Relatively few travel agents are sales specialists in the lucrative meetings market. That could change, however, as cruise lines increase their focus on attracting meetings business and develop specific tools and services to help agents tap into the market.
Meetings are big business in the U.S., according to a study released earlier this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers US. The study, which quantified the size of the U.S. meetings market in 2012 and updated a similar survey conducted in 2009, sized the market at 1.8 million meetings that drew 225 million participants and generated $280 billion in direct spending. The participant volume represented a 10 percent increase over the results in 2009.
Given the sheer scope of the market, it is no surprise that the cruise industry is embracing onboard meetings by designing vessels with state-of-the-art meeting space and high tech audio/visual capabilities that rival — or exceed — what is available at land-based resorts.
“Over the past several years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of conducting meetings and conferences at sea,” says Lori Cassidy, director of global corporate meetings, incentives and charters for Royal Caribbean International. “For the past three years, our line has shown consistent double-digit growth in group meetings at sea.”
Why the upswing in corporate and special interest bookings? When comparing a land-based resort to a similar-class cruise ship and including costs for meals, entertainment, presentation equipment and meeting space, an all-inclusive meeting on a cruise ship can shave 20 percent to 30 percent off the cost of the event.
“Cost savings are historically in the double-digit range, considering the wide scope of inclusive amenities and experiences aboard a cruise ship,” says Ron Gulaskey, global director of corporate, incentive and charter sales at Celebrity Cruises. “These benefits, along with the seamless support we offer agents both in selling tools and event planning, make meetings at sea a no-brainer.”
Tax breaks are a major incentive for businesses considering booking a meeting at sea. According to IRS tax codes, any ship that holds a meeting program within the North American region (including the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Pacific Islands, Canada and Mexico) will qualify for a tax deduction.
While this can become a major selling factor for agents whose clients are looking for the biggest bang for their meeting buck, there are many caveats to the tax code. The best approach is for agents to consult with the cruise line directly for clarification on applicable tax deductions — if that is the client’s goal.
Another major selling point is the novelty and fresh perspective a meeting at sea offers corporate clients.
“Taking people to an environment they don’t experience often or have never been to shifts their perspective altogether,” says Jo Kling, co-founder of Landry & Kling. “They’re not in a hotel ballroom, thinking: ‘Here we go again.’”
How to Get Started
There is considerable help available for agents interested in getting involved in booking meetings at sea.
One resource is the Landry & Kling. The company was founded in 1982 as a distribution channel linking the cruise industry and corporate America. Landry & Kling arranges meetings at sea for its own clients and works with travel agents who want assistance on booking onboard meetings based on a revenue sharing program. The company’s website contains numerous documents on tax implications and cost savings available to clients who book meetings at sea.
Inspirational Journeys, another company that specializes in arranging corporate meetings at sea, also has information on its website regarding tax implications of onboard meetings.
Travel agents can also get help from individual cruise lines.
Holland America Line (HAL) prides itself on taking a highly personalized, concierge-style approach to helping travel agents plan and sell meetings at sea, according to Eva Jenner, vice president, North America, of field, charter and incentive sales for HAL and Seabourn. One key service offered is a pre-cruise conference call with all critical shipboard managers, the booking travel agent and a representative of the client, to ensure that everything goes as planned onboard.
While the market for meetings at sea is booming, many travel agents are unaware of the meetings facilities and services available onboard.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge our cruise line faces is getting agents who haven’t sold a meeting at sea onboard a ship,” Cassidy says. “Once they see what we can bring to the table, they get it.”