Last month, thousands of people came aboard the Norwegian Breakaway to participate in its christening at New York's Pier 88.
Among them were 400 Cruise Planners franchisees. Company COO Vicky Garcia said the agents were among the first to get a glimpse of the ship's new features.
"It's almost like a restaurant," she said. "Once you can taste it, you can sell it."
The invitation to go to a christening or a preview cruise is one that is coveted by many cruise fans. But the guest list is carefully curated.
Cruise lines are trying to get maximum impact from the introduction of assets that need the best start out of the blocks that management can provide. So they use naming ceremonies to forge deeper relationships with key groups that can make ships a success. (Click here or on any of the photos for a gallery of photos from various naming ceremonies and inaugural sailings through the years
The groups range from travel sellers, the media and influential past passengers to charities, boards of directors, shipyard owners and investment analysts. All have a part in stoking the buzz.
Similar crowds converge on other ships at other ports around the world. In March, some 10,000 people took part in dedicating the MSC Preziosa in Genoa, Italy, where the whole city was feted.
In May, Hapag Lloyd Cruises named the Europa 2 in Hamburg, Germany, beneath a canopy of fireworks. And Princess Cruises will have royalty to draw attention to its Royal Princess debut in Southampton, England, later this month.
Of the half-dozen ships to be launched in 2013, the Breakaway commanded highest interest with U.S. travel agents, because it was the only one to be christened on this side of the Atlantic.
The ship drew big delegations from Avoya Travel, American Express, Travel Leaders Group and the luxury consortium Virtuoso, in addition to Cruise Planners, which held a national conference in New York to capitalize on the Breakaway inaugural.
Norwegian took full advantage of their presence. After a night of partying, agents had daytime training sessions to learn more about group sales opportunities, shore excursions and Norwegian's overall strategy.
In back-to-back sessions held in the Breakaway's comedy club, Norwegian sales executives Andy Stuart and Camille Olivere went through the same points over and over.
Some of it was numbers: 27 dining opportunities on the ship; 11 free and 16 premium. Some was shaping perceptions and reminding agents of Norwegian's "Partners First" pledge.
Some of it was surprisingly candid. After describing the new salt treatment room in the Breakaway's spa, Stuart said, "I don't really get it, but it's supposed to be really cool."
Olivere offered some behind-the-scenes strategy. For example, Norwegian no longer gives a flute of Champagne to each boarding guest, she said, because the same people serving drinks also clean cabins, and guests said it was more important to have their cabin ready when they arrive.
Agents filed out ready to sell not only the Breakaway but its sister ship the Getaway, due in Miami in January. Those on the inaugural cruise will get a $50 bonus commission for each Getaway booking.
Later, the same basic presentation was given in the ship's theater to the several hundred Avoya agents onboard.
Olivere urged them to be hands-on while they have the chance. "There are things you want to try out, or at least watch someone try out, so you can speak about it more passionately," she said.
Jeff Anderson, vice president of marketing for Avoya, said being able to sell with emotion was one of the best reasons for agents to participate in a christening and inaugural cruise.
"There's nothing like a firsthand experience," he said. Anderson said both Avoya and Norwegian recognize that when agents go on an inaugural cruise, their sales for the ship rise.
"We produce more when we're on it," he said.
Although agents got some classroom time, including a session with Norwegian's top training expert, Bob Becker, most of the time spent on the ship was theirs to enjoy.
"They really want you to play while you're onboard and put yourself in the customer's shoes," Anderson said.
A hefty percentage of the agents onboard hailed from the New York area, both because it was an easy cruise to reach and also because their clients are the big target market.
Staten Islanders Tina and Michael Meeks checked out the bowling match on Deck 7, a sort of half-scale version of the full bowling alleys on some earlier Norwegian ships.
Tina, a Cruise Planners franchisee, said she was very impressed with the indoor-outdoor seating arrangement in the Waterfront, which has a number of specialty dining outlets with water views.
"It's a big draw for all my clients," she said of the New York-based ship.
Todd Elliott, president of Cruise Vacation Outlet in Orlando, rises early to prowl the decks. When they're largely empty, he can notice details he might otherwise miss, Elliott said.
"I get a feeling for the ship overall. If you're one of the first of a handful to see the ship, it's a leg up on your competition," he said. He also said preview cruises give agents access to senior executives.
"They're very approachable," he said. Making the rounds
While Stuart and Olivere were busy with agents, Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan was flitting from room to room addressing other constituencies.
He attended a board meeting. He held a press conference. He even found time to haggle with Bernard Meyer, CEO of Meyer Werft, the builder of the Norwegian Breakaway, over some expenses for the Getaway now under construction back in Germany.
Well before the inaugural, Sheehan had been hustling. As a newly public company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. had released quarterly results two days ahead of the christening.
That gave the line an opening to invite finance channel CNBC aboard, and correspondent Simon Hobbes did a three-minute interview with Sheehan staged in front of the ship's colorful waterslides.
CNN and Telemundo were among other media to do features on the Breakaway, amplifying its profile and providing a positive image for the industry that earlier CNN coverage of the Carnival Triumph mishap did not.
By that point, Sheehan had been on the ship almost continuously since it left the Meyer Werft yard two weeks earlier.
At a stop in Southampton, he entertained more than 5,000 European travel agents in several days of preview activities.
By holding a fundraiser there for British charity Just a Drop, which delivers clean water to communities in developing nations, Norwegian promoted another group that has the potential to generate positive word of mouth for its newbuild.
Pledging one British pound for each agent attending the event, Norwegian raised at least 3,000 pounds (about $4,600) to help build projects in African villages to provide clean drinking water.
After arriving in New York, Sheehan saluted his new shareholders and welcomed his directors so they could see if the company's money had been well spent on the $840 million ship.
Board member Adam Aron sounded convinced. A former CEO of Norwegian himself, Aron said he had high expectations when he saw the design for the Waterfront area.
Onboard, Aron said his vision had been realized. "It's as good as I hoped it would be," he said.
Aron said holding a board meeting during the inaugural helps directors stay in touch with Norwegian's product, customers and distributors and leads to a better-run company.
Christenings have changed since Norwegian launched the modern cruise industry in 1966. In the early days, they were attended by owners and some guest VIPs, and were generally done at the shipyard.
Now lines often wait until ships reach their homeports for a christening. The former Carnival Destiny began sailing the Med under a new name last month after a $155 million makeover, but it won't be formally dubbed the Carnival Sunshine until it reaches the U.S. in November.
Christenings often leverage the star power of a celebrity godmother to gain a broader audience. Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton will do the honors for the Royal Princess, the highlight of six days of inaugural activities expected to involve 10,000 people.
When MSC Cruises named its 4,000-passenger MSC Preziosa in March, it drew on longtime brand icon Sophia Loren -- as it had for all its recent naming ceremonies -- to glamorize the occasion. MSC involved the city of Genoa with comedians staging a shore-side performance and a laser show at a famous lighthouse.
It also organized a "flash mob" salute on two other MSC ships in port, in which passengers received special lamps and instructions on how to participate in a nocturnal sound-and-light tribute.
The Norwegian Breakaway's christening was unusual in that most of the ceremony took place inside the ship, rather than dockside. While the center ring was the ship's main theater, guests could watch from nine other venues around the ship linked in a TV simulcast.
The action bounced around the ship, one moment at a Broadway dance number in the Manhattan Room, then to the Atrium Bar and Cafe to see Nickelodeon characters, then over to "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro introducing his confectioneries to the crowd.
That way, even day guests could sample the full spectrum of the Breakaway's amenities.
To further extend the reach of the ceremony, Norwegian prodded attendees to tweet, post Facebook updates and use other apps to rope their social networks into the event.
Norwegian said more than 429,755 Facebook visits were generated over a five-day stretch by inaugural guests using the ship's WiFi and broadband connections.
After an hour of highlights around the ship, the focus returned to the Breakaway Theater, where the ship's godmothers, the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, did their signature kick line.
"Show-stopping crowd-pleasers for more than eight decades," according to their introduction, members of the dance troupe will be on the first month's worth of sailings and the first sailing of each month after that.
One of the 13 dancers stepped forward, cut a ribbon and the video monitor flashed to an exterior shot of a Champagne bottle crashing against the Breakaway's Peter Max-painted hull.
"We bless this ship and all who sail on her," the Rockette said, and the Breakaway took its place among Norwegian ships past and present, officially becoming part of the fleet. Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly
Christen me, Kate
The cruise industry's next big inaugural takes place in England this month, where Princess Cruises will enlist the help of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton to christen the $735 million Royal Princess.
Ten days of festivities will include ship tours, luncheons, a travel agent overnight, a pre-naming gala event, two two-day preview cruises and a plaque and key ceremony with the port of Southampton.
More than 10,000 people are expected to experience the ship in that time, according to Princess.
The visitors will run the gamut: past passengers, U.K. travel agents, Princess general sales managers and management from shipbuilder Fincantieri to international dignitaries, Carnival Corp. executives, investment bankers and analysts, and employees from Princess Cruises and Carnival U.K. offices.
Three charities -- East Anglia Children's Hospices, Well Child and Skills Force -- will each be given 100 tickets to sell to the gala overnight and naming ceremony, with each charity keeping the proceeds.
Snagging Middleton as the ship's godmother will assure massive coverage in the U.K. media and likely boost the number of reporters, photographers and news crews expected to attend from outside the U.K.
"We are delighted that the duchess will launch our new ship and can think of no better way to celebrate our company's British heritage and our commitment to the country," said Princess CEO Alan Buckelew.
In contrast with the Breakaway, the Royal Princess ceremony will be held quayside and observe traditional British protocol, including a performance by the Royal Marines Band and the pipers of the Irish Guards.
British singer Natasha Bedingfield will also perform, lending a contemporary touch.
The June 13 christening in Europe will help Royal Princess get off to a good start in the Mediterranean, where it will be offering a series of nine 12-day sailings between Barcelona and Venice this summer.
Then, when Royal Princess crosses to Fort Lauderdale in October for its winter season in the Caribbean, there will be another two-night preview cruise to introduce it to travel agents and press in the U.S.
The 3,600-passenger Royal Princess becomes the third vessel to be christened under that name for Princess Cruises, preceded in 1984 by a ship that was the line's first purpose-built cruise ship, and in 2007 by a ship Princess acquired from defunct Renaissance Cruises. Both now sail under new names for P&O Cruises. -- T.S.
It takes a village to name a cruise ship these days.