Party cruise planner manages to stay afloat
Rough economic times for many of her former customers caused Camille Cerria to chart a new course for her business planning nautical events. As corporate events have dried up, she’s steered her company toward social events — weddings, anniversary parties, bar mitzvahs and Project Graduation parties for high schools — that have helped her weather the dry spell.
Cerria, 50, of Oak Ridge, started her own party-planning company, Smooth Sailing Celebrations, in 2004, after working as a saleswoman for boat companies in Weehawken and Jersey City. Last year, she organized 250 parties and events, including a shipboard training session and cruise to Ground Zero for 800 New Jersey State Troopers. The events range in price from $8,000 to $50,000, giving Cerria commissions on sales of more than $2 million.
This month, she began representing a new land-based venue, on the waterfront at Liberty State Park, for people who want a water setting but don’t want a floating event. She runs her business out of her home office and on the Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City waterfronts, where most of the 40 boats she represents are docked. She spoke about how she changed tactics to navigate during a downturn.
Q: What types of events do you do primarily?
A: I used to say I specialized in the corporate market, but now that the corporate market is so quiet, I had to redirect my advertising. I do a lot of online advertising. There’s many more brides this year, more nonprofits doing fund-raisers and the social market — birthdays, bar mitzvahs and sweet 16s. Thanks to MTV, there’s a lot of sweet 16s on the water.
Q: What kinds of events have corporations stopped doing?
A: They used to do a lot of employee recognition, client entertainment, team-building, awards banquets. This year, nobody really knows what their budget will or will not be. So they’re not booking in advance. If companies are going to book, it’s going to be close to the dates. In the meantime, I’m filling the ships with weddings, fundraisers, sweet 16s and bar mitzvahs.
Q: Are corporations doing more low-key events, or trying to be under the radar, but still spending?
A: What I have seen with corporations is instead of doing a premium bar, they’ll do just beer, wine and soda. And instead of having the boat do a pickup from New York, which is like a $1,000 dock fee, they’ll have their people drive or ferry over to Hoboken, where there’s no dock charge at all.
Q: How do you get paid?
A: My service is completely free to the client. The boat owners pay me a commission for bringing my clients to them. I get a 15 percent commission — 15 percent of the cost of the event, minus the tax and service fees.
Q: On how short notice could you get a boat for a big event? If I wanted one for this Saturday, could you get me one?
A: In April? Yes. But I got an e-mail this morning from a company that wanted a boat for a Saturday in June. I contacted four boats, two are booked, one has a hold on it and only one is open. They wanted an evening cruise, private yacht, 60 to 75 people.
Q: Do people go out in December or January?
A: Holiday parties are huge then. By November, the procrastinators that are calling for holiday parties only have Mondays and Tuesdays to choose from. I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, though. Post-holiday parties are really good for January. You can cut a deal. I tell people if you are on a budget, do it in January. Your employees will love you for it. You know how busy we all are in December. I’d love to go anywhere in January instead of December.
Q: What are the most unusual events you’ve organized?
A: I guess the memorial cruises.
Q: You mean where people want to scatter the ashes?
A: Yes. I had one woman with a memorial cruise and she said, “Camille, thank God you get it. Do you know I had one event company that asked me what kind of DJ I wanted?” Can you imagine? For a memorial cruise?
Q: What about the seasickness factor. Is that an issue?
A: It’s definitely an issue in people’s minds, but only in their minds. I will tell you a great homeopathic remedy that truly works: candied ginger. You can find it everywhere. If you take it before you get on the boat, you will not have a problem.
Q: What about the people who don’t want to be trapped on a boat for the entire event — the people who want to be able to leave?
A: I do get that. Hospitals are very afraid to have their doctors out on a boat. But they can still have the festive, glamorous atmosphere of the yacht and keep it dockside. So the event takes place and whoever needs to leave can just get off the boat. But I always try to encourage those events to at least take the boat for an hour, to sail down to the Statue of Liberty, around and back. Seeing the statue up close and personal is amazing. I’m so used to it and I still get goosebumps.
by Joan Verdon