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Small ship charters allow planners to customise itineraries and activities to give participants a memorable and exclusive cruise.

It was an emotional moment as her incentive participants hoisted their corporate flag above the gleaming white ship that they called their own for seven days. "For me, small luxury ships win hands down," says Melissa Donovan, owner of Donovan by Design, in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.

Small cruise ship
Small cruise ship
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Donovan chartered the Wind Surf, from Nice to Rome, for 200 top sellers at a Canadian ladies' clothing direct sales company. Their response was so positive that she booked 45 incentive qualifiers from the company on a partial charter of the Paul Gauguin to Tahiti the following year.

"Both cruises were highlights of my incentive career," she says. "The participants' feedback was overwhelming."

Paul Gauguin cruise

According to Kim Gibbons, director of groups, full ship charters and incentives at Cruise Professionals, in Mississauga, Ontario, small ships hold 350 passengers or less. "The ships we charter most frequently are the two SeaDream yachts, five Silversea ships, five Yachts of Seabourn ships and the Paul Gauguin. For companies wanting a laid-back, casual experience, we charter the three Windstar ships. Most charters are five-to-seven nights."

"Tahiti is a once-in-a-lifetime incentive destination," says Maggie Mantia, senior vice president, charters and incentives, at David Morris International. "It's always voted #1. For incentive winners who have experienced the m/s Paul Gauguin, Tahiti is the most memorable destination and the most requested for return visits.

"The flight time from Los Angeles in only 30 minutes longer than a flight to Honolulu, but the two destinations are worlds apart. Tahiti is very non-commercial and under-built, creating a very zen-like incentive experience. The breath-taking sightseeing and amazing water-related activities make a truly memorable experience."

Small ship cruises

The advantages of chartering a small ship are numerous. "Even within the Mediterranean and Caribbean, smaller vessels can go to more exotic ports than large mass-market ships," says Kim Gibbons. "Companies often charter ships for meetings, because it's the only way they can guarantee people will attend."

Maggie Mantia agrees. "It's interesting to watch the camaraderie and networking that go on when employees and corporate guests are in close proximity." She also notes: "With land-based programs, dinners are usually set menus. A huge feature of charters is that participants enjoy à la carte dining. When people choose what they want to eat, they're happier."

A third advantage of chartering is security, she adds. "Financial executives, who want to discuss new marketing plans, don't want to worry about competitors eavesdropping."

Silversea cruise

Ramon Santos, vice president, business development, for Landry & Kling, in Coral Gables, Florida, organised a meeting and incentive cruise on the Silver Wind for 250 people from a Canadian financial services company. "You cannot duplicate the exclusivity of a small ship charter with a land program," he says.

"Ships have more staff to cater to qualifiers than hotels. Chartering gives you the flexibility to create your own agenda, which you can't do when you book cabins on larger ships. We customised the ports of call (Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Florence, Rome) and tweaked the meals," he says. "Arriving in Monte Carlo by cruise ship is spectacular, so we orchestrated a brunch on deck, which they enjoyed as we approached."

Price comparisons

Santos admits that small ship charters are pricier than cabins on large ships. "You'll never get the same quality of service or meals on a ship of 2,000 as you do on a ship for 200."

Although it's advantageous to know the costs in advance, when chartering, there's a downside, according to Gibbons. "Companies don't know how many people will qualify when they book. They pay the same price, even if the ship isn't full. You pay up front and there's no getting out."

Donovan compares her full- and partial-ship charters. "The partial charter was less expensive, because we paid a per-person rate, but it limited creative changes and use of public areas for private functions."

Incentive houses often have preferred supplier arrangements with specific cruise lines. This may give you better prices because of quantity bookings, or even value-added perks. Conversely, incentive travel agencies may not inform you of other upscale cruise lines, which can serve your needs.

Cruising the Rhine River in Germany
Cruising the Rhine River in Germany
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

European river cruises

A major international marketing and management company chartered a small ship to use as a hotel. It was so successful that they rechartered the ship the next year.

Don't exclude riverboats as floating hotels, says Mark Van Dyke, operations manager for Jerry Van Dyke Travel Service, in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. "Corporations charter Da Vinci, which cruises Europe's rivers, as a hotel during major trade fairs in Düsseldorf, Cologne and Frankfurt."

"Professional groups also organise lecture series on board. Presentations are usually in the morning so participants have afternoons and evenings free for sightseeing." (River cruising also eliminates concerns about sea-sickness.)

Maggie Mantia also works with Tauck River Cruises. "European river cruises are guaranteed in US dollars, which is an important consideration for Americans when exchange rates are unfavorable. River cruising is not as likely to draw unfavorable attention as extravagant ocean cruises might draw. With 59 cabins and suites for 118 guests, the three new Tauck riverboats are the ideal size for exclusive incentive charters."

Antarctica cruise

Some companies charter small ships to the end of the world. "When I was with a previous company, we chartered Abercrombie & Kent's ship twice for 12- and 14-night cruises to Antarctica," says Maggie Mantia. "Both charters were for automotive companies that wanted to give their top dealers bragging rights."

"Chartering gives corporations control of everything from itineraries to activities," says Ramon Santos. "Once they go on a charter, they will probably never book anything but a charter again."


How to Charter a Small Ship

  1. Book two to three years in advance: "If you have specific needs for dates and itineraries, you should book before we publish the deployment," says Sean Mahoney, vice president of worldwide charter and incentive sales at Silversea Cruises. "We will work our other cruises around your charter."
  2. Save with flexible dates: "If companies give us a two- to three-month span, we have a better chance to negotiate added value," says Kim Gibbons at Cruise Professionals. Maggie Mantia adds: "November, December and the first sailing after New Year's offer huge bargains, for the Caribbean. Best value dates for the Mediterranean are early May and October."
  3. Book an appropriate duration: "I urge companies to book at least seven nights on the ship, if they're planning a European charter," says Ramon Santos at Landry & Kling. "Keep in mind the flying time."
  4. Consider shore excursion options: "The ship's shore excursions are not always tailored to incentive winners," says Santos. "You may want to use local DMCs (Destination Management Companies) that specialise in incentives to obtain five-star experiences."
  5. "Be creative: With charters, your imagination is your only restriction," says Melissa Donovan at Donovan by Design. "We put name plaques on participants' doors, and corporate logos on glasses, napkins and stir-sticks. The group loved them."
  6. Educate yourself: "Take advantage of product orientation or familiarisation opportunities," says Silversea's Mahoney. "We provide information to corporate planners with electronic newsletters, incentive trade show booths and luncheon presentations. Corporate end-users should seek the advice and services of someone very knowledgeable about planning, purchasing and producing cruise charters."

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