Organize Your Own Group Cruise and Cruise Free

| March 24, 2008

Putting together a group cruise is easy, and with a minimum number ofcabins sold you get a free cruise..

Last week, we ran an article about "GalactiCruise," a Battlestar Galactica fans' convention at sea and how organizer Shawn O'Donnell got lots of support from both his travel agent and the cruise line in putting it all together. In this article, we'll give you some ideas on organizing your own group cruise.

There are two basic types of group cruises. Shawn's group is usually defined as an "affinity group" because the participants all share a special interest. These groups are more complicated since they include group-specific activities like classes, workshops, performances and other events themed around the group's special interest. These groups are more difficult to organize, but with the help of a good travel agent and a responsive cruise line, they are not that much different from the second type of group, which is simply a large group of friends cruising together.

Type number two, people simply traveling together, is exemplified by a family reunion cruise. The sole purpose of taking the trip is to have fun, and generally no group-specific activities are scheduled, other than perhaps a single party while onboard. This type of group doesn't need free cabins for special guests, like speakers or workshop leaders, but a little organization is still involved.

What Does This Have to do With My Group? You might think nothing you would organize could be as big as the fan convention discussed in last week's article. But don't kid yourself: Group events often take on a life of their own. What starts as a group of maybe twelve people can quickly grow to 112 as one person tells a couple of friends, and the friends tell others, and so on. I have a neighbor who decided last year to get a small family group together for a cruise. She started off with 20 people, but her husband told some friends from their bowling league about it, and they told others. The group grew so big that the travel agent had to scramble for additional cabins, and finally wound up switching the group to another ship in order to accommodate everyone. They wound up sailing with more than 200 people.

Another friend organized what she thought would be a small group sailing for members of the local chapter of her trade association. But the event ballooned to the point where it was decided to offer certification classes onboard that members could take to meet their yearly trade association requirements. The group cruise became much more complicated, as certified instructors had to be brought along and classroom space reserved. But she worked with her travel agent, who happily handled this group that wound up with more than 100 cabins booked. The event went off seamlessly.

So even if your small group balloons into the hundreds, this is not a cause for panic. Just take a deep breath and follow these simple steps for a stress-free sailing.

Hook Up with a Reliable Travel Agent Travel agents love group bookings. For them, booking a group of 80 is far easier than booking 20 individual reservations of four persons each. For not much more effort than he or she would spend on a single reservation, the agent can multiply commissions twenty-fold, sometimes even more. The agent often gets a higher commission rate on a group booking than an individual one, making even more money. For these reasons, travel agents will compete fiercely for your group business. So select the one that offers you the best deal. Shop around, and once you do select an agent for your group, make him or her work for the business.

Perks for Groups Cruise lines generally give perks to groups that travel together. The lines define a group as having a minimum number of double-occupancy cabins -- usually eight, but sometimes as few as three. When the group books the required minimum number of cabins, it gets one berth (or bed) for free -- and another for twice that number of cabins, and so on. These are called "tour conductor" berths, and they can add up to quite a few free cabins (every two berths equals one free cabin).

The free cabin category depends on the average category cabin booked by the paying group members. So if most book outside staterooms, the free cabins will be outsides of a similar category. These free berths are important, since you will need them to accommodate special guests like workshop leaders or lecturers.

Even if your group is not the type that needs to bring outside people (such as a large family reunion cruise), it is customary for the group organizer to travel in a free cabin. If you hesitate to accept a free cabin, then simply use the value of the free "tour conductor" berths to offset the total price of the cabins of all the paying guests. Work with your travel agent to select the cruise line that gives you the best deal on these free cabins.

Other group perks from the cruise line can include free photos, dinners in onboard specialty restaurants, group cocktail parties, or free use of meeting rooms. How much and how many of these perks you will get depend upon the size of your group. A group numbering in the hundreds might receive a free cocktail party and a group photo for each member, and the group might qualify for a reservation at one of the ship's specialty restaurants. The cruise line might even throw in some special amenities at its private island, or a free shore excursion.

Smaller groups will at least get something -- perhaps a bottle of wine in each stateroom, and a certificate for a free group photograph. Let your travel agent make the deals for the group. A savvy agent can get the cruise lines to compete for your business by offering more and more perks.

Designate Organizational Tasks to the Logical Person You might be the only one who can coordinate the group's activities. Let's say the group is your scrapbooking club, and you've got 30 cabins reserved so far. Your travel agent can handle all the bookings. If you have a mailing list of the club's members, ask your agent to prepare a flyer and send it out to the group -- listing you as the contact person, in case members have questions about the activities planned for the sailing. But bookings should go through the agent. The same goes for coordinating matters with the cruise line. Your travel agent has contacts at the cruise line who can get things done -- e.g., the best person to see about reserving the group cabana on the line's private island. Just tell the agent what the group members would like to do, and let the agent "make it so."

Watch for Added Costs If your group will bring special guests to host activities, be aware that these guests will probably need to be "comped." This does not mean just giving them a free cabin, but also picking up their airfare to the port, taxis, and onboard expenses. Some guests may even charge a fee, often referred to as a "hosting" or "appearance" fee. This is one area where your travel agent can't help. If you run into added expenses that you didn't factor in, it is your responsibility to come up with the money for them.

Do a careful accounting of how many guests you want to bring along, and negotiate the best deal you can get with them. A per diem for expenses is often the best way to go, since you want to assure guests' onboard expenses are capped at some reasonable point. If a special guest charges an appearance fee, try to negotiate this down by offering to promote her books, tapes, CDs and such on the ship and in your club mailings and web site. These are called "back of room" sales. Offering them a better cabin can also help you convince them to lower, or even eliminate, their appearance fee.

Once you know what your expenses should be, do the math. If your expenses are coming out much higher than you thought, you might need to charge an event fee for the sailing. Many organizations add an event fee to the cost of shipboard accommodations. This fee can range from nominal to considerable. (I paid more than $600 to attend a writers' conference at sea in 2004, above what the cruise itself cost.)

For GalactiCruise (see last week's article), an event fee of $199 is being charged for all participants. GalactiCruise will also have some activities with added nominal charges, like some celebrity talks and a cigar party hosted by Dirk Benedict. This tells me that the actors are probably not charging an appearance or hosting fee, but rather will use the revenues associated with their events and products to compensate them.

If your group needs to add a surcharge to make the cruise profitable, or at least to break even, you can either collect this separately or have the travel agent add the charge to each person's cruise invoice.

Make Things Easy on Yourself Remember that you're on this cruise to have fun, too. So try to make things onboard as simple as possible. Especially if you have a large "affinity" group, consider offering one of the tour conductor cabins (free cabins) to a representative from your travel agency, who can then come along to handle any little wrinkles that develop along the way. For example, maybe someone doesn't like their seating assignment in the dining room, while another has a problem with her cabin accommodations, or didn't receive an ordered bottle of wine in her stateroom. The group members will look to their leader to handle these problems, but you can delegate them to the travel agent.

Having the travel agent onboard will also provide for a point person to handle any group misunderstandings with the cruise line -- e.g., if some reserved rooms for classes are not adequate.

Summing Up Groups are probably the fastest growing passenger segment in the cruise industry. As a result, cruise lines have become adept at accommodating groups of all types and sizes -- from the multi-generational family reunion of 50 people to a full-ship charter by a nudist group.

No matter how large your group sailing, organizing it doesn't have to be complicated. By delegating each task to the most logical person, your event can flow seamlessly from its inception to the day the group disembarks after a wonderful week onboard.

And even if you do find yourself hosting a group numbering in the hundreds, your onboard experience can still be a wonderfully relaxed one. When you consider that as the coordinator of a large group you will probably sail in a free cabin, that's definitely worth the trouble, isn't it?

To read last week's piece about group organizer Shawn O'Donnell's experiences with putting together a Battlestar Galactica fans convention at sea, click right here.

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