offers ultra-luxury yachts in its two 116-guest vessels, Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II (christened by Princess Caroline of Monaco). Sea Goddess amenities include complimentary wine with lunch and dinner, a single red rose left on female guests’ pillows at turndown and caviar served by waiters to swimmers while they are in the pool.

The cruise line’s three 10,000-ton sister ships, Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend, carry only 208 guests in 104 suites per ship. By year’s end, French balconies will be available in almost 50 percent of each ship’s 104 suites.