We attended a “ship shopping” event last week where we were able to scope out a few of the latest ships from all three cruising categories, from mass market to luxury. Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Solstice caught our eye with its meetings-friendly brand. Larger than usual venues offer excellent meeting spaces, and their highly-regarded food and entertainment make for over-the-top events and presentations. Ron Gulaskey, director of sales, corporate/charters, spoke to us a little bit about how Celebrity Cruises makes meeting and incentive groups feel like total rock stars while onboard their ships.
Prevue: What are Celebrity Cruise meetings’ top selling points for U.S. planners?
Ron Gulaskey: The biggest one is that we’re a premium adult-service product. It seems like when most people are looking for quotes they see Carnival and Royal Caribbean on the internet or television, so they book them, but they’re mass market contemporary brands. We’re a premium brand so if you’re going on an incentive trip, nine out of 10 times you aren’t allowed to bring your children as part of your group. Do you really want to have a thousand other children onboard that aren’t your own?
We’re also the only premium product that does 4- and 5-night sailings. Everybody else usually does 10 or more nights and we have a lot of 7-night sailings and some shorter ones, as I mentioned. Those travel to both the Eastern and Western Caribbean.
What makes you stand apart from mass-market companies?
We lean more toward the luxury brands and away from the contemporary brands. What makes us premium is our service and dining. We offer top choices in that respect. It’s the display of our product—the different restaurants we have and the variety of product.
It’s really the service, too. When you come onboard you’re greeted with champagne and someone escorts you to your stateroom. It’s a way to give your incentive winners the attention they deserve.
Do many groups book meetings onboard or does your clientele primarily consist of incentive trips?
We do have a lot of meetings and especially recently, we’ve had more than before. With continuing education groups like doctors and lawyers they understand the quality of the brand so when they come on they definitely mix business and pleasure.
Because of our shorter sailings we’re allowed to have a lot of meetings onboard since they tend to be three to five nights. We have a huge influx of meeting planners calling us about our short products, especially since cruises save them so much money as it is anyways, compared to land properties.
Have you seen an increase in groups hosting corporate cruise events?
For the last five straight years we’ve had a minimum of 25 percent, and up to 75 percent growth each year. In fact, we doubled our charter business last year and most of those are corporate groups. We’re seeing a huge increase and that means multimillions for the charters.
We’re also seeing a lot of groups move into 7-night products since they’re realizing that it’s not that much more expensive per day when you hop up.
Which one of your ships is most group friendly?
All of our classes have pretty much the same meeting space so it’s really whatever ship we have in the area and for that specific time frame. The Silhouette is our new ship and it’s part of the Solstice class. It’s a larger ship so obviously there’s more space for meetings and breakouts. The Millennium class, which does 4- and 5-night sailings was designed with meetings in mind.
We have dedicated meeting space and outside of the contemporary brand not too many ships have that. We have a tremendous variety. We also have our theater for meetings and for awards presentations. We can include lighting, singers and dancers to really jazz up an awards banquet.
What are a few over-the-top events that you have created for groups aboard The Solstice?
We had American Girl on board and they had 800 people who were celebrating their 25th anniversary. We had three nights where they had pool deck parties. We provided their decorations and they provided some, as well, and they had a band. We have satellite bars throughout so they didn’t have to wait for their service and they really took over.
We also had a large corporation that filled up the theater for their awards banquet and we had spotlights to go on them and a band played in between. We also had our cruise director and MC present and it was wonderful.
What’s great is that you can incorporate all the entertainment we have onboard into your program. We have A Capella singers that will incorporate themes you want to share at a product launch or what not, if you give us the words ahead of time. They can incorporate CEOs or personal experiences into their songs, as well.
A group had an awards presentation in the afternoon and we opened it up with two songs from our singers with the dancers in the background. Then they presented their awards and we brought out acrobatic performers that did a Cirque du Soleil type performance. It’s great because sometimes these awards presentations get too long and this lets us add a little more excitement to it.
What makes cruising more convenient than traveling by land?
The biggest thing is that if the weather is not good at one place or you don’t like the place where you have your sales meeting, the next day you can wake up and be somewhere else.
With nice golf and spa resorts, if you don’t like golf or spas then there’s not really much more to do. With a cruise ship you can go for a family reunion and not have to spend all your time with the family. When everyone separates they gravitate toward others who have the same interests. You really start to see people interacting outside of the work environment. I’ve gone to Vegas and Orlando but when you’re there, at the end of the night everyone disperses and you never see those people again. If you’re looking for teambuilding a ship is definitely the best way to go.
What kind of teambuilding activities do you offer groups onboard?
What’s great on the Solstice class is the lawn area on top. You can have bocce ball tournaments or play a few other sports out there. Groups can also do karaoke together, where they take over one of the lounges for the night and it’s like a private party.
We have a bank that’s chartered the ship and they’re actually onboard now and they host Team Olympics and go from venue to venue and set it up. We have a martini bar that has ice, like an ice bar would, and on that they do mini curling as part of the games.
It’s amazing how companies know that we’re very flexible onboard and we give them as many options as we can. All our specialty restaurants can also be bought out by groups. When you go to Smith & Wollensky or any of those steakhouses it’s basically $200 per person. On the ship the only up charge is $30-40 for specialty restaurants and it’s a full-on meal with four courses and appetizers and all of that. All of our specialty restaurants each hold about 150 people.
What about groups who are hesitant about cruising? How do you put them at ease?
With those who are worried about becoming sea sick, I think it’s just brought up from years and years ago. The reality is that there are stabilizers on every ship that make it much smoother. The captain knows if the water’s rough somewhere and they can steer elsewhere, so it’s like an airplane with turbulence.
We have CEOs and their husbands/wives who think ships are the same as they were 40 years ago. The best thing to do is schedule a site inspection and get them onboard so they can see what it’s all about and experience it firsthand. That’s when they see that the ships are completely different than when they graduated from college, maybe 20 or 30 years ago.
And some CEOs don’t want to be copped in with their people all those days. We can take them off on foreign ports. We have CEOs that show up on embark day and they get off the boat before it sails. We’ve had others that have sailed into a port and then gotten off; we give you the option to get off the ship. Most people aren’t aware of that.
Do you work with DMCs or outside companies to put together events or do you use your staff?
We have incentive houses like Buy the Sea and Maritz, and a lot of travel agencies are booking groups now as well. We also have a lot of companies who want to book direct so we ask them who they want to work with and work with whoever they request.
What do you see for the future of corporate group cruising?
I think we need to spread the word about it. Only 15 percent of the U.S. population has cruised and it’s obviously an even smaller number of corporate groups. We’re working with Christine Duffy, who is the president of Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). Her and I are getting cruise lines to work with MPI and become part of the agenda at MPI meetings. Every cruise ship is good for a different reason. Some people like to stay at Marriott and others at the Four Seasons so something big in the cruise industry is to match people with the right brand. If we put people on a ship that’s not what they’re used to then they’ll never go on a ship again.