Lines work to sell companies on cruises as rewards

Business travel

April 27, 1992|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder News Service

Eating five meals a day, dancing the night away at a disco and shopping until you drop in Caribbean ports hardly sounds like the stuff of a productive business meeting.

But cruise lines are selling all of those delights and more to companies and organizations that want to give their boards of directors, executive staffs, sales forces or other employees a new and different atmosphere in which to meet.

At least three dozen different cruise companies, offering voyages in the Caribbean, on the Pacific Coast, Northeastern waters and Europe, are trying to tap into the $40 billion-a-year meeting and convention market, according to the Cruise Line Industries Association.

The lines are working especially hard these days to sell the idea that one of their sleek new floating hotels is the ideal place for an incentive-travel reward program.

Incentive programs involve using elaborately planned and executed trips to exotic locations as motivators for employees to meet sales or other productivity goals, with only the top performers in the company getting to participate. They are particularly popular in the automotive, pharmaceutical, insurance and agricultural industries.

The cruise companies' promotional efforts among corporations are clearly paying off, at least for some lines. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL), which launched its newest 70,000-ton mega-ship, Majesty of the Seas, this month, is a good example.

About 10 percent of Royal Caribbean's revenues this year are expected to come from corporate business conferences or incentive travel programs held on board its fleet of eight ships, sales vice president Michael Applebaum said. That compares to less than half the company's revenues coming from that segment of the market just 4 1/2 years ago, he said.

The Majesty of the Seas is typical of what many newer vessels are offering today as lures to get meetings and incentive travelers aboard.

The Majesty's facilities include meeting rooms and lounges that a business group can reserve just for its use. One area built specifically as a conference room can seat 80 and has sliding walls so that it can be divided into three, separate smaller rooms. Nearby, the ship's library can also be used as a meeting room.

In the ship's Chorus Line lounge, which can seat 1,050 people, Royal Caribbean has installed a "video wall" made up of 50 video screens, divided into two separate sections. Each 27-inch video screen can be used to show the same image, 50 different images or any combination of one to 50.

The video wall can be used for sophisticated sales or product presentations, or to augment a live stage performance by professional entertainers. A feature of many incentive-program reward trips is a special evening of entertainment, often with a name performer, that is staged only for that exclusive audience.

For corporate travel managers or incentive-travel planners who are going to be paying the bills for the trip, cruises have the advantage of usually being priced lower than a comparable trip on land to an elegant resort, Mr. Applebaum added. The combination of price and good service aboard ships is helping to bring repeat business from the travel managers and planners, he said.

"We are able to deliver a product that they say they are very happy with and will use again," he said.

For all the appeal of cruising, though, some professional planners of corporate incentive travel can point out both the pros and cons of using ships.

Compared with going to many resorts, "those who are using cruise ships are saving money," said Jim Myers, vice president of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc., an incentive and corporate travel agency based in Irving, Texas.

The average price for a seven-day incentive-travel program aboard a ship is about $1,400 a person, well below the cost of comparable accommodations, meals and entertainment at a landside resort, he said.

But many companies that sponsor incentive trips demand a flexibility with meeting and entertainment facilities that cruise ships simply can't meet, Mr. Myers said.

The companies often want the exclusive use of certain facilities as a place to throw an elaborate party or black-tie dinner. But with most incentive-travel groups averaging just a few hundred participants, "you usually end up in a dining room with 1,000 people," he said. "And on a ship, there's no way you can get the exclusive use of a nightclub" at night, he said.

The drawbacks can be overcome by chartering an entire ship, which Sunbelt has done, using smaller vessels owned by Dolphin Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises, Mr. Myers said.

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