How to Host Conferences at Unique Venues

What I learned from holding conferences on cruise ships

This blog contains one main point of advice: be prepared for the unexpected.

What does this mean? When hosting conferences on cruise ships or other unique venues, one has to bear in mind that the daily things we take for granted are likely not going to be available to you. On cruise ships, you don’t have it unless you remembered to pack it for the meeting.

The planner/conference host needs to be sure that they have covered all their bases and prepared for any and all situations. One just never knows what unexpected (sometimes comical) surprises can pop up for you! Take it from me – an ex-event planner who worked primarily on cruise ships.

Below is a list of a few (very real) situations that have popped up during my time planning conferences on cruise ships:


1. Temptations

Cruise lines are full of temptations like late night parties, all you can eat buffets (watch out for that bottomless lobster tail!), and unlimited drinks. Keeping your attendees reigned in and responsible is sometimes only half the battle; more important is keeping your speakers on-time, on-track, and ready to present.

This is a key responsibility of any conference planner, but of course, this responsibility is amplified with the temptations of unique venues like an enticing cruise ship. Being firm and ensuring the wording of your speaker contract outlines what speaker readiness entails can save you from having to wake up a hungover speaker! Here one has to learn to tread firmly yet tactfully.

2. Sea Sickness

The pitch and roll of the ocean waves can take their toll on anyone susceptible to motion sickness despite all of the advanced technology and stabilizers on ships today. At all types of unique venues, it’s important to keep in mind its potential effect on speakers and attendees.

When a speaker turns green and is holding on to a swaying podium you know you’ve got a problem on your hands. Keeping this in mind, it’s always handy to have some sea sickness pills (meclizine or diphenhydramine) to hand out to anyone who may need it. Certain cruise lines will hand it out like candy, and some require a visit to the infirmary. No prescription is required.

Despite being at a conference for medical personnel, sometimes I got to play the doctor! Also useful to have on hand if your unique venue is on the water: Sea Bands. This is basically a tennis-style wristband with a plastic bump on it designed to press a pressure point on your wrist that helps ease motion sickness. Ginger candies do the trick for some. If none of these work, as the host you can only empathize.

3. International Travel & Timing

On a Friday afternoon at about 3:45 PM the phone rings in the Vancouver office. It’s our moderator/speaker who has had a late flight arrival into Athens and has missed the ship! The conference begins tomorrow afternoon, and the ship is already en route to Turkey. The boss is out of office on another cruise and unreachable.

Even without unique venues, time zones can wreak havoc on your event. In this situation, the event planner plays the travel agent by hopping on the internet to book the first flight out from Athens to Kusadasi, Turkey, and get the conference on track ASAP.

Note: If a passenger is embarking/disembarking at ports other than the specific embarkation/disembarkation ports listed on an itinerary they must have advance approval from the cruise line and fill out numerous forms and paperwork for immigration purposes etc.

4. The Weatherman & Mother Nature

While cruising the open oceans one can never predict what Mother Nature might have in store for your itinerary!

One of the most beautiful atolls, called Aitutaki in French Polynesia, is often susceptible to large swells that are unsafe for tenders to approach. The cruise lines schedule a whole day stop here, and when the tenders are unable to approach due to swells, the stop is canceled and the ship moves on to another island or atoll.

This means that what was a “port day” is suddenly now a sea day. Because of this, the conference needs to start right away so as not to miss out on Continuing Medical Education (CME) hours.

Unique venues that are outside are often faced with these problems; Mother Nature isn’t always going to be accommodating.

Working with multiple departments on board the ship and its cruise director is vital. They can keep the host informed of any timing issues, weather conditions, room availability, etc. They can also direct Housekeeping to distribute your conference time-change notices to staterooms quickly so attendees know of schedule changes.

5. Technology

Sometimes, venues are so unique that they aren’t optimally prepared with the technology you need.

Ship technology is a total mixed-bag, ranging from having to bring your own projector and screen on board to having to operate multi-million dollar Broadway show caliber style theatre equipment. It is usually baptism by fire. The conference host needs to check out beforehand what equipment they have to work with.

Familiarize yourself with the set up at the venue. If you are depending on stable internet connectivity, perish the thought. Also bear in mind that while the internet is available on the high seas, it is very expensive.


6. Random Coincidences

On a cruise-conference in the Antarctic focusing on endocrinology, tropical/travel medicine, one of the doctorss displayed symptoms of a malaria attack.

He had just returned from a big hiking trip in South America, where he’d likely contracted malaria. This hiking trip was followed by the Antarctic cruise-conference a week later. The stars couldn’t have been better aligned for when the doctor started feeling the effects of malaria in the Antarctic, thousands of miles away from any malaria-prone areas.

Of course, we had onboard our speaker, Dr. Brown, an expert in the field of tropical/travel medicine. Dr. Brown also always happens to carry his medical kit for show and tell at conferences when he’s a speaker, and thanks to his expertise and preparedness, he was able to treat the malaria victim instantly.


7. Death

This one is a tale from before I was officially an event planner or working in the cruise industry. My grand aunt had fought off cancer and made a pretty good bounce back from chemotherapy at the age of 78. She loved life, family, and bringing people togethr so she made it her mission to get the family together and go on an Alaskan cruise. We had a great first day on the cruise, departing Vancouver, BC, sailing under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and making our way through the spectacular Inside Passage to Ketchikan, Alaska after a day at sea. Unfortunately, on day two of our cruise, after having breakfast, she was no more. The family knew something was wrong when my mum was paged to guest services repeatedly.

Within the hour, our family was brought together and able to pay our final respects to our dear departed aunt in the ship’s morgue. We were assigned a member of the Guest Care Team who specializes in assisting families with things like repatriation of a body, police and coast guard regulations, working with local authorities, making travel arrangements, and dealing with insurance. Care team members also provided use of the chapel on board, phone calls, internet time, and more.

Their support was invaluable and we truly felt cared for. They seamlessly arranged for us to break journey and return to Vancouver, taking care of our bookings and cancellations with the cruise line and airlines. They even rustled all our family photos that the ship’s photographer had taken the night before and gave them to us.

During my time working in the cruise/conference industry, we definitely had a few deaths and some injuries sustained by passengers/attendees, which can happen at any event, at any venue. It is a great idea to familiarize yourself with local laws and regulations when hosting any international events or events with an international delegation.

Surprisingly, some calamity takes place fairly frequently at events on trips. For example, someone’s extended family members passes away or is very sick and the attendees have to disembark ASAP and return to their destination post haste or be air evacuated to the nearest port with medical facilities for treatment. The conference host becomes their lifeline in this time of distress.


8. Human Error 

On 13 January 2012, the Costa Concordia ran aground after hitting an underwater rock off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, Italy. Provided the ship’s Wi-Fi network is still working, the conference host would need to blast out some push notifications or announcements warning their attendees. Us planners need to prepare for all sorts of situations and emergencies that can take place, and have previously happened, especially those in unusual venues.


9. Outbreaks 

While Norovirus is often known as the “cruise ship virus”, it can actually occur in any area where there are many people confined in a small space, including nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dorms, and conference venues. It is associated with cruise travel simply because health officials are required to track and report illnesses on ships (and are not at hotels and resorts); therefore, outbreaks are found and reported more quickly at sea than on land.

Encouraging your delegation to exercise proper hand washing, sneezing into your elbow, and other general sanitary etiquette, can go a long way at any event. While cruise ships go to extreme lengths to sanitize and make every voyage germ free, popping this information into your info booth, on an app, or the back page of a program is an excellent way to remind everyone of hygiene.


Before you go re-considering that cruise-conference, or circus meeting, or aquarium meet-up, know that the above is a collection of occurrences that are meant to prepare an event planner for any situation. The best advice one can take away from this is to be prepared, stay informed, go in with an open mind, and enjoy the event!

Have you hosted at unique venues before? Have you considered it? Let us know in the comments or over on  Twitter!

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