Group Dining at Sea: Just a Table for 2 (Hundred)

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Canaletto, on Holland America Line's ms Nieuw Amsterdam

Canaletto, on Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam 

Cruise dining programs offer a feast of choices for meeting planners. Most ships have several specialty restaurants in addition to their main dining rooms, perfect for dine-arounds. Sommeliers and top chefs lead culinary classes for groups, which can become team building opportunities.

“If it’s available for individuals, it’s available for a group,” says Karen Devine, president of 3D Destinations, which often produces group meetings at sea. She has seen culinary programs become more prominent with the rise in specialty restaurants, which are smaller than a ship’s main dining room and lend themselves to group programs.

The ever-improving quality of the food itself is another selling point for group dining at sea, she says. “You can get a steak that’s as good as you can get at a premium steak house. And almost every cruise line nowadays has a food-and-wine pairing feature of some kind.”

“You can have a premium dining experience at sea,” Devine says emphatically.

We spoke to executives at three premium cruise lines known for sophisticated food and beverage programs, and found quite a few options on the menu for group dining:

Celebrity Cruises

“Celebrity is well known for our award-winning dining experiences, our fresh, made-from-scratch food and impeccable service,” says Ron Gulaskey, director of sales, corporate/charters for Celebrity Cruises, a premium cruise line.

Groups cruising with Celebrity have access to many special dining experiences, such as private galley tours, food-and-wine pairings with a sommelier and interactive sessions where attendees make their own pizza or grill their own steaks. Group attendees can become part of the show in the QuickFire Challenges that are part of Celebrity’s Top Chef-themed cruises.

Celebrity’s wine program features more than 500 selections from major wine-producing regions. Attendees can learn how to pair the right wine with their meal and, with guidance from noted glassmaker Riedel, how to choose the right glass as well.

Cocktail parties and other private events are enhanced at The Lawn Club, a top-deck venue where real grass grows. “Corporate groups are always amazed with the offerings and special attention to detail when they sail with us,” Gulaskey says.

Crystal Cruises

“When the cuisine is so fantastic, as it is onboard a Crystal ship, incorporating a culinary element into a group event will definitely enhance the overall experience,” says Adena Wilson, manager of incentives and sales administration for luxury line Crystal Cruises.

Crystal choices can be as simple as welcoming attendees with an afternoon tea or lunch at Palm Court, which serves sweeping views of the port or the sea, and as extravagant as dinner at The Vintage Room. Incentive programs often reward top performers at Vintage, where the bonus for a job well done is exquisite cuisine and rare wines served at a table for 14.

Crystal has impressive culinary cred: Onboard experts include wine and cheese sommeliers, mixologists and chefs who serve traditional dishes or create impressive examples of the most high-end molecular gastronomy.

Groups can also add their own touches. A wine estate brought aboard its own Kobe Wagyu beef, which Crystal’s team prepared. Famed Hawaiian chef Alan Wong had 10 chef friends cook for his group and teach a dim sum cooking class at a shoreside hotel.

Holland America Line

“There isn’t much we can’t arrange for you,” says Rob Coleman, senior director of charter and incentive sales for premium cruise company Holland America Line.

Wine-and-cheese sail-away parties and ice cream socials are among the more casual choices, while buyouts of specialty restaurants like Pinnacle Grill, Canaletto and Le Cirque create a special mood. Groups of 25 or more can arrange private wine tastings and cooking demonstrations; groups of 16 or more can have a five-course dinner with five wine pairings per attendee.

“All of these culinary elements offer a fun, more informal way for members of the group to socialize while enjoying our great culinary offerings,” Coleman says.

He advises planners to be sure they understand attendees’ needs and tastes, whether they have food sensitivities or simply don’t care for certain foods. “You should want to ensure that each person has an unforgettable dining experience.”

And never hesitate to ask the cruise line for something special, he adds. “We often do special arrangements to accommodate the needs of the group. We are here to make the logistics easy.”

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