Lines adapt ships in response to high demand

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NEW YORK -- Cruise lines are tapping into the growing market for meetings and incentives by designing ships with increasingly sophisticated business amenities, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the array of high-tech communications equipment being packed into the dedicated ship meeting facilities, CLIA said in a report related to its "National Cruise Vacation Month" promotion in February.

The promotion's motto is: "You haven't lived until you've cruised."

The increasing expense being devoted to lavish meeting facilities at sea stems from the growth in the market for shipboard meetings, which more than doubled from 1991 to 1997, according to the most recent biennial study of Meetings & Conventions magazine.

According the publication, corporations spent $42.9 million hosting 7,600 events at sea in 1997, compared with only $20.3 million in 1991, with 6,000 meetings at sea.

Driving this boom, according to CLIA president Jim Godsman, is the satisfaction of meeting planners in turning seaward.

"What they're discovering," he said, "is that when they hold an event on a cruise ship, everyone is pleased -- the bosses, because the price is right, and the employees, because the cruise experience exceeds their expectations.

"Meeting attendees also can bring along their families," he added. "While the employees attend meetings, their families enjoy the ship's many activities -- and at the end of the day, everyone is reunited for dinner."

Incentive cruises, which are purchased by companies to use as rewards for outstanding performance, represent another hefty segment of the market, Godsman said.

According to a study by the Incentive Federation, for example, cruises represent 24% of the travel packages being offered to top-producing employees.

The motivation for employees to strive to win a cruise stems from the high interest in cruising among consumers in general, Godsman added.

"There aren't many prizes that motivate more than a cruise," he said. "Given the opportunity to win one, people tend to work especially hard."

As the meetings and incentives markets have grown, the days of squeezing a corporate event into a cruise ship's dining room between lunch and dinner are long gone.

During the 1990s alone, cruise lines spent lavishly in designing vessels with dedicated meeting space, conference halls and business amenities, CLIA noted.

In the first wave of construction early in the 1990s, the facilities included such on-land standards as audiovisual equipment, fax machines, flip charts and easels, microphones, copy machines and walkie-talkies.

Some lines even provided secretaries, language translators and meeting coordinators. But as the market accelerated in growth during the last years of the decade, a growing number of cruise ships began to sport the latest in communications and PC capabilities, including e-mail, cellular phones with long-distance capability, in-cabin data lines and even laptop rentals.

"What this means," said Godsman, "is that anyone who feels the need to stay in contact with someone from home or office will have plenty of ways to do so on a cruise. On the other hand," he added, "those who wish to truly leave the world behind need never go near a phone or a fax."

This seeming paradox is a fairly recent phenomenon, according to Marc Mancini, a consultant who specializes in travel industry concerns.

"Communication from ship to shore," he said, "was technologically awkward and fairly expensive until recently.

"For these reasons, many lines didn't offer much in the way of communications -- and there weren't many complaints from passengers who wanted to get away from it all," Mancini added.

But that is changing because, as technology progresses, people are being conditioned to keep in touch with the rest of the world.

"So many people enjoy that, while others want to escape it." The former, according to Mancini, will be sure to seek out the variety of business equipment on board -- from phones, fax machines, computers and e-mail, to conference rooms and language translation facilities.

"The bottom line," Mancini added, "is that if you would be at a loss without constant communications, it is available on a cruise ship."

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