Groups booking cruise incentives are increasingly seeking cultural immersion and meaningful connections with the destinations they visit, and cruise lines are delivering with innovative new ships and unique culinary experiences.
Atlas Ocean Voyages has announced World Voyager, the third vessel in the line’s Explorer Class expedition fleet, which is set to join the brand in November 2023. The 198-guest expedition yacht, sister ship to World Traveller and World Navigator, will begin its inaugural deployment for the 2023/24 Antarctica season. The Polar Category C- and Ice Class 1B-certified vessel features two Rolls Royce 9,000 kw hybrid diesel/electric engines and incorporates 3D forward-looking sonar (FLS) technology to detect underwater hazards, obstacles and shallows. The state-of-the-art system enables the ship to navigate ice fields, harbors and rivers for convenient access to city-centers, exclusive yacht harbors and rarely visited destinations. Future vessels will include World Seeker, scheduled to join the fleet in late 2024, plus World Adventurer and World Discoverer, expected to arrive in 2026.
“Atlas menus draw inspiration from the destinations we visit. Our chefs also balance freshly prepared proteins with plant-based superfoods, smoked vegetables, prime meats, homemade soups and more,” says Robert Cao, sr. director, charters & MICE, Atlas Ocean Voyages. “Organizations chartering an Atlas yacht can deliver a unique personalized dining experience, starting with the ability to accommodate all guests in the Main Dining room at once, providing ease and convenience and no need for multiple or pre-assigned seatings, offering a more relaxed experience.”
A complimentary dining concept for charter guests is the Josper Grill Dining Experience, offered at 7-AFT Grill. The line’s poolside chophouse features a one-of-a-kind shipboard cooking style called “Jospering”—a grilling technique that originated in Spain in 1969 and is now popular in charcoal gastronomy. Josper-grilled steaks may include Black Angus filet mignon, New York strip, 35-ounce T-bone, or 35-ounce tomahawk ribeye.
“In addition to visiting remote, polar destinations such as Antarctica and the Arctic, the line offers new Epicurean Expeditions to iconic European marquee ports,” says Cao. “We specialize in expeditions that provide insights, indulge the senses and inspire discussion among like-minded travelers. With the addition of our new Epicurean Expeditions, discerning explorers can now truly immerse themselves in the culinary culture of European ports while cruising aboard a luxury yacht.”
Opportunities for onboard enrichment during Epicurean Expeditions include a Visiting Vintner, who may conduct a lecture and tasting to explain the subtleties of regional wines. Every expedition will also include a Gastronomic Guest, who could be a renowned chef with a long history of cooking at Michelin-starred venues or a local culinary expert skilled in preparing authentic, regional delicacies. As well as demonstrations and interactive cooking classes, the Gastronomic Guest and the ship’s executive or sous chef will participate in the Yachtsman Cookoff—the Atlas version of a culinary “Ironman” competition. They will also accompany all culinary-focused Cultural Immersion shore excursions, which are complimentary on every Epicurean Expedition. Depending on the itinerary, guests might sample tapas in Barcelona, explore a farmer’s market in Corsica or shop for chocolates and wine in Cinque Terre.
“Charter clients continue to look for a high-end experience that can be customized all around—each group has a different interest and preference, from off-the-beaten-path destinations to the length of the voyage and personalized onboard experiences,” says Cao.
Celebrity’s newest ship will be the Celebrity Ascent, the fourth ship in the cruise line’s Edge series, set to debut in November 2023. The ship will have capacity for 3,260 passengers at double occupancy, and will make its maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Dec. 3, 2023 calling at ports in the Caribbean. Celebrity Ascent will incorporate popular features from the other Edge series ships, such as the Rooftop Garden, offering live music and al fresco dining; a sprawling Resort Deck, with a main pool and two martini-glass-shaped hot tubs; and the Magic Carpet, a cantilevered lounge and gathering space at sea offering unobstructed panoramic views.
“We have incredible culinary demos with our chefs that we make private for corporations and they absolutely love them,” says Ron Gulaskey, AVP, global corporate, incentive & charter sales, Celebrity Cruises. “We offer specialty restaurant buy-outs for exclusive VIP experiences for group attendees. On Edge ships, this might look like a full buy-out of the floor-to-ceiling window-donned Eden Bar and Restaurant with a lively open kitchen and a global-inspired menu. Smaller groups looking for a fine dining experience could enjoy Le Voyage, acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud’s only restaurant at sea currently on Celebrity Beyond (and coming to Celebrity Ascent), or a dynamic immersive dinner experience at Le Petit Chef.”
Celebrity’s All Included pricing allows corporate groups to book cost-contained events that include all drinks, WiFi, AV equipment, meeting space, meals and entertainment. As well as corporate groups sailing, the cruise line also offers full ship charters where companies can purchase the entire ship for a private event, as well as individual incentive certificates where a company can reward an employee, vendor or distributor with a balcony room for two that includes tips, beverages and WiFi.
“With more companies having remote employees, getting people together has never been more valuable. With a Celebrity cruise, all the employees stay together during the day and in the evening,” says Gulaskey. “At hotels and resorts, companies lose the audience when nighttime rolls around. Some attendees go to the hotel bar, others take off in Ubers and rental cars seeking other entertainment, and you lose the teambuilding and bonding that happens on our ships. Onboard Celebrity Cruises, we could help you plan a nighttime gathering from dance parties to nightcaps.”
Summer 2023 will see the debut of Seabourn Pursuit, the cruise line’s seventh vessel and second purpose-built expedition ship, following the launch of Seabourn Venture, which has now entered its second expedition season. Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit both meet PC6 Polar Class standards, and are equipped with custom-built submarines, Zodiacs, kayaks and an expert expedition team to immerse and educate guests. Both ships also feature next-generation WiFi connectivity with SpaceX’s Starlink, allowing guests to stay connected as they explore some of the most remote destinations in the world.
“Our culinary team loves creating unforgettable experiences for MICE groups,” says Pierre van Breda, deputy director, global charter, incentive and group sales, Seabourn. “We can arrange cooking demonstrations, group dining with custom menus, and cocktail events featuring creative and delicious hors d’oeuvres. Devoted to the art of fine dining, we are proud members of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious gastronomic society, and our award-winning cuisine uses the finest quality ingredients infused with authentic regional flavors. Additionally, Seabourn’s culinary partnership with chef Thomas Keller ensures a world-class dining experience that complements the elegance of a Seabourn voyage.”
Seabourn’s Conversations program offers an opportunity for guests to engage with experts in various fields—including renowned chefs and wine experts. On select sailings, Michelin star chef Robert Thompson will offer a live cooking demonstration and a guest chef dinner menu in the Colonnade. During a voyage on Seabourn Encore from Istanbul, The World Wine Guys and wine critic Will Lyons will entertain guests with talks, tastings and pairing advice.
“We’re finding that MICE groups who work with us are placing a higher emphasis on providing attendees with quality time to explore the immersive destinations on our unique voyages,” says Van Breda. “They’re seeking a balance between completing business objectives and creating meaningful connections with the places visited, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the destinations. Therefore, planners are seeking unique itineraries and experiences in ports that go beyond popular tourist destinations to provide rewarding and educational experiences.”
Oceania debuted the Oceania Vista this year, the first ship of its new Allura Class, and its sister ship Oceania Allura is set to debut in 2025. The Allura will be the cruise line’s eighth ship and is currently under construction at the Fincantieri yard in Italy. Like the Vista, the new ship will offer 613 staterooms with capacity for 1,200 passengers, and will feature 12 dining options, of which four will be fleet-first concepts.
“The Culinary Center on our Allura ships has tripled in size, giving groups the opportunity to test their skills in the kitchen with a variety of expertly led, hands-on cooking classes featuring ingredients and techniques from ports our ships call on,” says Nikki F. Upshaw, sr. VP, global sales, Oceania Cruises. “We can also offer a private cocktail reception in Horizons and, for smaller groups, private dining rooms such as La Reserve on board Marina and Rivera and private spaces in Toscana and Polo Grill.”
Dining options aboard the Allura include Ember Restaurant, designed to resemble a French Bistro, and offering menu items such as braised short beef ribs with creamy Parmesan polenta and grilled swordfish steak with seasoned asparagus; pan-Asian specialty restaurant Red Ginger, which offers a 5-course tasting menu with items including spicy roast duck, beef rendang and Thai sweet potato curry; and Toscana, offering traditional Italian cuisine such as octopus/truffle carpaccio with Champagne vinaigrette and artichoke-Parmesan timbale with black truffle sauce.
“Research shows that MICE groups are now valuing experiences more than ever before,” says Upshaw. “We’ve taken this to heart and have reimagined what it means to host a group with us. When working with Oceania Cruises, our team works hand-in-hand with the client to understand the goals of the group and to create a unique, one-of-a-kind, immersive experience both on and off the ship. That may mean booking a private cooking class in our Culinary Center to make delicious recipes amongst your colleagues or having a private reception with tailor-made cocktails to celebrate a company’s achievements. Off the ship, we work with our local tour operators to create private and custom shore excursions tailored to the group’s needs. That may be customizing a private adventure in Malta for a day of exploration or a more adventurous excursion in Cozumel on high-speed boats. No matter what the group is looking to accomplish, we work together to best suit their needs.”
Royal Caribbean International will be launching two new ships in 2024. The Icon of the Seas will debut in January 2024, followed closely by Utopia of the Seas, the newest Oasis Class ship that is due to arrive summer 2024. Both ships will have dedicated conference centers equipped with top-of-the-line AV equipment and dedicated Group Coordinators available to ensure the MICE programs go according to plan.
“We recently revealed the new, reimagined and truly iconic dining experiences on the upcoming Icon of the Seas when she launches in January 2024,” says Craig Jarrett, director, global corporate, incentive, charter sales & operations, Royal Caribbean International. “From quick bites to elegantly curated menus to dinner shows and everything in between, this new ship will offer delicious options for all types of travelers and their widely varied dining tastes. From restaurants to walkup windows, casual to upscale, live music to chefs who put on a show, the first-of-its-kind combination of the best of every vacation will feature options for every occasion and mood.”
Icon of the Seas will feature more than 20 dining venues, including both signature options that are familiar fleet-wide as well as new, first-ever-for-the-line innovative options. New offerings include the Empire Supper Club, offering an upscale 8-course experience; AquaDome Market, Royal Caribbean’s first food hall; and Izumi in the Park, an all-day window serving fresh sushi and more.
“We are finding that our MICE groups are asking for exciting itineraries and are traveling to more international destinations than they did in previous years,” says Jarrett. “Royal Caribbean International offers a variety of itineraries that provide MICE groups the opportunity to capitalize on this growing interest with the ability to sail to destinations all over the world like Europe and Alaska for incentive travel and shorter sailings to the Caribbean that are perfect for meetings, conferences and events.”
“It’s been an exciting year for Virgin Voyages, and we just launched Resilient Lady last month from Athens,” says Kelly Popovski, sr. manager, charters & groups, Virgin Voyages. “After her inaugural season in Greece and the Eastern Med this summer, she’ll embark on a 44-night repositioning voyage to some of the most incredible ports including Cairo, Bali, Singapore and Mumbai. Once Down Under, Resilient Lady will embark on her MerMaiden voyage on Dec. 11. Also in the pipeline is Brilliant Lady, our fourth Lady Ship, making her debut soon.”
Virgin Voyages’ culinary program includes more than 20 dining experiences, including six signature restaurants that were created alongside Michelin-starred chefs. Groups can participate in a mix of hands-on and demo-style activities, such as sushi-making class Rice Rice Baby or a Greek-inspired Opa Hour, as well as limited-time experiences offered during the line’s Eat & Drink Festival. A new group outing aboard Resilient Lady is Another Rose, part of the line’s Supper Club series in The Manor. Created and produced by Randy Weiner (of Sleep No More and Queen of the Night), this dinner show is equal parts cabaret, multi-course dinner and theater spectacle. Also new for 2023 on Resilient Lady is Razzle Dazzle by Night, a new menu created alongside Food Network’s chef Eric Kim Haugen.
“We have several incredible new itineraries that will be announced soon that hopefully MICE groups will love,” says Popovski. “We’re also adding new Shore Things to many of our Caribbean destinations and can work with planners to arrange private group tours in any port. As tastes and trends emerge, so do the experiences that MICE groups are seeking. We’re seeing continued demand for authentic experiences that speak to each of our destinations along with sustainable tours that make a positive impact on the community. MICE groups want memorable, signature dining experiences that are included in the voyage fare. They also want to be able to fully customize their itinerary. Our team can work to curate the experience from start to finish.”
celebritycruises.com/groups-and-events/meetings; seabourn.com/en_US/charters.html; oceaniacruises.com/charters-meetings-incentives; atlasoceanvoyages.com/meetings-incentives-charters-events; royalcaribbeanincentives.com; virginvoyages.com/charters-incentives