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It's a child's fantasy playground, but when event planner Joyce Landry surveyed the Disney Dream at its splashy christening in January, she formed quite a different impression: Disney Cruise Line's newest ship is the next great convention space.

The idea of mixing business with cruising is catching on. Instead of letting employees loose in Vegas, where they would be tempted to ditch the convention hall for the strip, companies are increasingly booking events at sea, where the audience is a captive one.

Landry, chief executive of Landry & Kling, which specializes in cruise event planning and production, says cruise ships have everything a conference planner needs: ballrooms that can be converted to trade-show space, flexible itineraries to suit corporate meeting budgets, large theatres for audio-visual and awards presentations, fine-dining restaurants and nightclubs that can be rented out for functions, plus that unbeatable sea air. The Disney Dream stands out for Landry because it also has cabins that come with a tub/shower and separate toilet/sink room: a ‘bath-and-a-half' concept well suited for executives who must share accommodations.

Landry, who has done “serious meetings” on Disney Magic and Disney Wonder with clients such as Microsoft, says, “Disney are masters of entertainment, so you have the support to pull off a great show.”

Best of all, she adds, with Disney, convention-goers can bring their spouse and children. It's a family vacation tacked onto work, with a generous tax receipt.

Grabbing a portion of the conference and meeting market makes sense for the cruise industry. PhoCusWright, a travel industry market-research company, reports the global “groups and meetings” market was $54.3-billion last year. While cruise lines keep sales numbers private and Cruise Lines International Association doesn't track growth in corporate cruising, Landry has compiled her own numbers. Her firm targets what they believe to be a corporate-cruise event market worth $1.14-billion.

Big and small ships are hosting more corporate events. Uniworld River Cruises' boutique River Beatrice, plying the Danube, or SeaDream Yacht Club's mega-yachts are popular charters for executive retreats, sales-staff rewards or client-appreciation junkets. And conventions are taking over luxury liners such as Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony, which has dedicated hospitality suites. Even mid-priced behemoths, including Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic and Royal Caribbean International's Allure of the Seas are making sure that companies understand how cost-effective it is to hold meetings at sea since everything is arranged centrally and charged all-inclusively, at a negotiated group rate.

“Cost has been an important deciding factor for us, and I can certainly recommend a meeting at sea to other companies,” says Filip Pawelka, marketing manager for Brunswick GMBH, an international sports equipment manufacturer based in Germany. The company organized its first corporate cruise in January aboard the Norwegian Epic.

Brunswick hosted 50 distributors for a seven-night Caribbean sailing, which, by Pawelka's calculations, ended up costing “equivalent or less” than previous years' land-based gatherings in Sicily and Cape Town. The event was a success, he says, with “an exciting meeting location, and a balanced variety of social activities accompanying the meetings.”

Some clients appreciate the safeguards a ship provides. Security on cruise ships is tightly controlled and they can be used as floating fortresses. At last year's Summit of the Americas, for instance, ships at Trinidad's main harbour served as adjunct conference facilities. Cruise ships were also booked to billet security and workers during the Vancouver and Barcelona Olympics, and during the 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It's a really a phenomenal, efficient, effective way hold to a meeting,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com.

Immersing executives in exotic ports of call is inspirational and contributes to team-building, adds Landry, who once bused 800 conference attendees to Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg to dine on caviar.

“You're going from place to historic, beautiful place; everything is prearranged, safe; no one has to put their hand in their pocket to pay for anything, so there's a sense of letting go and being free,” she says. “It beats the hotel convention centre's rubber-chicken dinner every time.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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