Groups Take to the Seas

Cruise lines roll out the red carpet for group business

By: By Marilyn Green

CLIA members report that group travel — including family reunions and multi-generational travel, weddings, educational events, social and other affinity groups and shipboard meetings and incentives — accounts for more than 25 percent of yearly passenger volume (some 3.6 million passengers).

According to Bob Sharak, CLIA’s executive vice president of marketing and distribution, there are great benefits for the agent in selling groups on cruises.

“It’s much easier to plan than a land-based group experience because it’s basically one stop shopping,” he said. “You are arranging the dining, accommodations, space, facilities, entertainment and travel all at the same time.”

Sharak sees very diverse opportunities within leisure travel for group sales.

“A typical group contains 80 percent of passengers who have never cruised before,” Sharak stated. “That expands the agent’s client base, both for future FIT and group sales.”
He also said that groups tend to be stickier than FIT business, also a serious advantage in today’s market. In addition, tour conductor accommodations provide an opportunity for the agent over land-based group negotiations.

Groups on board are built around concepts as diverse as military reunions, sports interest, family gatherings, music and fitness. According to CLIA, the primary types of group cruising includes family; friends; weddings and reunions; affinity organizations and alumni and club groups; theme cruises; faith-based and religious travel; government and military; corporate meetings and incentives; and ship charters. Many of the most successful groups are built around a pied piper, a popular group leader ranging from fitness experts to chefs or musicians.

Cruise lines bend over backward to provide excellence for groups, retooling their kitchens, providing support for special needs and offering unexpected touches to make the experience particularly memorable.

Following is a sample of how CLIA member cruise lines cater to groups.

Azamara Cruises
With ships carrying fewer than 700 passengers exploring the world, 93 percent of Azamara’s staterooms offer ocean views and 68 percent have private verandas. Small groups are treated to complimentary butler service for each stateroom as well as such amenities as fresh-cut flowers, afternoon canapes, fresh fruit and more. Guests also receive complimentary specialty dining; enrichment programs such as digital camera and computer classes; and onboard entertainment, including wine and champagne tastings.

Carnvival Cruise Lines
Carnival defines groups as a block of eight cabins with 16 or more guests. The line offers one free berth for every 15 berths sold, along with such value-added features as “group amenities” points, which can be redeemed for champagne and chocolates, stateroom upgrades, private cocktail receptions, shipboard credits and more. In addition to a wide range of meeting facilities fleetwide, Carnival offers a dedicated groups coordinator on each ship to facilitate activities.

Celebrity Cruises
Dedicated conference facilities are complimentary on Celebrity and such programs as Corporate Amenities Selection (CAS) as well as onboard group coordinators and Assigned Group Partner Advocates ensure one-stop planning. In addition to free staterooms through the company’s Tour Conductor Credits program, Celebrity offers a variety of packages that can include group beverages and even prepaid gratuities. The Individual Incentive Travel Gift Certificate program is a means for companies to reward individual employees.

Costa Cruises
Costa has a group concierge for smooth planning. The company is exceptionally accommodating; for instance, the line has created kosher kitchens (not just serving frozen kosher food) for groups. The line recommends that groups lock in their space a year in advance to secure group pricing. Once the group contract is sent to the agent, groups have 30 days to submit the initial deposits.

In the Caribbean, a group deposit of $25 per berth is required 30 days after group space is blocked. An additional $150 per person is required at the time that a stateroom is sold. Deposits may be extended 90 days by using amenity points. Outside the Caribbean, on cruises of seven nights or fewer, $50 per berth is required 30 days after group space is blocked. For cruises of eight nights or more, $100 per berth is required. An additional $400 per person is required at the time that a stateroom is sold.

Crystal Cruises
In addition to spacious ships and a guest-to-crew ratio of nearly 1 to 1, Crystal offers groups a variety of incentives, including special savings rates, onboard credits, prepaid dining and gratuities and other perks. The line’s ships feature a choice of venues for meetings, including the Hollywood Theatre, which accommodates up to 202 guests. Crystal caters to a large number of multi-generational groups, including Asian and Asian-American branches of families traveling together.

Holland America Line
Holland America’s GAP points permit travel planners to customize their groups by adding such amenities as wine tastings, cooking classes, cocktail receptions, shipboard credits and special dinners. Three new group packages include Winemakers, Girls and Guys Night Out and group programs include Wedding, Family Reunion and Culinary Arts Center programs. The line has been praised by groups for its accommodation of special requests and provides group experiences for special-interest groups, families and much more.

MSC Cruises
For educational, professional and corporate groups, MSC ships offer complimentary high-tech, elegant conference centers and meeting rooms. Shipboard staff coordinates team-building shore excursions and onboard activities, including cocktail parties and themed entertainment. Groups of 16 or more travelers are eligible for a variety of amenities from complimentary stateroom gifts and shipboard credits to cocktails. MSC’s Kids Sail Free policy provides an added incentive for agents to sell family and social groups. MSC Cruises provides 75 days lead time for setting up the amenities. Agents can also sell groups into MSC’s own theme cruises like the popular baseball greats offerings, in which activities are already coordinated at no additional cost.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian’s Groups 2.0 program is an enhanced group-booking program allowing agents to hold up to 16 staterooms with no deposit required until four months prior to sailing, and individual bookings can be transferred into a group up until the day prior to sailing. Amenities include alternative dining, spa treatments and Freestyle Bowling. Groups may also make advance Freestyle Dining reservations.

Oceania Cruises
Oceania works with groups of all sizes, from small affinity groups up to full-ship charters. The tour conductor policy varies by sailings; it can range from 1 for 10 to 1 for 15, and they have a point-based group amenity program that offers a wide variety of options for the agent. Group stateroom allocations are offered in select categories only, while other stateroom categories can be booked on a space-available basis. These bookings will be eligible for group amenities and apply toward tour conductor berths.

Princess Cruises
Groups of 10 people or more can qualify for Princess group rates and travel agents can put together attractive packages with a variety of special extras. Working with the onboard services department, groups can plan a wide variety of customized cruise experiences to fit individual needs by taking advantage of up to five main dining rooms and alternative restaurants, entertainment venues and other facilities for special receptions, parties and other activities. A number of Princess ships also offer specialized meeting facilities.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Regent Seven Seas recently announced the launch of an enhanced group sales program called Group Advantage. The program offers a menu of group amenities, each assigned a specific point value, which can be used to promote remaining 2009 cruises. The higher the point value of the cruise, the more group amenities can be applied, thus allowing agents to customize their promotions and cruise experience. Group amenities include pre-cruise hotel stays, shipboard credits, cocktail parties, waiver of air add-ons, reduced tour escort requirements and more.

Royal Caribbean International
Reaching out to corporate group travelers with the message, “To mix business with pleasure, just add water,” Royal Caribbean emphasizes the unique value of an at-sea group program. In contrast to land-based programs, a Royal Caribbean cruise includes accommodations and stateroom amenities, flexible dining options and amenities, entertainment and recreational activities, use of fitness facilities and a full range of meeting services, including complimentary meeting space and A/V equipment, onboard group coordinators and a dedicated corporate meetings sales team for groups of all sizes. Full-ship charters for special-interest groups have included a Freedom of the Seas’ full charter to a very large group of deaf passengers.

Seabourn Cruise Line
Seabourn is a popular option for companies, organizations or social groups or extended families desiring an exclusive full-yacht charter. Accommodating between 208 and 450 guests, the ships offer the ability to custom design itineraries, and shipboard and shoreside activities to suit the group’s wishes. Other features of a Seabourn charter include security, mobility, all-inclusive fixed pricing and single-source contracting of transportation, accommodation, entertainment and top-quality food and beverage service. Short of a full charter, groups can be accommodated aboard regular scheduled sailings at advantageous prices.

SeaDream Yacht Club
Accommodating 110 guests in 54 identical Yacht Club staterooms (plus one Owner’s Suite), SeaDream offers special opportunities for groups, whether they are families celebrating an important event, companies seeking a memorable incentive for top employees or those looking for a full ship charter. A SeaDream yacht charter coordinator assists in arranging every aspect of the charter group program, from onboard activities to special dining requirements. Smaller groups — from six to 18 staterooms — are also assisted in creating a personalized yachting adventure.

Silversea Cruises
Silversea offers guests large-ship amenities aboard its intimate, all-suite vessels: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and, launching in December, Silver Spirit — all designed to offer an atmosphere of conviviality and casual elegance. With the addition of the regal expedition ship Prince Albert II, the company’s itineraries encompass all seven continents.

Uniworld Grand River Cruises
A Uniworld Boutique River Cruise provides a group retreat for affinity organizations, social gatherings, corporations and company incentive programs. Uniworld ships also are available for full charters. The company’s Group Privilege Program includes group discounts; a complimentary tour conductor berth with as few as six guests traveling together; a choice of such amenities as a complimentary one-hour cocktail party, a wine and fruit plate or shipboard credits of $50 per guest based on a minimum of 10 guests on select European sailings. Name changes are allowed up to 45 days prior to departure.

Windstar Cruises
Windstar has hosted more than 400 full-ship charters and hundreds of groups and incentive programs on its sailing ships. Ten percent full charter rate is due with signed contract and an A-1 rated bank issue, stand-by Letter of Credit for the charter hire balance must be received by Windstar Cruises 30 days after signing the contract.
Windstar has a new St. Martin itinerary the company believes will be very appealing to groups; offered December through March, it is a seven-day route that offers more daylight hours under sail — a real plus for guests — and more time for watersports.
A group constitutes 10 people or more, and full ship charters can be arranged for groups from 128-312 people.