Chartering entire ships for either corporate incentive travel or affinity groups has long been the realm of corporate travel managers or third-party practitioners. In most cases, if a company is looking to charter a ship, it will turn to the people in charge of that company's travel program. In other cases, a company may seek out a third party whose specialty is chartering full ships.
Needless to say, the incentive travel market has exploded over the past five or so years as employers find new incentives for their employees. While companies have traditionally looked to practitioners who specialize in booking ships, many cruise lines that deal in chartering ships are seeing a growth of incentive travel in distribution with traditional sellers or travel agents. Like today's vacationing clientele, corporations are becoming more savvy and looking elsewhere for travel support. Sometimes they may not require full services and may use a local agent to keep costs down.
That said, chartering an entire ship takes expertise: It's not just about giving someone a great cruise; it's about giving many people a great cruise and, many times, meeting a business objective.
As an agent, chartering a cruise ship for a large group or company can be a windfall; however, it's notable that most times payment is received not from the cruise line but from the group. Instead of receiving a commission, agents will usually work on a cost-plus basis, wherein they will quote the group a net rate, then make arrangements for services rendered.
Be aware, however, that chartering an entire cruise ship is no light matter. Once a party asks a cruise line to reserve a ship, that ship is taken out of the line's rotation and reserved for the group. Either way, the line is making a significant amount of money. Pricing varies according to itinerary, time of year, when the charter is booked and how many guests are booked and have to be offloaded. That range can be significant.
Many lines can give a price quote to a client within 24 hours after receiving the parameters. Once the charter is reserved, the group or agent is then bound. If the cruise ship can't be filled as promised for whatever reason, the group or agent still has to come up with the money. Although there are great benefits to chartering a ship, there is also more liability. In most cases, whoever books the charter will have to sign an Irrevocable Standby Letter of Credit, which is a piece of paper or a legal promise that the line will be paid the full amount for the ship. Once committed, you are locked in. In other words, don't charter a ship until you are 100 percent sure you can fill it.
When chartering much smaller ships for affinity groups, agents should play up the fact that the ship will cater to most whims, but, most importantly, they will have the run of the ship to use for whatever they desire. That is something a group will not get on a regular cruise. Agents should market toward affinity groups, and add this type of business into the mix. It's a surefire way to boost revenues, and, in most cases, can be as easy as making a booking on a normal cruise.
If you are thinking of chartering a small ship for a group or company, here are some lines you should keep in mind. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. There are many small, sometimes off-the-radar lines that offer charters.
Seabourn Cruises (www.seabourn.com): Seabourn has a mix of luxury ships and says its biggest charter business is corporate incentives; however, the line also does a fair share of special interest cruises catering to organizations and affinity groups. Seabourn does a lot of museum groups, classical music groups, even fund raisers. Its ships—Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Legend and Seabourn Spirit—can all be used for charters and have 104 cabins to fill. Seabourn's charter rates include virtually all costs: luxury accommodations, all meals, alcohol and gratuities, all paid for in U.S. dollars, even for chartering a ship in Europe.
Seabourn's newest ship, Seabourn Odyssey, which debuts in 2010, will also be available for charters. In fact, the company has already confirmed at least one Odyssey charter. The ship will be able to accommodate more passengers, having a total of 225 cabins. The line says most of its charters are for seven days or fewer.
For information on chartering a Seabourn ship, contact Tanya Barnette (773-276-7601; [email protected]), Seabourn's director of charters and business development.
Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com): Silversea does charters, though they do not publicize rates. The luxury line's mix of ships is ideal for charters. The line says its charter clients range from companies looking for meeting venues or employee incentives to governments. For example, the Russian government in 2003 chartered Silver Whisper. The ship was docked on the Neva River for three days as it hosted a gathering of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac. ?
Corporations also charter Silversea ships to utilize the state-of-the-art theaters for multimedia presentations or other unique venues for meetings. Sean Mahoney is Silversea's vice president of worldwide charter and incentive sales, but it's best to contact the charter and incentive team at 800-722-9955.
Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com): Windstar operates three small ships that are perfect for charters. Wind Star and Wind Spirit, each accommodates 148 passengers, while the Wind Surf has space for 312 passengers.
Windstar does its fair share of charters for corporations, but notes that many companies charter the ships, and then resell to a specific amenity group. Windstar has done gay, health, music and family cruises for example.
Although Windstar charters all three ships, the two smaller ships are better for first-time charters. Once an agent is used to filling the smaller ships, he or she might then graduate to Wind Surf.
A majority of Windstar's charter business is booked through incentive agencies, but travel agents are starting to book more. For information, contact Charters Director Sandy Stevens ([email protected]
Variety Cruises (www.varietycruises.com): Variety Cruises operates three different brands—Variety Cruises, Zeus Cruises and Variety Yacht Cruises—totaling 15 small ships. The ships are great for anniversaries, birthday parties, family reunions or special-interest cruises. The ships have accommodations for eight to 80 passengers and charters include complimentary water sports from snorkeling to kayaking. Dave Randon is the vice president of sales and marketing in the U.S., but agents are encouraged to call 800-319-7776 for information on charter and incentive sales.
SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadream.com): SeaDream I and SeaDream II both accommodate only 110 guests, which make the ships perfect for charters. The line charters its two ships for as few as four days to many weeks. A SeaDream Yacht Charter Coordinator will work with you to ensure that the charter goes off without a hitch. For information, contact Kristina Kihlberg (305-631-6124; [email protected]), manager of charters and incentives.
Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com): Star Clippers offers charters throughout the year on its 227-passenger Royal Clipper, and Star Clipper and Star Flyer (170 passengers each). Star Clippers' ships are quite maneuverable because of their size, so almost any itinerary can be planned out. For information, contact Larry Haugh, vice president of sales, at 800-442-0553. —DE