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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin DOING BUSINESS AT SEA

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

August 1, 1984 -- A sea voyage and the normal demands of the business travel fraternity are not easily compatible: first, cruising implies and enforces leisure; and second, the current tax climate for conference activities aboard ship is decidedly unfriendly. Nonetheless, I was reminded recently of the suitability of the cruise experience for business groups of manageable size, say between 10 and 150 participants.

The occasion was the inaugural sailing in May of Sitmar Cruises’ third liner, the Fairsky, built by the French in deluxe fashion for $150 million and weighing in at more than 46,000 gross tons (I don’t know what gross tonnage means, either). The vessel was christened Saturday morning, May 5, and we sailed for the "Mexican Rivera" late in the afternoon as fireboats, tugs, helicopters and marching band on the pier supplied the traditional fanfare. I particularly liked the barrage of balloons that engulfed the ship as we slid from the Wilmington Interport, south of Los Angeles.

Large and handsome, with a profile dominated by a single smokestack, the Fairsky rides the water with grace and confidence. There is no engine noise and virtually no vibration, even on the Lido Deck, which as the highest is usually the most motion-prone passenger deck. The more than 600 cabins are functional and comfortable; the public rooms are generously proportioned, plush in a modern sense (not overstuffed), the expensive-looking artwork is tasteful and at home in its surroundings. You’d hardly know you’re at sea.

A galley separates the two sinning rooms; they are somewhat Spartan, but they’ll develop character as the departures sail by. The Italian staff in the dining rooms is proficient and friendly; the dishes run from very good to excellent. I was particularly turned on by the pasta selections. I won’t discuss the parade of courses at each meal and the other opportunities for shipboard dining day and night, but you’ve got to have a strong will. I was gratified that the dinning rooms and other public facilities such as the Showroom and Cinema offer seating for nonsmokers. The theatre has a fine selection of films, changed daily (I was delighted by Educating Rita). In addition, these quality films appear every day on the television set in the cabin.

How do you cope with the endless onslaught of calories? At least partially by seeking refuge on the jogging track which makes an elliptical circuit on the upper Sun Deck, or by turning to the well-equipped gymnasium, the sauna/massage room, the whirlpool spa, and the two adult swimming pools—there’s also one for the children. (I feel someone should be in attendance at the gym to explain how to use the profusion of equipment.) The deck space allocated for sunbathing is ample, but I refer reserving deck chairs in advance; I don’t like the uncertainty of the search on a sunny day.

Where do business activities fit into all this relaxation, this preoccupation with self, this structured hedonism? First off, I’d like to point out that there’s nothing wrong with mixing relaxation and business; the very best corporate, professional and academic get-togethers on land are invariably held at meeting centers, resorts and country clubs which provide a harmonious blending of these elements. Away from the tensions of the office scene.

And there’s no better cocoon for enforcing the welcome divorce from urban routine than the cruise experience. Several days of seaborne isolation are almost strung together between ports—ideal scheduling for seminars and talk sessions, presentations and lectures. The change of pace isn’t golf or tennis, it’s deck chairs, skeet shooting, a swim or a turn in the gym. Everything enhanced by the invigorating sea air, the tang of salt, the feeling of escape. (If I’m getting carried away, just puncture my life belt.)

Most of today’s cruise ships do offer the necessary facilities. The Fairsky’s Ocean Deck (one of eleven) has several elegant rooms that can accommodate small to medium meetings in sensible settings, with the equipment for audio-visuals and films, sound systems—all those up-to-date accessories. Conceivably, the spouse and offspring could cruise along, safely separated from the serious stuff by hanging out on deck, poolside, or engaged in any one of the dozens of other things, such as lessons in dancing, Italian, aerobics, or cramming down snacks around the clock. Particularly insidious are the pizza and excellent barbecues poolside burgers.

Unfortunately, there is no convention-related tax write-off on ships that do not fly the U.S. flag, and there are precious few Americans cruise lines: American Hawaii and Delta Queen plus several smaller operators. A discriminatory and anachronistic situation—drop a line to your federal legislators.

Meantime, I’d like to drop a line to my amigos in Mexico. The seven-day itinerary of the Fairsky on this maiden voyage was Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. I debarked after two days at P.V. and flew back to Los Angeles for some of those landlocked business meetings. The departure tax from Mexico was $9.50 a head, even fro a transiting cruise passenger. Excessive and not too smart for the long run, whether Mexico is looking to attract and hold the business or the pleasure traveler.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.