All at sea!

Jean Rush reviews the main aspects of cruising for groups in the second of our annual features on travel at sea. There’s never been so much choice or so many great deals.

In spite of the huge growth of the cruise industry, many people are still wary of taking to the sea, and there are many misconceptions for group travel organisers to overcome. Young people think ships are full of old people and there’s nothing in it for them, older people think they will be pestered by children scampering around in a confined space, some people are frightened of motion sickness, others of being compelled to ‘dress up like a penguin’. The truth, of course, is that there is such a huge variety of cruise experiences on offer today, that it is easy to find a cruise to suit any group of people.

The Balmoral

Passengers onboard Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ intimate Bolmoral

With 25 ships, Carnival has the biggest fleet and some of the larger vessels, which are promoted as fun ships and have a party atmosphere. At the other end of the scale are the small luxury ships operated by SeaDream Yacht Club, Regent Seven Seas and others. Small ships have the advantage of being able to visit smaller ports, and it’s worth noting that with six-star luxury ships, everything is included in the price, even shore excursions. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Saga operate more intimate and friendly smaller ships, catering for a largely British clientele and with a well-established reputation for groups. If it’s your first time organising a cruise, take time to find out which lifestyle is best for your group. Some may want to party all night, some may be more interested in a good library and guest speakers on board. Everything is possible.

Having been on many cruises over the years in ships large and small, my personal choice is a family friendly ship with lots of lively things to do, but at the same time with formal nights and sophisticated entertainment. On Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas (one of the largest liners that sails in Europe, carrying 3,600 passengers) cruise to the Mediterranean a few years ago, we coincided with the date when schools in Scotland had just finished their GCSEs and there were hundreds of Scottish teenagers on board with their families. It was wonderful to see so many men in the kilt on formal nights, but parents were complaining that there was so much for their teenage offspring to do that they never saw them! At the other extreme, a Christmas and New Year holiday to the Canaries on Cunard’s Queen Victoria had very few young people on board, but everyone attended the visit of Father Christmas in the atrium on Christmas morning where the young people were each given a lavish gift, after which the adults were allowed their chance of a photo opportunity with Santa. This turned out to be one of our best ever Christmases, with all the traditional trimmings and a wonderful atmosphere. All of today’s cruise ships have excellent stabilisers, and are usually so steady that it can often feel more like being in a hotel than on the ocean.

 

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD

Buffet on Princess

A sumptuous buffet onboard a Princess cruise.

Everyone knows that food on cruises is legendary, but the dining experience has changed a lot recently. Most ships offer silver service restaurant dining, plus a self-service cafeteria, which is normally open 24 hours a day. In addition, many lines such as Carnival now have food outlets around the ship for pizzas, hot dogs and burgers, and an Italian café can be found on the larger Royal Caribbean ships. Cunard tends to be a more formal experience on the whole, with classic afternoon tea served by waiters wearing white gloves. At the same time, the Cunard ships have British style pubs serving ‘pub grub’ at lunchtime and holding quizzes and karaoke in the evenings. Princess Cruises has a delightful Piazza in the centre of the ship, with a patisserie where guests can enjoy a quiche or pastries while watching a range of daytime entertainment. The latest addition to the many mealtime options is anytime dining. It allows guests to have dinner in a special restaurant at any time between about 6 and 10pm – it could be a different time every night. If there isn’t a table at that moment, guests are given a pager, and in my experience it has never been more than 10 minutes or so having a drink in a nearby bar before the pager goes off to say a table is free; this also applies to groups. Princess and Royal Caribbean both offer this option. Those lines that are geared up well for groups, such as MSC Cruises, allow parties to sit together each morning for breakfast, where they always have the same table to use. All the above are usually included in the price of the cruise, but most larger lines now also have speciality restaurants, which make an extra charge.

 

DRESS UP OR DRESS DOWN

Many people worry about how to dress. On nearly all ships, a newsletter is left in cabins every evening giving the programme of events for the following day, including a dress code. The number of formal nights varies according to the line, but there’s usually one on the second night of the cruise for the Captain’s cocktail party, and one on the penultimate night, which is often called the Captain’s dinner. Other nights will be either formal, informal or smart casual. Many people still like to have a chance to dress up for a special occasion; it is an ideal opportunity to bring out black tie and bling. But for those who don’t want to, there is no obligation. The restaurants expect diners to stick to the dress code (although they seldom enforce it), but for those who don’t like dressing up, there is always a sumptuous buffet in the cafeteria. In the evening, it is usual to see people wandering about the ship in all kinds of outfits from sequins to jeans, and on the ships that are advertised as informal there are no black tie nights at all. Cunard, Celebrity and Princess are examples of the more formal lines, giving a dress code for every night, but often lounge suits are acceptable as formal wear. Black tie nights do give a chance for people to get dressed up and have their photographs taken though. Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line are amongst those that promote themselves as more informal lines.

 

ENTERTAINMENT GALORE 

Cirque Dreams & Dinner

Norwegian Cruise Line’s ‘Cirque Dreams and Dinner’.

Daytime entertainment in warm weather usually centres round the pools, where there is all sorts of fun and games for those who want it, while those who don’t are usually catered for with an adults-only pool. Indoors there’s a wealth of things to do, from dance and fitness classes to port lectures and a well equipped gym. Everything from bingo to ukulele classes cater for every taste. One thing is for sure, nobody could ever be bored. On the newer Celebrity Cruises ships, for instance, the top deck is covered by a lawn of real grass, and it is a surreal experience to sit watching a game of croquet with the ocean in the background. Clubs for children and teenagers offer all sorts of well supervised entertainment throughout the day, and in the evenings there’s usually so much happening it is difficult to choose. An ice rink where you can skate during the daytime and enjoy lavish ice shows in the evening is a big attraction on the larger Royal Caribbean ships, plus a wide variety of water sports and deck activities. Newer ships in general, such as those in the MSC Cruises fleet, have a theatre in the forward section of the ship, and the restaurants aft, so after dinner it is great to stroll the length of the ship to see a production show or guest star performing. There is also the show lounge, with alternative entertainment from singers, musicians or comedians on the larger ships. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, offers a ‘Cirque Dreams & Dinner’ on board its largest ship, the 4,200 passenger-Norwegian Epic, as the first show of its kind at sea under a Big Top. All the entertainment is free as part of the cruise package.

 

DESTINATIONS WORLDWIDE

Geyser in Hawaii

Hawaii, a popular cruise option.

As cruising becomes more and more popular, new destinations are being brought into the programmes of most cruise lines. These range from short taster cruises to nearby European ports to world cruises lasting several months. It is also now possible to take just a segment of a world cruise, flying one way. Fly cruises are becoming more and more popular, and for an unforgettable experience, it is hard to beat a cruise of the wonderful Hawaiian islands, sailing from Los Angeles. A favourite destination nearer to home is the Canaries, where one can be more or less sure of warmth and sunshine in the winter months, and some lines such as Fred. Olsen are now extending these to take in the Cape Verde islands even further south. In the opposite direction, cruising to the top of the world to Spitsbergen in Norway, you can meet people who live as near as it is possible to get to the North Pole with lines such as Hurtigruten. In Alaska, you can cruise past glaciers in mid-summer, and in the Mediterranean you can see the most wonderful cities in the world, the most beautiful to my mind being Venice. In some ports, the ship is anchored and passengers are taken ashore by tender. Once on dry land, coaches are lined up on the quayside to take passengers on excursions, and for those who prefer to do their own thing, there are shuttle buses into the nearest town, often free but sometimes for a small charge. In the European cities such as Barcelona, Naples, Lisbon or Dublin, it’s possible to take a municipal sightseeing bus, excellent value for money.

 

GEARED UP FOR GROUPS

Some cruise lines are better than others in the way they deal with groups. Generally, the sector is getting much more savy at understanding that groups have different needs to individuals, and therefore need to be processed in a more structured way, with brands such as Fred. Olsen and Saga having catered well for GTOs for some years. Others still have a lot to learn, either treating groups as an extension of their corporate and incentive clients, or having no policy in place at all.

Others that do have a coherent groups policy include Norwegian Cruise Line, which is investing heavily in the groups market in response to the rise of multi-generational families coming on board. Norwegian, which has a fleet of 11 ‘freestyle’ cruise ships, offers one free berth when eight staterooms are booked. It also allocates points when groups are booked, the points being based on the length of the cruise. The points can be redeemed for the group in the form of cocktails or onboard spend, which can be used towards spa treatments or speciality dining. There is also a specialist sales team to deal with group bookings.

Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV) offers groups a more traditional style of cruising aboard smaller vessels, only 800 passengers aboard Marco Polo and 700 aboard Discovery (replacing the Ocean Countess). The repositioning of Voyages of Discovery’s popular 700-passenger cruise ship Discovery to the CMV fleet in late February 2013, following an extensive winter dry docking and refurbishment programme, is part of a new strategic business partnership with All Leisure Holidays. Cruises for groups are marketed in the UK through South Quay Travel & Leisure, a company which specialises in group travel and can offer some of the lowest fares and flexible payment conditions.

MSC Cruises’ groups policy offers excellent benefits onboard its fleet, which will number 13 with the introduction of MSC Preziosa in 2013. There are three classses of ship, ‘Lirica’, ‘Musica’ and ‘Fantasia’, and group options include complimentary places for group organisers, private cocktail parties, excursions and casino parties.

Cunard has been developing a new policy specifically to cover groups. There is the opportunity to earn tour escort places (free cabins) dependent on numbers in the group, broadly 1 in 20 cabins is free, with a maximum of three free cabins per group. Group members are also offered free onboard spending money according to the voyage duration, ranging from $15 per person for a two to six-night cruise to $75 per person for 12 nights or more. This group offer has just been launched, as the line recognises the opportunity for group sales and has developed the programme to take advantage of it. There is no dedicated groups team, but the reservation team has been trained to deal with groups.

Luxury operator Regent Seven Seas, which operates the Seven Seas Voyager, Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Navigator, also tell us that they have a popular groups points scheme that includes onboard credit, prices off cruise-only fares and cocktail parties.

 

CRUISE LINE IN FOCUS: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines 

The deck of the Balmoral.

Winners of the Group Travel Awards 2012 as ‘Best Cruise Line Operator’, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ team booked 27 groups direct in 2011. The specialist team look after group bookings from the first enquiry right through to the end of the trip. They are very proud of the personalised service they are able to offer to group travel organisers, which is reflected in the company ethos of ‘It’s all about the people’. They provide tailor made quotations to suit individual group requirements, and are also able to offer visits to the ships in UK ports, so that GTOs can see what the company can offer at first hand. Fred. Olsen is able to offer groups a range of benefits for booking aboard its four traditional, more intimate cruise ships, Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch, which carry from 800 to 1300 passengers between them. Group leaders travel free when booking 20 or more guests, and there are no limits on the free places they can earn, so for 40 guests or more they will receive two free places, and so on. Other benefits include a ‘Welcome Aboard’ drinks party, preferential group dining, free coach transfers to and from the port, or free parking, and exclusive use of some onboard facilities. There is group disembarkation for parties travelling by coach, and personalised promotional material is provided. Fred. Olsen can also provide exclusive shore excursions if required.

The Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines’ 2013/2014 Worldwide Cruises brochure offers a huge range of cruises to exciting destinations. Most of the cruises depart from UK ports, currently from Dover, Southampton, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Greenock and Rosyth. From 2013 additional departure ports will be Liverpool, Harwich and Belfast. This means that from next year, 90% of the UK population will be within a 90-minute radius of a Fred.Olsen cruise!

 

CRUISE LINE IN FOCUS: Saga Cruises 

Saga Sapphire

The Saga Sapphire.

Saga Cruises has invested well over £100 million in its fleet in the last few years, and continues to look for opportunities to expand and improve its classic cruise experience. Its three ships, Saga Sapphire, Saga Ruby and Quest for Adventure, which carry between 446 and 706 passengers, sail to a range of destinations from the British Isles to Africa. The company’s price promise and door-to-shore travel service is included in the price of every cruise. The travel service consists of return travel taking customers from their homes to the ship or airport, either by chauffeur service (up to 250 miles from the port or airport), rail or coach, parking for those who prefer to drive themselves, or a domestic UK flight to Southampton or Gatwick for Dover departures and Gatwick or Heathrow for fly cruises. In addition to this, inclusive executive coach travel to and from the port is offered for ocean cruises for groups of 20 or more. Groups are also offered a generous one free place in 10 on all cruises. The price promise means that if Saga reduces the price of a holiday once it has been confirmed, the value of the saving will automatically be passed on to customers, meaning that early bookers never miss out. Saga has a dedicated groups team, who look after every booking throughout the process.

The last cruise ship built in the UK, the Saga Ruby, will be retired from the fleet at the beginning of 2014. Built in 1973 at Jarrow Shipyard on Tyneside, she has been a firm favourite with Saga cruisers. She will celebrate her 40th (Ruby) anniversary with one final round the world cruise, departing on 7th January 2013, as well as cruising to many of the ports she has visited throughout her long service, giving her fans plenty of chance to say farewell. Quest for Adventure will revert to her former livery as Saga Pearl II after her published cruise calendar is completed in November 2013.

 

NEW SHIPS AND SAILINGS 

There are a number of new ships and sailings on the horizon to look out for. Soon to be added to the Princess fleet are the Royal Princess in 2013 and Regal Princess in 2014, both able to carry 3,600 passengers.

Norwegian Cruise Line has two 4,000 passenger ships on order, Norwegian Breakaway for delivery in April 2013 and Norwegian Getaway for delivery in April 2014. Norwegian Breakaway in particular will bring Broadway to the high seas with three big production shows: the long running Broadway hit Rock of Ages, the ballroom hit Burn the Floor and ‘Cirque Dreams & Dinner’.

There are new sailings in 2013 and 2014 from Bristol Avonmouth and Harwich with Cruise and Maritime Voyages plus new for 2013 with Cunard will be 13 two-night sampler sailings, 12 of them between Southampton and Hamburg aboard the iconic Queen Mary 2 and one on the most recent addition to the fleet, Queen Elizabeth. Also new for 2013 will be two eight-night Transatlantic sailings with a whole extra day for passengers to make the most of the ship’s facilities. On the 2nd September crossing to New York, celebrated British conductor Anthony Inglis, supported by the National Symphony Orchestra, will coach a choir of volunteer passengers up to performance standard. I was on the very first of these special cruises, in 2009, and sang in the choir. To rehearse and perform in the Last Night of the Cunard Proms was an experience of a lifetime.

 

FOCUS ON: Cruise for Groups 

While the all-inclusive nature of cruise holidays offers a great solution for GTOs, there are still barriers preventing groups getting the most out of them – including the paperwork associated with the booking.

Steve Plummer set up Wiltshire-based group cruise specialist Cruise for Groups after extensive experience working for Norwegian Cruise Line. It acts as a one-stop shop for group cruise bookings with the aim of getting the best deal for groups – and to get rid of the paperwork associated with a booking. “A GTO will book with us in the same way as they would for a coach trip,” he explains. The business works directly with all major cruise providers, including MSC and Norwegian Cruise Line, and Steve is able to secure substantial reductions on the price of a cruise, without needing a minimum group size. On top of that, Cruise for Groups will look at ways of including added extras that enhance the holiday experience. Steve says, “These include onboard cocktail parties on some cruises and for those coming from afar to their departure port, Cruise for Groups will throw in an overnight stay at a nearby hotel as part of the package. We create a package that you can’t get from the cruise companies.”

Another major barrier to cruising, says Steve, is that an unfavourable cruise experience or a misconception of cruising can put GTOs off offering a cruise to their groups. “You can get groups of 1,000 members that are not offered cruises because the GTOs don’t cruise themselves,” Steve explains. “There is so much choice – and it can often be cheaper than going on a normal European holiday.” He continues, “Using a cruise specialist gives the organiser more confidence as they offer impartial and expert advice on the cruise partners and services available, plus strive to offer a better service to the GTO.”

 

FOCUS ON: Go Cruise 

Martin Hay

Go Cruise’s Martin Hay

When ocean and river operators don’t understand the needs of groups, or don’t have the resources to dedicate to their own groups department, they will often work with specialist cruise agents, who act on behalf of the GTO to organise a cruise for their group, taking the stress away from the process.

Go Cruise is a network of some 40 independent cruise specialists spread all across the UK and all working from home. The company is in turn part of Fred. Olsen Travel and a sister company to Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, both of whom are part of the wider and still family-controlled Fred. Olsen Group of companies.

Martin Hay is Go Cruise’s only ocean and river cruise specialist specifically dealing with the groups market, and he works from his home in the delightful Ribble Valley in East Lancashire. He says, “Being an owner/operator, I am in the rare and fortunate position that no one tells me what I can and cannot sell and no one sets any targets that I must meet. I am unique amongst my colleagues at Go Cruise in that I have a real understanding of the very different needs of GTOs and I am delighted to be a member of the Northern Branch committee of the Group Travel Organisers Association.”

Martin’s experience of ocean and river cruising dates back over 20 years, during which time he has taken some 35 ocean and river cruise holidays with a great many well known operators like P&O, Cunard, Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Fred. Olsen and Norwegian Cruise Line. “Others such as Hurtigruten, Holland America Line, Oceana Cruises, Avalon and Ama Waterways are less well known but are as good if not better,” he comments.

Where Martin has not actually sailed with a particular operator, you often find he has taken the opportunity to visit their vessels so can advise GTOs of exactly what sort of cruise would suit their needs. He has experienced the ships of operators such as Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Msc, Voyages of Discover, Viking, Shearings, The River Cruise Line, Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas.

Group cruise specialists can provide an important and personal service to group organisers looking to organise an ocean or river cruise, something Martin understands. “I believe passionately in the need to establish long term relationships with clients based on openness, honesty and trust. Genuinely placing the interests of clients at least on a par with, if not exceeding, my own in the short term is the key to establishing, maintaining and developing long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with clients. They will then trust me to provide the best deal I can and take responsibility for all the arrangements.”

Martin has in fact produced two short guides specially written for GTOs on the joys and benefits of arranging an ocean or river cruise for groups – they are free and available on request.

 

GROUP GOSSIP: Special on Cruising

Jenny Barling

Jenny Barling.

Jenny Barling, GTO for Jay Bee Travel in Kent writes about her first group crusing experience.

“After watching Joanna Lumley on television a few years ago as she witnessed one of natures most magical spectacles, it became a dream that I too one day might be fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights. I didn’t realise though that when I responded to an invitation, I had taken the first step to making that dream come true. The invitation came from Martin Hay of Lancashire-based Go Cruise to accompany him on the inaugural sailing of Norwegian Cruise Line’s latest ship, the Norwegian Epic. We had undertaken several river cruises with our group but were unsure whether we ourselves and indeed our group would like a fully fledged sea cruise. This seemed a good opportunity to test the water. It was during this 24-hour trip with Martin that we learned of the various types of cruising available to groups and the seeds were sown to undertake ‘The Classic Round Voyage’ with Hurtigruten in search of the Northern Lights for 11 days.

From beginning to end, Martin’s planning was meticulous. Having canvassed the group and secured a date, I hired my local village hall and entertained some 40 to 50 with afternoon tea whilst Martin and Lucy Hone, from Hurtigruten, gave an excellent presentation of the product and answered the many questions. Before the afternoon ended, the booking forms were being filled in and deposits paid and on 7th February 2012, a group of 37 began a journey of a lifetime.

Our flights were direct from Gatwick to Bergen where we spent our first night accommodated in the impressive Scandic Neptun Hotel in Central Bergen. Our scheduled time for joining our ship, MS Trollfjord, was 6pm the following day so the first day was ours to see Bergen’s many tourist attractions. Later, a bus duly arrived at our hotel to take us and our luggage to the Hurtigruten terminal building and check in was swift and efficient. Once on board, finding our cabins was fairly straight forward and we found them both spacious and comfortable with plenty of room to store our clothes. The shower room was well thought out and had a heated floor and a retractable washing line, which came in very useful. Public spaces on the ship were tastefully designed with plenty of comfortable seating and the observation decks were equipped with low level lighting at night from which to view the Northern Lights.

The evening meal the first night was the famous Nordic buffet and it was a true feast for the eyes and the pallet. I would think it impossible for the ships chefs not to have catered for all tastes. For most of the other evenings though, a set three-course meal was provided and of an equal standard, as was the breakfast and lunch buffets. If you felt a little peckish, there was also a 24-hour café.

Bergen

Bergen’s port.

Information on the ship was plentiful with a tour director who seemed to work tirelessly and with great humour dealing with the booking of excursions, arranging film shows in the theatre on cultural history, producing a daily programme and information sheets, and deck activities such as the ceremony of crossing the Arctic Circle, fish filleting demonstrations and King Crab handling. He was also responsible for the all important announcements that the Northern Lights were visible. You need never worry that there might not be enough to keep you busy as there was also an onboard library and internet access to catch up with emails from home as well as a fitness room, sauna and hot tub on the top deck.

Bearing in mind that Norway is a very expensive place to visit, the excursions for the most part represented good value for money and most included some sort of refreshments. One of the many highlights for me was the ever popular dog sledding, giving lasting memories that will stay with me for ever. It is essential to pre-book this excursion as there were no spare places.

The group pictured together.

Another magical moment was being able to view the famous Trollfjord. Closed to shipping during the winter, our captain skilfully, slowly and silently steered the ship to Trollfjord’s entrance where he turned the ship on a sixpence so that all passengers might have a prime view of this stunning landscape. To me, this moment summed up what Hurtigruten represents. Yes they are a coastal ferry service for the people of Norway, but they also wish to show off their beautiful landscape and be sure their visitors have every opportunity to appreciate all that this wonderful country has to offer. Nothing was too much trouble for any of the staff.

Our journey from Bergen to Kirkenes and back covered 2,660 nautical miles calling at 34 different ports, some of which were only a few hundred yards from the main high street. We dined like kings, travelled back in time to experience a Viking Feast, learnt how some fishing villages are struggling to survive in their harsh surroundings, and how in this modern time Norway is doing much to make its towns and homes energy efficient. We experienced blizzards, temperatures well below freezing and some rough seas but the ship was well stabilized. The scenery is stunning and sun rise and sun sets are mystical; and yes, we were lucky enough to see the spectacular Aurora Borealis. Not once but twice.

Our grateful thanks from everyone go to Martin and the team at Go Cruise and Hurtigruten for organising this memorable trip for Jay Bee Travel.”