A smorgasbord of live entertainment options is just as common on cruise ship as an overloaded food buffet.

But in recent years, booking agents, charter companies and the cruise lines themselves have been actively stepping up their entertainment efforts as a way to attract niche audiences and special interest groups that might not otherwise climb aboard.

The trend also ties in with the increasing emphasis on creating unique customer experiences and fostering a sense of community that cuts across all marketing disciplines.

Several cruise websites have also set up social networking capabilities, and entertainment tie-ins add another layer to the sense of passenger community.

"These cruises are filled with a group of like-minded people," says Sara Riney of Sixthman which is one of the charter companies responsible for booking Carnival Cruise Line's music cruises. "It's really like a summer camp for adults."

While music is the most obvious growth area, an increasing number of cruises are also themed to television properties, from "Star Trek" to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."

Meanwhile, the music offerings are stepping up from cover bands and lounge acts to chart-toppers such as Barenaked Ladies and Dave Matthews Band.

Most themed cruises are arranged through third-party booking agents and charter companies, rather than directly with the cruise lines. These marketers are eager to find sponsors and promotional partners for their events.

Targeted Audiences

"Niche cruises have a tremendous amount of appeal and allow you to target a very specific demographic," says Jim Erlick of the Erlick Group, which acts as a sponsorship broker for Jazz Cruises, a charter company that specializes in jazz music trips. "These kinds of cruises offer a smorgasbord of content opportunities, and a 24/7 programming calendar to a targeted audience."

Since passengers remain on the boat for a majority of their vacation, cruises can offer marketers a captive audience for immersive advertising and integrated campaigns. "Brand ambassadors can be aboard the ship, allowing consumers a firsthand experience with the brand itself."

Gifts, and on-bed samples can also be distributed.

"Cruises provide intimate venues, and immersive communities [particularly] for music fans," adds Sara Riney of Sixthman.

The charter company has already doubled its music offerings for 2008, with 30 artists scheduled to perform next year on its Rock Boat VIII.

With top artists coming aboard, performers now oftentimes draw as much, if not more, attention from potential passengers than the destinations themselves.

The Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sister Hazel and Lyle Lovett are among those who have had their own themed cruises chartered by Sixthman.

On the Barenaked Ladies' latest tour this past January, entitled "Ships & Dips," 4,000 guests joined the band on a cruise to Jamaica.

The band performed two nights - with half the ship's passengers in attendance at each show - and mingled with passengers for the entire cruise. Lead singer Ed Robertson even participated in a "Guitar Hero" competition against five finalists, who got to play the videogame against him onstage.

"We're looking for artists that have build strong fan communities," says Riney.

Sixthman works with artist managers and music labels to find acts, and remains open to all genres of music.

"The level of involvement is up to the artist," says Riney. Some are more open to mingling with fans throughout the cruise, while others tend to keep to themselves. Marketers need to be aware of an artist's willingness to participate in public appearances and tailor their promotion plans accordingly.

Each themed cruise attracts a different demographic. For example, the audience for Barenaked Ladies skews young adult and primarily White. Jazz Cruises, a company that charters on Holland America, finds its genre-specific offerings draw older passengers and have particular resonance with African-Americans, who make up nearly half of the passengers on an average cruise.

Even event producer Live Nation is embracing cruise tie-ins. Country singer Tim McGraw received top line billing in the Live Nation-produced "Tim McGraw Country Cruise Getaway," on the Carnival Cruise Line. While he didn't perform on the ship, McGraw was the main draw when the cruise cocked at its destination in Nassau, The Bahamas.

Alternative Lifestyles

Lesbian travel company Olivia featured a live performance by Melissa Etheridge this past March on its Caribbean Escape cruise to 1,800 passengers. Other on-board entertainers to appear on Olivia cruises include such as Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, k.d.lang, and the cast of Showtime's "The L Word."

Rosie O'Donnell's vacation company, R Family Vacations, which provides alternative lifestyle family cruises and vacations, was the subject of an HBO documentary in 2004. Since then, the cruise line has expanded its entertainment offerings from Broadway stars to musical guests such as Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan and Etheridge.

Since cruises are year-round, they offer live exposure for an artist outside of the summer concert season. Yet they require a long lead-time for marketing and promotions, since passengers commonly book trips six months or a year or more in advance.

Live performances aren't the only opportunity for music marketers. For example, Raven Moon Entertainment has a deal with Royal Caribbean to play Christian recording artist Gina D's new album, "Oh Happy Day," aboard its 21 cruise ships around the clock to promote her album release.

Television: Cults Work Best

When it comes to TV tie-ins, properties with a cult-like following work best, and tend to resonate with younger demographics.

A cruise based on the "Star Trek" series is entitled Sea Trek, while the Slayer Cruise, which sets sail at the end of this June, is based on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel."

While these specialized cruises are both chartered on Royal Caribbean, they tend to draw smaller numbers of participants and don't generally commandeer the entire ship, as some of the music-themed cruises do.

They do offer exclusive activities and promotional items, as well as themed staterooms.