Cruise ship charters that host music festivals at sea are increasingly popular in the US, but it is a business model that has lacked a presence in Europe.

Typically, this genre of event focuses on a musical theme and runs for several days, often over a weekend, offering guests all the facilities the ship has to offer, as well as a specially-organised music festival.

In the US, StarVista Live is preparing for another busy year chartering cruise ships, such as Celebrity Infinity and Norwegian Pearl, which provide shows from southern rock to disco music. Sixthman, which up until now has run music festivals at sea in the States, is expanding across into Europe and will be launching a new music event out of Barcelona on Norwegian Jade in August 2019.

But Floating Festivals, which is run by cruise entertainment expert Jonathan Blackburn, launched the UK’s first music-themed festival at sea last year. The company says that demand was so high that 70% of tickets for 2019’s two new shows on Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas were sold during these two first shows.

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A passion for cruise and music festivals

cruise ship festival

In 2001, Blackburn founded Blackburn International, a booking and management company for artists. After being involved with the cruise industry for 20 years providing entertainment to ships, and having fostered a passion for music festivals over the years, he decided to combine the two. Last year the first Floating Festivals shows launched: Throwback and Stages on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas.

Throwback was a three-night roundtrip cruise from Southampton that included a full day in Bruges and was themed around music from the 80s, starring The Human League, Erasure’s Andy Bell and Jason Donovan.

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“We’re trying to be a festival, albeit at sea.”

Stages was a four-night cruise from Southampton that included a day in Amsterdam, and featured West End and Broadway stars, including Michael Ball, Beverley Knight, Collabro and Lee Mead.

In 2019, the four-night Stages cruise will include musical theatre stars Alfie Boe and Sheridan Smith (prices start at £599) and the three-night Throwback cruise stars Tony Hadley, Bananarama and UB40 as well as DJ Pat Sharp (prices start at £589). Both will be held on Explorer of the Seas.

“As a company we’re not trying to compete with the cruise industry, we’re not trying to be another cruise, we’re trying to be a festival, albeit at sea,” says Blackburn, explaining that his existing relationship with Royal Caribbean, the company’s cutting-edge ship design and “ground-breaking ideas” were factors behind the partnership.

As well as the advertised performances, Blackburn is keen for guests to experience unexpected spontaneous fun all over the ship. This is in line with Royal Caribbean’s own brand values.

Symphony of the Seas, for example, which launched in 2018, surprises guests with a stairway keyboard (a different note on each step), stowaway piano player and “x-ray vision” via the app which allows passengers to view a live video stream of the bridge.

Floating Festivals’ elements of surprise include stairway pianists, elevators with pop-up karaoke and a tequila bar and flash mob dance groups. Intimate dining experiences with some of the celebrities are also part of the package.

Planning and production

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To run the festivals on board, Blackburn says that they usually carry out three to four site visits prior to the charter. While guests can use all the facilities on board, from restaurants to activities, such as the surf simulator Flowrider and rock climbing wall, which are managed by Royal Caribbean’s ship staff, Floating Festivals brings in its own production team to put on the shows, as well as sound and lighting equipment, which work in conjunction with the tech teams on board.

Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships are famous for having flexible ice-skating rinks that can turn into a nightclub or laser tag venue. For the 80s-inspired Throwback festival, it becomes Club Tropicana.

“We transform that venue and theme it with lighting and have a real immersive 80s experience,” says Blackburn. “Set designers create palm trees with neon lighting, so when guests go to that venue it’s like transporting them back to a nightclub in the 80s.”

Some of the stars fly in and fly out at the next port, others stay around for the entire cruise. Due to the nature of the Stages show, however, Blackburn is implementing a three-show policy because guests are so determined to see every single artist.

Location, location, location

cruise ship festivals

Blackburn explains that the promenade on Explorer of the Seas gives the “wow factor” to people on board and acts as a venue in itself. “It has restaurants, cafes and bridges and works really well for our brand,” he says.

The Palace theatre, which was designed to accommodate shows of Broadway style and quality, seats around 1,300 people and was one of the biggest attractions to Floating Festivals.

“When people go into the theatre on our charters, it’s like going to a West End theatre – in fact better, as the ships have been built in recent times as opposed to theatres in the West End,” says Blackburn. “They offer us the right type of ships and hardware that suits our needs as a festival.”

As the cruise industry continues to grow – according to CLIA’s 2019 report, 30 million are passengers expected to cruise in 2019 – Blackburn believes that projects like his can help convert non-cruisers into cruisers, as many of the festival’s guests were new to this type of holiday.

“We offer that taster for people as they don’t have to take a week’s holiday from work,” says Blackburn. “A lot of the cruises are nine or twelve-day itineraries and for most people that’s their summer holiday, so I think we’re doing a great service to Royal Caribbean as a partner by supersizing their entertainment and giving people an opportunity to come on and try it out.”

A bright future

With ten months to go and already at 75% capacity, Blackburn says he’s excited about the future and has plans to run four or five charters in 2020.

“We’re looking at also doing a comedy festival at sea, a rock festival, and also a names festival, so a standalone very large name that [we] will sell the cruise on the back of,” he explains.

“It’s all about creating atmosphere for people and taking the grime out of being at a festival.”

New technology and the new generation of cruise ships have made putting on festivals at sea a reality.

“Venues and ship tech have allowed us to manage large amounts of people in a safe way and let them have a great time,” he says, adding that going forward, Floating Festivals will also develop its own app so people can keep up-to-date via their smartphones on board. Currently, a printed daily programme is distributed to guests on a daily basis, but the app will mean guests have access to the latest information wherever they are on the ship. Royal Caribbean already has its own app Royal, which is currently on ten ships and being rolled out gradually across the fleet.

With a passion for surprise and impact, Blackburn also intends to give each guest an LED wristband, the kind that were made famous by Coldplay at their live shows. DMX (Digital Multiplex) is used to remotely control the light bands, so the team can light from the crowd or the stage. There will also be dancers in LED suits as part of a laser show.

“It’s exciting to develop these new brands – it’s all about creating atmosphere for people and taking the grime out of being at a festival,” says Blackburn. “When you have likeminded people all having a great time for three days, it’s a special thing you experience, which you can’t really create in the short time at a festival on land.”