The cruise ship charter business is booming. Once the carrots of corporate incentive programs, charters are now popular with families, special-interest and lifestyle groups, and even wealthy individuals.Whether fewer than 100 passengers or several thousand people, charters are filling vessels.

More and more, people want to be around like-minded people, said Joyce Landry, CEO of Landry and Kling, a Florida travel agency that specializes in corporate charters and meetings at sea. If they are on a ship, they can control their environment.

Landry has been in the cruise charter business for 25 years and has seen a marked increase in demand, from dockside charters that supplement hotel space, to high-end, private charters for parties.

Theres more disposable income out there, she said. People have done well.

Cherie Weinstein, vice president of group sales and administration for Carnival Cruise Lines, said in the last five years the company has seen a six-fold increase in charter business. While religious groups and gay and lesbian charters have been popular for awhile, she pointed to a together trend and said many similarly interested clusters, like fitness groups or music fans, are choosing to travel together. (See story, Music charters strike chord with artists and their fans.)

Less can be more

SeaDream Yacht Clubs charter business has surged to 50% of its sailing days in the companys five years of existence. At Royal Caribbean International, Stacy Shaw, national charter sales manager for RCI and Celebrity Cruises, said business is exploding and that its hard to keep up with calls from people who want to charter.

She said that even the 3,600-passenger Freedom of the Seas, which will be the worlds largest ship when it debuts in May, will be chartered twice for 2007. Larger ships have the meeting space and theaters that big groups need.

For small groups, the ability to charter a cruise ship with fewer than 100 guests is appealing.

People often have a group of 50 but they dont realize thats enough to charter the whole SeaDream, said Bruce Setloff of SeaDream Yacht Club, a founder of the line and its self-described charter sales guru.

The companys two luxury vessels hold a maximum of 110 guests each and appeal to corporate customers, family reunions, alumni groups and yacht owners who simply want to have a party on a vessel larger than their own. 

One hundred is the magic number in private social events, Setloff said.

SeaDream charters as far out as possible to prevent scheduling difficulties for travel agents who have to bump people booked on ships that get chartered. This is a concern for the cruise lines and agents, but the reward of having a ship chartered is significant, especially if the sailing has sluggish booking.

Tailored itineraries

The benefit for us is a guaranteed, sold-out ship, said Michael von Wittenau, Crystal Cruises director of business development. Thats one less ship to sell.

Passengers also get a better deal on charters, he said, and, of course, every detail of the itinerary can be customized, from the ports of call to the dining options. 

According to Richards Meadows, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Holland America Line, when the World Series of Poker chartered a HAL ship, the line put poker tables in the dining room. And an organization that wanted to bring families with young children had youth counselors onboard.

As popular as the charter business is, it comes with risk. The financial exposure is huge for the customer. If a cruise line is taking a ship of out of inventory, it needs to be paid for it -- usually up front. Any client needs to demonstrate a guaranteed source of funding and ample credit. 

The chartering thing is there and in the mix, but so limited to the type of organization that could successfully accept the liability of possibly losing money, said Betty Kadell, director of group and incentives division at Liberty Travel in Mahwah, N.J. 

Weinstein said that although Carnival receives three to four calls a day about charters, only five to 10 actually materialize per year. Most groups are encouraged, instead, to block a large group of rooms on a ship, a more pragmatic approach than an entire ship.

The important thing, Weinstein said, is to be realistic about the ability to fill a ship.

Everyone thinks they can get a group together, she said. If you want a ship for 3,000 people, you should be able to think of 6,000 people to fill it.

Shaw agreed, noting she encourages groups to start out with shorter itineraries that are easier to fill. She also is selective as to who enters into a charter partnership.

We do a really good job of making sure the client understands the financial and legal ramifications of a charter, she said.

Praying for bookings

Once a client clears that hurdle they literally pray, in some cases, that they will fill the ships. Matthew Dunaway, president of PraiseFest Ministries in Northport, Ala., chartered Royal Caribbeans Sovereign of the Seas this Memorial Day to take a few thousand people on a religious mission to Grand Bahama Island.

He chartered the entire ship rather than blocking a group of rooms because he wanted to close the casino and bars and replace them with Christian entertainment. Many religious groups charter ships for the same reason.

I always wanted to take a cruise, but I didnt want to expose my family to whats going on, he said, citing the partying and gambling often associated with cruise ships. Parents can feel good about letting their kids go.

With two months to go, Dunaway had 900 missionaries signed up for 2,300 beds -- and many peoples life savings on the line. He was hoping for a miracle.

Anytime you take a big leap of faith, there is a bit of nervousness, Dunaway said. We are trusting God to see us through.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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