9 Things a Luxury Cruise Taught Me About Event Planning by @ProjectMaven

Note: I wrote this post just before the tragedy of the Costa Concordia began to unfold on January 13th. I decided it would be best to delay publishing of the piece, out of respect for all the people involved and the extreme nature of the situation. While my heart goes out to the survivors and all of the affected families, I continue to support the exemplary hospitality and technical innovation exhibited aboard the world’s finest cruise ships, and their ongoing significance to the international travel and tourism industry. -Deborah Pannell

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Last November, I was invited to go on my first cruise – an experience in luxury that I will never forget. If you’ve never been on a cruise, then imagine a Las Vegas resort hotel… on water. As a guest on the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, I was treated to what seemed like endless food, entertainment, and leisure time options. I also received a concentrated lesson in the art of hospitality and yes, a few insights about event planning.

Here’s the way a cruise works. You pay in advance for your lodging and your basic food and entertainment. Alcoholic beverages and fancy coffee drinks like cappuccino are extra, as are the offerings from a variety of specialty restaurants and other food establishments, spas, casinos and off ship activities such as guided tours and excursions. It is possible to enjoy the experience at a variety of levels, with a great range in monetary output. In other words, if you grab at every colorful frozen drink that is offered to you as you’re lounging on the sundeck, you’re going to feel it when you sign for the final bill.

I couldn’t help viewing my time on and off the ship through the lens of an event professional. Here are a few key observations that made a serious impression on me:

1) Choices – The level of choices on the ship was impressive. Meals were an especially option-filled time. From the bountiful buffet offerings at breakfast and lunch to the unlimited menu options at dinner time, we just plain pigged out. Multiple appetizers, main courses? Sure… Can’t make up your mind about dessert? Try a few… And did I mention the pizzeria on the main deck that was open about 18 hours a day? Slices on demand, at no extra cost.

Um, that’s it. No great lesson here. Just unlimited food. I was in heaven. And the pizza thing kind of took it to a whole other level.

The main deck of the Allure Of the Seas, featuring the awesome Sorrento's pizza...
The main deck of the Allure Of the Seas, featuring the awesome Sorrento’s pizza…
The main deck of the Allure Of the Seas, featuring the awesome Sorrento’s pizza…

2) High Tech ID/Reservation Technology – The tracking system employed to keep over 5000 guests flowing effortlessly to our variously scheduled evening activities was seamlessly integrated with our Sea Passes (ID Cards – also used as room keys and for all on-board purchases). At each event our cards were scanned by handheld, wireless devices – the same system used to make sure that every single passenger reported back to the ship after spending the day on a shore-side excursion. Security, scheduling and onboard purchasing, all handled by one integrated system. Marvelous.

If you want to have a successful event as well as a profitable aftermath, then you want to know who is attending and be able to easily follow up with your participants, or even market to them. In addition, a seamlessly integrated system of payment streamlines sales or donations and maximizes profitability.

3) Really Cool Digital Photo Technology – The minute you step on the ship, you are directed to have your picture taken. Your image is correlated with your personal information from your Sea Pass. From then on, your picture will be taken at least a dozen more times. Via sophisticated image recognition technology, each of these subsequent photos of you will be directed into your account. At the end of your onboard stay, you will have the opportunity to peruse the album of pictures documenting your trip and of course purchase your keepsake portraits.

I just thought this was the coolest thing ever. Having never seen it before, I thought it was real sci-fi stuff. I have no idea how available this technology is, nor how expensive, but I can definitely see it being used at conferences or other large events such as trade shows, both as a way to sell photos, as well as a method of networking participants, by identifying and following up on the relationships they develop over the course of the proceedings.

4) Total Immersion in New Environments – With 18 decks, seven specially themed areas and numerous bars, eateries, lounges, pavilions, activity areas and cozy corners spread throughout the ship, guests have countless opportunities for entertainment and escape by completely immersing themselves in something new.

Oh what the hell, it was just completely over the top. What can I tell you? It was like Disneyland at sea – on steroids. It was relentless. By day five I was like, really? More fun? More food? Uncle, Uncle I tell you!!

5) High Production Values – Every evening we saw a different show. One night it was the Broadway hit, Chicago. Another night it was an ice show. The next night we heard a fantastic acapella group called Mosaic, then there was a comedy show, the aqua show (complete with high divers), and a not-too-great review of popular songs that all managed to sound like muzak, choreographed to something that looked like Avatar, with arbitrary, apparently obligatory trapeze work… OK, only one dog of a show amongst a week of winners – not bad. Overall, the combination of world class talent coupled with state-of-the-art technology made for some of incredibly enjoyable performances.

Once again, variety was paramount, but even more important was the use of the best technological tools to enhance already good work. The lighting and sound were top notch, video was integrated seamlessly into several of the shows, and the aquatic theater was truly breathtaking. However, when the substance of the entertainment stumbled, the latest tech advances came across as empty gimmicks. Make sure your content matches the integrity of the tools you use to deliver it, or your entire presentation will fall flat and be rendered a dismal failure.

6) Down Time – Inevitably, the danger of over-stimulation exists. With so many activities available at any given moment, I found it important – no, essential, to include some quiet time for unwinding and relaxing. Sometimes it was nice to just hang out on the balcony of our cabin and watch the ship move through the water. One evening, we found a deserted corner of an upper deck and took a leisurely nap on a big lounger under the stars with a cool breeze dancing on our faces.

Every event requires resting points for your guests or participants. Conferences and meetings should have down time booked in for reflection or casual conversation. The wildest dance parties need a lounge area where people can get off their feet for a few minutes and relax with a drink. Balance is essential to the success of every impactful event!

7) Scheduling and Order – With so many moving parts, the need for strict scheduling and order is pretty obvious, hence the expression, “running a tight ship.” Within the constraints of a well functioning itinerary, there are many pleasures to be enjoyed, but only if everyone behind the scenes stays on point. Good staffing and management is key.

We all love to have a good time, and no one particularly wants to feel like part of a herd of sheep. However, any good event planner will tell you that a well thought out itinerary and a solid production plan are both key to creating the space where seemingly effortless enjoyment can take place. This goes for everything from business conferences and trade shows to cocktail parties and performances.

8 ) Building New Relationships – One particularly delightful element of being on a cruise is the interactions you have with people from many different parts of the world. I was part of a loose group that all booked our trips through the same travel agency, so I ended up meeting a number of folks from the New York area. However, over the course of our time on board the ship, I also got to know people from various other parts of the US, Australia, and England.

Meeting new people and broadening our horizons is the spice of life. Part of holding an event any larger than an intimate house party is providing the opportunity for people to develop new relationships. Keep this in mind regardless of what type of event you are planning, and make the space for this to happen!

9) The Off-Ship Experience, Tourism and Global Responsibility – Most cruises include one or more stops in different ports of call. My cruise included visits to Jamaica, Mexico and a small, private island, run by the cruise ship company just off the coast of Haiti, called Labadee. I had a bit of concern over paying a visit to a luxury location in Haiti, particularly after the devastation of that still struggling nation during the earthquake nearly two years earlier. It somehow felt too decadent, almost obscene, and I was extremely conflicted over how to handle it.

For our Labadee island excursion, we decided to go on a historical walking tour and learn more about the country. I was so glad I did. Not only did we receive a thorough political history of the region from our tour guide, a life long Haitian resident, as well as a brief tutorial on local herbal medicinal remedies, but I learned about the economic benefits of the cruise ship’s presence on that island to the Haitians who found employment there, as well as on the ships.

As a way of making personal sense of the huge economic disparity between those who can afford to visit other countries for fun and those residents who may be struggling just to get by, I decided that contributing to the local tourist industry was not enough for me. While in Haiti, one of the other guests on the tour asked our guide how outsiders could help in the continuing earthquake recovery effort. He replied to just come down and help. In addition to larger, more well known groups, he explained how small church groups and other organizations have made it their business to pitch in, on the ground, restoring buildings and playgrounds, and helping to provide other much needed resources and services.

This is a huge topic, and I couldn’t hope to do it justice here, but the short story is that because of my trip, I was inspired to support a charity started by another woman from the events world, called My Neighbor’s Children. In fact, I hope to visit Haiti again this year, this time not as a tourist, but as a volunteer.

There are many ways to incorporate charitable interests with your meetings and events. Sometimes, partnering with a charity can facilitate outreach on your own event, while events specifically dedicated to fundraising can help build goodwill for your brand even as you make a tangible contribution to a worthy cause. Sounds to me like this would be a worthy subject for a future post…

Photos by Deborah Pannell


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