by Leo Jakobson | May 18, 2017
When Joyce Landry and her partner, Jo Kling, started a business 35 years ago dedicated to planning incentive trips and meetings on cruise ships, they had no competition -- largely because they had invented the niche. Back then, the founders of what was known as Landry & Kling Events at Sea had to do more than convince meeting planners that ships were a great place for groups to assemble to do business or celebrate success.

"The cruise lines had no sales departments for this market and no dedicated meeting and event facilities on their ships," Landry says. That didn't come until 1990, when the Nordic Empress, with a meeting room, was launched. Now the business has grown not just in the U.S. but internationally -- clients now range as far afield as China, Africa, and the Middle East -- to the point where Landry and her partner renamed the firm Landry & Kling Global Cruise Events.

There is growing interest in taking incentive programs on board, according to the Incentive Research Foundation. Its "2017 Outlook Study" found that 13 percent of incentive companies expect to see a change from land-based programs to cruises.  

Modern cruise ships range from 6,780-passenger behemoths like Royal Caribbean International's forthcoming Symphony of the Seas to smaller, ultra-luxurious vessels like Monaco-based Silversea Cruises' 300- to 600-person ships or Windstar Cruises' 150- to 300-person yachts, including three sailing ships. Facilities on these ships now range from on-board A/V services and Wi-Fi -- Royal Caribbean's new Voom service offers all passengers streaming video -- to activity options like zip lines, climbing walls, basketball courts, and luxury spas. Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships have full-on Broadway shows in theaters that can accommodate 1,400 passengers at once.

"We no longer have to convince them to cruise, but to find the right ship," Landry says. One reason is cost. The base price of a cruise has hardly changed since her company was founded, in large part because the ships now have revenue streams -- like beverages -- beyond the ticket price, she says. And with group beverage packages now widely available, the growing number and diversity of on-board dining options, and the many entertainment and teambuilding activities available to all passengers, planners have the budget certainty of an all-inclusive resort.

That said, getting company executives to consider a cruise can be challenging. Mike May, president of incentive house Spear One, says that while he is a fan, and some industries like direct sales companies love them, "our clients either always cruise or never cruise. We never see them switch."

Landry, on the other hand, says that it is a lot easier than it was to get companies to choose an incentive cruise. Aside from the quality of the ships and the experience, the growing availability of seven-day, and even three-, four-, and five-day cruises makes it easier to fit incentive programs' schedules.

One key to the growing popularity of cruises, says Sandra Daniel, president and CEO of FIRE Light Group, is the experience. "People are first and foremost looking for an experience." She notes that "a cruise offers unique experiences in an all-inclusive format. We find that buyers like the simplicity of this solution. The audience is more or less captive, there are opportunities to experience different destinations together or go off with the spouse on a hidden beach, yet the networking opportunities are still there when they board the vessel at night."  

"A cruise ship is a floating hotel," says Lori Cassidy, associate vice president for global corporate, incentive and charter sales at Royal Caribbean. "You can go out and have an exceptional experience and return to the safety of the ship at night." Boarding always includes ID scrutiny and a security checkpoint. And in case of real unrest or disaster, ships can simply avoid a port.

Beyond that, cruise ships can go places where traditional incentive-quality accommodations are unavailable, ranging from major events like the Super Bowl or Olympics, to one of the most talked-about incentive destinations this year: Cuba, which has great interest from planners, executives, and attendees alike, but is still developing the land-based infrastructure necessary to support an incentive program.

Norwegian Cruise Line is one of the lines that has already visited Cuba, with its Norwegian Sky sailing into Havana Harbor on May 3 of this year. "Today is a momentous day for Norwegian Cruise Line," said Frank Del Rio, Norwegian's president and CEO, after the Norwegian Sky docked. Speaking of Cuba's "natural beauty, warm people, and historical treasures," he added, "we were welcomed by the Cuban people with open arms and excitement to share their incredible culture with our guests."

Aside from the destination's high desirability, Norwegian's Miami-to-Havana voyages have another benefit for incentive programs: time. The line is planning more than 50 four-day visits this year, all but a few of which will stay overnight in the capital city of Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The trips by Norwegian Sky -- which is an all-inclusive vessel, beverages included -- will also stop at Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian's private island in the Bahamas.

Silversea is another line that can tailor voyages to incentive groups, which generally do full charters of its smaller vessels. "We are able to carve out itineraries, and adjust to five-to-seven nights," says Freddy Muller, vice president and head of corporate and incentive sales of Silversea.

And an increasingly popular cruise port in the Caribbean is San Juan, Puerto Rico, says Patrick Bralick, corporate sales manager, North America, for Celebrity Cruises, which just reintroduced four- and five-night itineraries in the region. He notes that San Juan's central location allows cruise ships to stop at destinations not reached by the traditional North or South Caribbean itineraries such as St. Martin, St. Kitts, and Tortola.

Cruise destinations reflect this trend. Ultra-luxury line Silversea Cruises has found that "expedition" destinations, ranging from Alaska to the Galapagos to the Arctic and Antarctic, have grown in popularity to the point where it has four ships outfitted and dedicated to these trips, says Muller. While the luxury remains, these smaller ships allow passengers to get closer to the glaciers or board small Zodiac rubber boats to watch whales with expert guides.

Norwegian Cruise Lines -- which turned 50 last year -- is also catering to the adventure theme. Next year, it will launch the first new-build vessel on the Seattle-to-Alaska route, Norwegian Bliss, which accommodates more than 4,000 guests.