Cruise companies that have won over Asian holidaymakers are moving into the business events space, eager to bring corporate gatherings onboard with targeted messaging and the lure of unique spaces and activities.
It was in 1993 when Asia got its first whiff of a sea cruise industry through the launch of Star Cruises, a business division of the Genting Group â itself an experienced leisure and hospitality operator behind the popular Genting Highlands Resort, now known as Resorts World Genting.
Lankapuri Star Aquarius was the first Star Cruises ship to set sail from Singapore, bound for destinations in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Michael Goh, head of international sales, Genting Cruise Lines, recalled that it was a time âwhen there was virtually no cruise industry in Asia to speak ofâ.
âWe have witnessed the market evolve and, as the region grew more sophisticated in their understanding of the cruise product, we have seen demand in the business events market expand as well,â said Goh.
Other cruise lines soon sailed into the fertile Asian region, providing expanded cruising opportunities for both leisure and business event buyers.
Royal Caribbean International made its Asian foray in December 1995 with the Sun Viking, a small ship serving mainly European and North American cruisers looking for a Far East travel experience. It was only in 2007 that the Rhapsody of the Seas was deployed with the Asian cruiser in mind, offering short cruises that matched with the demographicâs vacation pattern.
Italian cruise line, Costa Cruises, entered Asia 13 years ago, noted Mario Zanetti, president of Costa Group Asia, and right away worked to introduce cruise culture to Asians while conveying an Italian lifestyle and holiday experience through unique partnerships with Juventus for football fans; Bvlgari, Max Mara, Ferragamo and other Italian brands for fashion lovers; local entertainment companies for drama productions; and more.
Evolving meetings, evolving ships
While cruising was once regarded as a vacation option, the evolution of business event needs have created a new market for cruise lines. Long gone are the days when corporate gatherings are limited to the confines of meeting rooms. As meeting attendees seek new ways to be engaged, meeting planners are pushed to deliver memorable events through the use of unique venues, outstanding entertainment and new interaction formats.
And cruise companies are responding with hardware changes to their ships.
Royal Caribbean International today boast an âinnovative fleet that comes with first-at-sea amenities and activities (that) can be converted for multiple uses such as entertainment shows, relaxation or sports activities and corporate eventsâ, noted Mona Foo, head of Sales, Royal Caribbean Cruises (Asia).
Hardware highlights include an ice skating rink; skydiving and surfing simulators; SeaPlex indoor sports space for bumper car rides and basketball; Two70 high-tech entertainment venue, North Star elevated glass capsule; Zip Line, Ultimate Abyss (a 10-storey-high slide; making it the tallest slide at sea); and Central Park. These add dimensions of fun to teambuilding and incentive programmes, and even solemn conferences.
Genting Cruise Linesâs new ships are outfitted with more meeting rooms and larger, flexible events space.
âFor example, our theatre is a flexible venue for a variety of activities. Its high-tech sound system and lighting effects can inject excitement and entertainment into an event,â said Goh.
âAs each of our ships is truly a floating, integrated resort at sea, we provide much more versatility than most land-based event venues, with the added bonus of being able to bring guests to a variety of exciting destinations throughout Asia.â
Zanetti observed that corporate clients are paying greater attention to sustainability, security, return on investment in event spend, among others.
He said: âThese trends are in our favour. In terms of sustainability, the soon-to-launch Costa Smeralda (October 2019 for the European market) is the first cruise ship for the international market to be fuelled 100 per cent by liquefied natural petrol.â
He added that âwhile some cruise companies charge for entertainment and onboard activities, Costa offers a cost/value advantage with its all-inclusive package that includes meals, entertainment, sports facilities, meeting space, audiovisual equipment and accommodationâ.
âFurthermore, authentic Italian hospitality and signature activities like the Venetian Carnival and Italian Night set Costa apart from its competitors,â he said.
Outside of Asia, Costa has seen some unusual corporate charters. Zanetti pointed to the Eastern Economic Forumâs use of Costa neoRomantica and Costa Venezia in 2018 and 2019, respectively, as accommodation for delegates of the annual event in Vladivostok, Russia.
Deeper trade engagement
Marketing communications have changed too, to tackle a different target audience.
Genting Cruise Linesâ sales and marketing efforts are aimed at event and marketing companies, corporate human resource officers and âinternal influencers to introduce the concept of MICE at seaâ, moving beyond a travel agent-only focus, explained Goh.
Foo recalled that the cruise lineâs initial business events tagline, To mix business with pleasure, just add water, has since evolved to todayâs Iconic Ships, Incredible Events to âhighlight its brand distinction more strongly as the cruise line adds larger ships with more unique amenities to its fleetâ.
However, these cruise representatives acknowledged that they still have their work cut out for them in Asia.
Zanetti said: âMany planners are still unfamiliar with cruise ships, the facilities, capabilities, and the cost and value advantages we offer. Education is needed and it will take time before cruise ships become the top choice for them.â
Goh, too, feels that more industry education is needed. He pointed to âmisconception and misinformation on safety, costs and boredomâ as causes of plannersâ resistance.
In hopes of getting planners to âstep out of their comfort zoneâ and try doing things differently, Foo said Royal Caribbean International is positioning its cruises as a âone-stopâ MICE solution that is âgreat value for moneyâ.
Rising above the noise
While having multiple cruise companies singing the same tune about the advantages of MICE cruises can more strongly reinforce the message among planners, that has also made the marketplace rather noisy.
To stand out from the crowd, cruise companies say they are differentiating themselves from competitors with hardware and software.
Royal Caribbean International identified several key initiatives that will position the cruise line as the âleading brand for the most innovative offerings for MICE groups that will appeal to the audience of today and tomorrow,â quipped Foo.
The initiatives include Private Destinations, such as the Perfect Day at CocoCay in The Bahamas which opened in May; Royal Amplification, a programme to revamp 10 ships over four years, to give them new features and services; Digital Innovations, which sees the combination of different technologies to improve the cruising experience; and Project Icon Class, the companyâs first foray into liquid natural gas (LNG) to build new, more efficient vessels that use clean fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
At Genting Cruise Lines, its three cruise brands â Crystal, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises â are clearly defined and its rich expertise, gained from over 25 years of managing cruises and over 50 years of delivering hospitality through Genting Group, is emphasised.
Meanwhile, Costa continues to uphold its unique Italian culture positioning to âset our brand apart from the othersâ, said Zanetti.