Saturday, 9 July 2011

Cruising & Sustainable Meetings: Smooth Sailing?

Three floating hotels are moored in front of my house this morning. Must be a Saturday in the height of cruise season in Vancouver!

According to Cruise Lines Association International group travel for weddings, education, incentives and meetings accounts for 5-40% of passenger volume, depending on the cruise line. Which has me thinking: if I was to plan an event on a cruise ship, what unique sustainability considerations might ship-based meetings have that are different from a traditional hotel or convention center venue? What issues would I need to be aware of? What questions should I ask?

Environmental issues:
No surprise: environmental issues associated with cruise ships are complicated. Not only do you need to consider corporate policies and practice on the ship, but requirements vary greatly between different ports, states, provinces, and nations. For example, cruise ships must not dispose of waste within 12 miles of the Washington state shoreline. This distance is reduced to 4 miles once the ships cross into British Columbia waters. So, if you really want to get a grasp on the unique environmental issues of this kind of venue you need to research three things:
  1. the areas you'll be visiting
  2. the cruise line, and
  3. the ship you'll be using.
To know what you're dealing with, ask some basic questions:
  • How is waste water treated? Ships produce different kinds of waste water. Black water includes human sewage and medical waste. Grey water tends to be the highest volume of waste water and includes that remaining from baths, laundry and kitchens. Oily bilge water describes condensation that collects in the hull and often includes a mix of residues. These kinds of waste are typically treated by a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD)or Advanced Wastewater Treatment System (AWTS). While an AWTS is typically better to use, they can still result in non-compliance with water quality standards. Be clear about what kind of system is in place on your ship and what kind of testing is done to ensure conformity with water quality standards.
  • How is waste water disposed of? Once treated waste may be flushed at sea. Because discharge zones and laws vary, it's important to know if your cruise line follows any voluntary, consistent guidelines for dumping and/or port-side disposal.
  • What happens to solid waste produced on ships? Cruise passengers produce about 3.5 kg of trash per day. Waste may be recycled, incinerated or tossed into the sea within acceptable discharge distance from shore, provided it fits through a 2.5 cm screen. Be clear about what happens to solid waste and ask to receive data that substantiates recycling is taking place.
  • What guidelines are followed for emissions? Cruise ships burn fuel, produce emissions and can therefore contribute to air pollution. Confirm your ship will be using low sulfur fuel that burns cleaner. In Canada and the USA this means the ship should be working toward using fuel that has less than 0.1% sulfur content in compliance with pending International Maritime Organization guidelines. Cruise ships may also burn waste, so ask about what strategies are used to collect and dispose of incinerator ash.
  • Has the cruise line ever been cited or fined for environmental infractions? Although this is a good question, it's important to bear in mind that enforcement of maritime law is spotty at best. For example while $50 million in fines were levied against cruise lines in the USA between 1999 - 2009, fines in Canada were non-existent. Still it's an important question to ask to establish a trusting, transparent relationship. If these are not tracked, or no fines or citations are noted something, may, as they say, be fishy.
  • How might environmental requirements vary between the different ports being visited? As indicated above practices by and regulation of cruise lines varies. Given this it's particularly important to research and ask about any special local issues in the waters you'll be traveling and at the ports visited.
Social issues:
While environmental issues are important, moral issues related to workers and passenger safety are also critical. Cruise meetings become complicated in this respect as again, unlike a land-based venue, jurisdiction can be fuzzy. Ships are often foreign-flagged. Workers and passengers are of different nationalities and may be afforded different protections. Depending on the time of the crime different laws might apply based on whose national waters are being traversed. All of these can make it very confusing to know what laws apply to whom, when. For these reasons voluntary guidelines adopted by cruise lines themselves that exceed prevailing law have a critical role to play.

Arming yourself with answers to these questions can help you learn where your cruise meeting venue stands on social issues like labour, health, safety and crime:
  • Who is employed on ships? Ask about employees, where they come from and conditions of their work and lodgings. Probe about how many hours they work, how much they are paid and benefits provided, particularly medical care. Make sure you consider all staff, including those that may not work in customer-facing positions.
  • What policies are in place to ensure a safe and healthy workplace? Ask about staff training. Is it provided, particularly for those working in positions that are high risk for injury? Note during your site visit if there appears to be clear and adequate availability of first aid, fire extinguishers and safety equipment. Be sure to ask about specific work hazards unique to ship-based work as well as accident rates and worker's compensation for injury.
  • What policies are in place to address crime among passengers and workers? While the industry claims cruising is the safest form of travel, others cite high rates of robbery and sexual assault on ships that call this record to question. Be clear on prevailing types of crime risks and ensure your ship has a process to prevent, address and disclose them.
  • What reports can be provided about fatalities, crime, and injuries? Because there is such debate about how much crime and how many injuries are reported on ships, it's important to ask for yourself. You may not get a complete answer, however knowing if the cruise line you're considering has these issues on their radar and is reporting is a key way to build trust and do your due diligence to ensure your participants are not subjected to unexpected risks.
  • What policies exist to ensure the interests of host destinations and populations are considered? Many concerned with the cruise industry point to a discrepancy between the benefits derived by cruise lines compared to the expenses incurred by ports of call and local residents. This exists at a macro level where destinations provide infrastructure to support cruising and may struggle to recoup investment unless there are long-term commitments to visit ports. Concern is also expressed over the commissions taken by the cruise industry from local businesses that provide shore-side excursions. Ask what approach the cruise line you are considering takes to these local stakeholder concerns, and what examples exist to demonstrate policies in place in the area you are visiting.

Needless to say, when it comes to being sustainable, cruise meetings sail in murky waters. Because a ship can move between jurisdictions in a single trip, this can afford the opportunity to exercise different levels of responsibility in different waters. This isn't hard to understand if you consider how standards of 'green' hotel practice within a single chain can change city to city. The difference here is your hotel property is generally not shifting how diligent it is about its sustainable responsibilities within the span of a single meeting as a result of moving down the block. Therefore it's critical for cruise meeting hosts to take questions like these to the cruise industry to uncover if they are consistently addressing sustainability issues in a way that hopefully exceeds highest regulatory requirements across jurisdictions.

At least that's what I'll plan on doing, when I set sail to plan a cruise meeting.

Many thanks to Ross Klein and his Cruise Junkie web site which provided much food for thought and information for this introduction to the sustainable considerations of cruise meetings.

Photo: Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership


Nancy J. (Wilson) Zavada, CMP said...

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and for the questions meeting professionals should ask before considering this venue. I, however, still do not believe a cruise ship is a sustainable option!

Nancy Zavada

Shawna McKinley said...

Thanks for the comment Nancy and fair enough! :)

I too struggle with using this type of venue if there is a mandate for a 'sustainable' event, so hope the questions help others who might not even be aware of the sustainability issues involved.

Perhaps if a LEED-type standard for ships that was third party assessed emerged I might feel a little better?

Matthieu Beauchemin said...

Just a quick note about environmental issues with cruise ships. The North American maritime industry has started giving itself a structured approach to reducing its environmental impact. The initiative is called Green Marine ( For now, just a few cruise lines are member, but things will probably change in the next few years as the certification expands and more companies keep on joining in.

This is certainly a first step in identifying those who perform better in this sector. Who knows if, as the scheme expand, there won't be a special cruise ship category with a special rating on sustainable events.

The Green-Eyed Event Planner said...

Thank you for researching this and providing so much information. I have often wondered about Cruise Ships and you have answered most of my questions!

Judy Kucharuk

Shawna McKinley said...

Judy and Matthieu - thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

Judy hope you'll share your other questions on your blog sometime so I can cross-link! :)

I found there were a lot of issues floating around out there that that one could definitely take a deeper dive into cruise meetings from a sustainability perspective.

Matthieu I was not familiar with this program so appreciate the link. I do think that having a third-party involved in vouching for responsible practices on-ship would definitely help.