How to Use Cruise Groups as Charity Fundraisers | Travel Research Online


How to Use Cruise Groups as Charity Fundraisers

By now you probably have a good grasp on how to find and sell group cruises.  To date, there have been several TRO articles on the subject (Making Money with Groups, Getting Started with Groups and Looking for Groups), but I’m often asked specifically about how to do a group cruise as a charity fundraiser.  A lot of what you already know about groups also applies to charity groups.  But fundraising cruises do have some subtle differences.  For example, with charity groups you are often “sacrificing” any type of incentive for the passengers (like onboard credit) in exchange for the charitable donation.  And in some cases, the supporters are paying MORE than the published cruise fare for the opportunity to support their favorite charity.

Some Considerations

Here are some thoughts on what you want to consider when contemplating a charity fundraising group.  The most important being: will the charity actively participate in marketing and promoting the group for you?  This can make a huge difference in how much participation you get from the group.

Marketing and promotion support can be as simple as putting a link or button on their website (linked to a dedicated page on your website), and including blurbs about it in their newsletters and email blasts (there is no reason for it to cost them anything to help with marketing).  This is not as simple as it sounds though.  National charities have policies (or sometimes clauses in their charter) that prohibit them from supporting third party fund-raisers.  They will gladly take the donations, but cannot participate in promoting the event.  I found this to be the case with the American Diabetes Association.  You will also need prior approval from them before using any of their logos in your own marketing.

But let’s say you targeted a local or regional charity and they are more than happy to help with marketing and promoting the cruise.  The next question: will they provide anything to enhance the group?  For example, can they secure items to be used in a silent auction onboard the ship (note: with prior cruise line approval)?  Can they provide pillow gifts or goodie bag items to be given to the group members (door signs or magnets, t-shirts, etc.), or maybe something that can be used as an early booking incentive?  Often times they will want you to purchase these items from them, even if it’s just at cost.  If you want to include these items and have to purchase them, you need to make sure you factor that into your overall group costs.

Another important question: does the charity want or feel the need to escort the group?  This is where you need to talk to them about reality.  TCs (tour conductor credits) are great, but only if you’ve earned them and don’t lose them via cancelled bookings.  The charity won’t want to pay to send someone on the cruise, but they need to understand the need for making sure all costs are covered (without sacrificing your commission).  The dose of reality will figuring out how many people they think will REALISTICALLY participate, and then figure out the cost of their escort room and factor that into the group pricing.

That then leads us to: do they want or need or expect you to escort the group?  This will be another dose of reality for them.  Escorting a group is not a vacation.  It never has been and never will be.  It’s work.  A lot of work.  You should never pay for the pleasure of working.  You should not pay your own way, or use any commission to cover your own travel costs.  We’re back to using TCs or adding another mark up to the group pricing to cover your costs.

Do you see how this can lead group prices to be higher than published cruise fares?  And we aren’t done yet.

Next question: what activities do you want to offer onboard to make the group special?  Some activities, like cocktail parties, will have an associated cost that you need to factor into your group pricing.  Other activities, like meeting rooms, are free but on a first come, first served basis.  You can also offer scavenger hunts, optional exclusive & private shore excursions, a private silent auction (you will almost never get a cruise line to approve opening it up to the whole ship), etc.

One last factor that needs to be addressed:  cruise line bulk deposit requirements.  Most cruise lines (Carnival being the exception) allow you to hold 8-16 rooms in group space with no bulk deposit required.  Exceed that however and you are faced with paying a $25 per berth ($50 per room) bulk deposit within 30 days (60 days for Norwegian Cruise Line).  Let’s face it, most travel agents cannot afford to front the funds, and we’re trying to avoid any financial impact (even temporary) on the charitable organization.  There are ways around this including offering a booking incentive to book within 30 days or securing a sponsor.

Mitigating the Price Mark-Up

This is where a charity group can differ from your standard group cruise.  You are using the GAP points possibly for a charitable donation.  No OBC.  And on top of that you are marking up the pricing so it’s higher than the published cruise fare, in order to cover escort rooms, pillow gifts, cocktail parties, etc.  For some, that may be a hard pill to swallow.

However, if your charity is fully behind this endeavor and actively supporting it, they may be willing to consider the idea of securing sponsors.  It’s all in how you pitch the idea to them.  If they have done black-tie galas or golf tournaments in the past, it will be easier for them to grasp the concept.  You will need to brainstorm with them about what types of sponsorships to have, how much the sponsorships will cost, and what the sponsors will receive in return for their participation.  If you get someone to sponsor the cost of a private cocktail party, that translates to less that you have to mark-up the cruise fare.  If you get someone to be the “cruise sponsor” (let’s say, for $5,000) that can cover your bulk deposit for 100 rooms and eventually you can apply that amount to a double occupancy room for the sponsor (that they can use or give away).

Ultimately, charity fundraising groups can be fun, profitable and a great marketing tool for your agency when planned well.

(Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel ( located in Brentwood, Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers.  Through their division Kick Butt Vacations ( she focuses on travel for young adults under 35.  Susan can be reached by email at or by phone at (888) 221-1209).


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