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On Some Cruises, Less Is Definitely More

Smaller cruise ships can deliver an unforgettable experience.

When Steve Brown wanted to thank his employees for buying into his company, he decided to forego a standard cruise, instead choosing a ship and ports less traveled. “I wanted something unique, an incentive experience that gave us the chance to relax, celebrate, get outdoors and do some team-building,” says Brown, who operates the Trout Lodge fish hatchery in Washington State. So he hit the Internet and landed at Adventure Life VOYAGES, a Montana-based company that specializes in off-the-beaten-path tours for small groups.

“He came to us about our Patagonia trip for his group – seven owners and spouses who were going to Chile on business anyway,” says Johnathan Brunger, Adventure Life’s adventure coordinator. The big draw, adds Brunger, was the four-day cruise’s mix of adventure and spectacular sightseeing with posh digs and gourmet food, a combination Brown felt would prove a good fit for his group. Did it work? In his post-trip evaluation, Brown was ecstatic: “It spoiled my wife and me to an extent that we would never go on a big-ship cruise again.”

Good Things, Small Package

Indeed, in the never-ending search for ultra-cool vessels and unique destinations, more and more planners are eschewing the 2,000-passenger floating cities in favor of ships that carry 200 or less – in the case of some elite yachts and schooners, as few as 6-20 people. As the market grows, so does the list of lines – Windstar, Silver Sea, Seaborn, Regent Seven Seas, SeaDream Yacht Club, among them – as does the appeal to incentive groups. Downsizing offers a host of upsides, from customized charters and crowd control (e.g., fewer people on board and, given the port, on shore) to more remote, exclusive destinations, places a mega-liner couldn’t dream of docking.

“The idea of a week on a more conventional cruise has less motivational appeal than perhaps even 3-5 years ago,” says Max Johnson, owner of the Great Canadian Travel Company (GCTC) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Johnson’s firm specializes in exotic travel, including cruises around the world. “Planners want something unique, not done before, perhaps more challenging and not merely upgrading the opulence factor,” he says. That said, Johnson notes an upsurge in small-ship exploratory program via ships that max out between 50-150 passengers. “With that size they’re able to get into places larger ships aren’t and tend to offer itineraries that aren’t likely to be duplicated.”

George Gehl, president of Contacts Unlimited in Palm Beach, FL, agrees. Gehl’s to-do list includes arranging about 40 incentive-related cruises per year, many of them booked on smaller vessels. “They get into the smaller ports and can provide a high level of quality and service, plus a different level of food,” he says. “You won’t get buffalo and stone crabs on the larger lines – they don’t have the budget or the target audience for it.”

Smaller ships can also convey a sense of exclusivity. “Unlike bigger ships, the ‘wow’ is not the vessel itself, but the food, service and amenities,” says Gehl. “You can charter smaller ships, set your own itinerary, depart when and where you want and there’s no conflict for the function space.” You won’t find big casinos, climbing walls and glitzy discos, but comfort and amenities abound. “They have the flat-screen TVs, safes, walk-in closets and fancy, French milled soap, as well as alcohol, which is often included,” says Gehl. “You can send them a list of what you want to drink beforehand and they’ll stock your bar and stateroom.”

The boat that Brown and his companions chose – the five-year-old Mare Australis – makes a good case in point: 63 cabins, four decks, two lounges, a gourmet restaurant, library and windows big enough to frame the seemingly endless panoramic views. “We refer to it as our luxury ship, elegant but not splashy,” says Brunger. “It holds 125 passengers and focuses on comfort and the expedition.”

All of which worked for the Trout Lodge program. “We had nice, big cabins and there was plenty of room where everyone could sit around and get to know each other better,” says Brown.

Low Key But Upscale

Another plus about many smaller cruise ships is their lack of in-your-face glitz and glamour. Windstar’s mantra is relaxed elegance, an atmosphere that provides all the comforts without the pretense.

“We’re a different product in our look and feel from traditional cruise ships,” says Windstar VP of sales and marketing Diane Moore. The line’s largest schooner accommodates 308, a far cry from parent company Holland America’s mega-cruisers. “We’re very casual and unstructured, and the size is appealing, which allows incentive planners more freedom,” she says, citing the line’s laid-back activity schedule and leisurely dress/seating codes. “You can structure a program the way you want, and do so without all these competing events on board.”

Bob Lepisto, VP sales and marketing for SeaDream Yacht Club in Coral Gables, FL, voices a similar sentiment. “When we started the company five years ago, we saw a superb opportunity to produce what’s as close to a private yachting experience as possible,” he says. SeaDream’s M.O.: two yachts, flexible itineraries, charter options, small, trendy ports and an ambience as breezy as a Caribbean beach. Or, in Lepisto’s words, “a casual elegant hip sexy yachting experience.” Top hats and tuxedos are out; Land’s End wear in. Good food rules and action and adventure options are never far away. (To that end, SeaDream stocks its own kayaks, wave-runners, wake boards and mountain bikes.)

Ports of a Different Call

Taking nothing away from their 3,000-passenger siblings, smaller vessels also distinguish themselves from the mega-ship pack in another key arena – where and when they can travel. The possibilities seem endless – from German rivers, Artic coves, fjords in Norway, Pacific islands, the Baltic Sea and any number of coastal hamlets that might otherwise be relegated to Discovery Channel specials.

“We’ve done the Scottish Isles, Spitsbergen, Norway (for polar bears and the Northern Lights) and Rhine River cruises that take in hiking and wine-tasting,” says GCTC’s Max Johnson. Beverly Parson’s San Diego-based Interpac Yacht Charter has booked cozy cruises from Turkey to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, while her cross-town rival, Next Level Sailing, can send a select small group on a luxury, gourmet Baja sail aboard an America’s Cup yacht.

With such an array of potential port options – Croatia, the Russian Arctic and Caribbean Costa Rica also rank high among the hot new ports – going smaller can make for a win-win scenario. “One of our repeat clients, an insurance and financial company, is looking for smaller Mediterranean ports,” says Windstar’s Diane Moore, who has come up with 20 possibilities so far. “It’s an opportunity to customize things in a unique way, to understand what the winners can do in different ports.”

SeaDream’s Bob Lepisto tells a similar tale of a customized cruise for 55 winners and spouses along Spain’s Costa del Sol from Malaga to Barcelona. “It was an auto manufacturer incentive, and we did four rounds of golf on four different courses, pre-arranged with bags waiting on the golf carts when they arrived,” he says. Non-duffers, meanwhile, either shopped or enjoyed an onboard massage.

And let’s not forget the spontaneity factor inherent in a smaller, more intimate ship. Nikki Nestor of WORLD CLASS Travel by Invitation recalls how, during one recent Mediterranean incentive, her group held an impromptu pajama party while sailing past Italy’s smoldering Stromboli volcano. “SeaDream gives its guests pajamas, monogrammed with the winner’s and host’s names,” she says. “It was a beautiful night, and we encouraged everyone to get into their pjs and come up on deck. As we were sailing by the volcano, fireworks were going off. It was incredible – people are still talking about their pajama party on the yacht.”

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