In today’s cost-conscious and time-challenged environment, there is good news for meeting and incentive planners: Your ship has come in.

The array of cruise ships offering dedicated meeting space and group-friendly itineraries of seven days or less has never been greater. At the same time, a vast amount of new ship inventory is making cruising one of the best travel bargains around.

"When you look at the budget challenges facing meeting planners today, it’s the perfect time for people to consider cruising," says Josephine Kling, CEO of Seasite.com and co-founder of Miami-based Landry & Kling Cruise Event Services. "We can prove that in any category of ship relative to hotel, you can save up to 30 to 40 percent by choosing a cruise over a hotel program."

According to Kling, the all-inclusive nature of a cruise means not having to skimp on anything, even when working with a limited budget.

"When you cut back on a hotel program, it’s really visible—attendees can see that there is no breakfast buffet," she says. "But with a cruise you don’t cut back on anything, you’re providing more. Attendees can order anything they want in a beautiful dining room, not in a naked ballroom that you have to dress up. The food, the audiovisual, the decor, the entertainment is all included."

Incentive planner Jerry Vaughn, president of Seattle-based Inspired Journeys, which has a cruise division called Meetings on Ships, says an increasing number of clients are choosing cruises as an affordable alternative to land-based programs.

"Recently, we switched a client from a Las Vegas program to a Royal Caribbean ship—and the company was happier because they could do a lot more with their budget," he says. "While Vegas has really good deals now in terms of hotel rates, when you start looking at the food and beverage and transportation, it becomes expensive in comparison to a cruise."

Millicent Evans, president of Alliance Incentives & Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., is also finding that cruises are an affordable option for clients.

"This year we saw a client postpone a large program in Los Cabos to 2011 because of the economy," she says. "However, they are still able to reward their very top producers this year by scheduling a small program on a cruise."

While cruise incentive programs have been affected by the same kind of perception issues that have hurt resort meetings, Robert Coleman, director of charter and incentive sales for Holland America Line, says this year has brought a resurgence in interest among planners.

"This has given us the impetus to go out and be more aggressive in promoting ourselves to planners—we’re looking at new trade show opportunities to tap more business," he says.

Coleman adds that cruises are a good fit for companies who want to combine a meeting with reward elements, including leisure activities and relaxation.

"It’s unusual for a company to approach us that wants to make the experience only about the meeting," he says. "You can get that kind of focus with a land-based meeting. We offer a balance of work and play."

Evans, who does both hotel and shipboard programs, believes that cruises can be an especially good motivator for incentive programs, but that marketing and education are essential, especially when potential qualifiers are not familiar with cruising.

"It’s very important for the company to promote the cruise, as they would with any program," she says. "They need to bring out all the benefits—the spas, the entertainment, everything that’s included."

Part of the education process, Evans adds, is that while cruises are a good value, companies cannot expect to get the same last-minute bargains that are currently available to consumers.

"Right now there are rock-bottom cruise fares promoted all over the Internet, but you’re simply not going to get the number of cabins that you need at those rates—there might be two available, but not 150," she says. "Plus, incentive programs tend to be booked far in advance, so you’re not going to get last-minute specials. However, you are able to lock in your rates far in advance, so that’s an advantage."

Evans also cautions that it is essential to match the client with the right ship, a process that takes some research because of the vast array of options available these days.

"All the cruise lines have different personalities—and you can get in trouble if you don’t choose the right ship," she says. "It may be too sophisticated for the group or not sophisticated enough. You really need to take into consideration the company’s corporate culture as well as their objectives when making the choice."