Religious leaders and their associated planners are taking more events to sea as ministries and other religious groups realize the advantages of booking a cruise ship as a meetings site.
“Religious leaders are finding that being at sea leads to a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that is sometimes not available on land,” says DeWayne Woodring, RCMA executive director and CEO of the Religious Conference Management Association.
Some groups are chartering entire ships, he adds, and have daily Bible studies, sermons and other presentations by noted clergy and scholars, special educational features on cabin TVs and themed events such as a Southern Gospel Music Cruise.
“Cruises have the added benefit of having good attendance at all services, meetings and events onboard,” he says. “Organizers can also customize shore excursions so guests can visit spiritual sites and programs related to their denomination in foreign countries.”
Planners of religious meetings at sea say ships offer the enticing advantage of having everything they need in one package—facilities, meals, entertainment and changing locations at interesting ports of call. There are also added benefits of time and cost savings—the price can come in up to 40 percent less in some cases, according to Jo Kling, president of Miami’s Landry & Kling Cruise Events—over traditional hotel and other land-based meetings.
Ease of planning is a major benefit drawing organizations to the water, Kling says.
“Busy planners don’t have to think through every menu and personal dietary need,” she says. “People can pick and choose from multiple menus and restaurants onboard: buffet, in-room or dining room. And they don’t have to worry about what they are spending. It’s really a vacation mentality most people love.”
There’s also the planner’s advantage of knowing what expenses are well ahead of event dates, Kling notes.
“There’s really good value in cruises, which makes a lot of sense in this uncertain economy. You know up front what your costs are,” she says.
Tim Bell of Family Life ministry, in Arkansas, says cruises provide the right kind of atmosphere for some of his organization’s events.
“At sea, we have a captive audience that has really pulled away from normal everyday life and is more relaxed and ready to experience and learn,” he says.
Family Life launched its first “Love Like You Mean It” marriage enrichment cruise in February for 2,300 passengers.
“We are about 70 percent filled for our 2012 Norwegian Cruise Lines Valentine cruise, and we hope this will be an annual event,” Bell says.
Cruise ship charters can give organizers the added advantage of creating their own atmosphere for religious meetings, according to Jeff Templeton of Templeton Cruises, based in North Carolina. He often asks cruise lines to shut down bars and casinos (in exchange for a revenue replacement fee) in order to create a more acceptable social atmosphere for events like their Southern Gospel Music Cruise.
“Even though we typically shut down the bars and casinos to create a Christian atmosphere for our clientele, we keep the best parts of an inclusive price: the food, destinations, weather, music and so on,” Templeton says. “And, we can offer our groups a cruise for less than a typical resort vacation—like five days in the Bahamas for just under $1,000—about $200 a day for everything.”
Cruise meetings with religious themes typically run the gamut from small to mid-size groups who sail on a scheduled cruise departure to half-ship or full-ship charters. Themes include pilgrimage cruises that retrace the footsteps of Biblical characters such as the Apostles Paul and John in the Holy Land.
According to Kling, even though one may commonly associate cruises with the Caribbean or Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the Midwest offers many enticing options.
Examples include an 11-night Great Lakes Grand Discovery voyage traveling from Detroit or Duluth, Minn., sailing through Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario and featuring a Native American powwow on Manitoulin Island and a visit to charming Mackinac Island. Kling says this itinerary is ideal for a religious retreat.
Other options include Mississippi River cruises such as American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi riverboat, which departs from St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn., and cruises of the “upper Mississippi” using the Great American Steamboat Company out of St. Paul.