If there is a reliable formula for the creation of a major meeting or incentive program that succeeds in spectacular fashion, it often includes an effective collaboration between the meeting planner and a destination management company. And, without a doubt, there is a simple, clear equation for a productive and mutually satisfying planner-DMC relationship.
It includes what might be dubbed the three C’s: creativity, collaboration and communication.
To illustrate three diverse examples of DMC success stories, Corporate & Incentive Travel spoke with a trio of planners and their DMC partners in order to identify the traits that make such collaborations work.
ITA Group, an independent meeting planning company based in West Des Moines, Iowa, faced one of the industry’s worst possible nightmares after learning, in the midst of planning an April 2016 incentive program that would take 150 qualifiers plus spouses and guests to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, that its local destination management company had suddenly gone out of business — vanished, with many questions lingering in the air.
Enter Cabo San Lucas-based DMC Terramar. David Abers, CMP, ITA’s lead program manager, met Terramar’s Senior Account Manager Cheryl Miller on an emergency site inspection trip. And the duo set about transforming a potential disaster into a rousing success.
Abers and Miller faced several daunting challenges. The JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa was under construction and would open just six weeks before the high-end group arrived.
In addition, the program’s signature element, a closing-night event that would feature a custom-built galleon on the beach as its spectacular venue, was in jeopardy. Saving it would be complicated and expensive. “We had been planning to build an enormous ‘ship’ on the beach, and the hotel had said they were going to bulldoze the beach to make it level and just perfect for our event,” Abers says. “But then we ran into unexpected zoning problems during the construction of the ship. And at that point, things started to unravel because the former DMC had been going out of business, and we had no idea what had been going on. So we had to go down there and figure out what we needed to do to continue on with the scheduled program. And we had very good meetings with Terramar and Cheryl. Fortunately, she was able to pick up the existing program proposal. But she also made it much better than it originally was, which improved the overall execution of the program.”
Miller’s first action, taken under duress, was to assess the overall program and make sure it could be delivered, as planned and on budget, she says. “We also wanted to make sure that activities were being done the way we would have proposed them, and that the budget was accurate, and so on,” she says. “In other words, we wanted to make sure the program was viable, as proposed.”
A major element of accomplishing that was for Abers and Miller to work together to make the original client-approved budget work in the face of unexpectedly rising costs for the closing-night event. One important key to their ultimate success was that Abers and his ITA team were able to re-crunch their numbers and find savings that could be shifted elsewhere to sustain the event’s bottom line.
Meanwhile, with the custom-built “ship” venue for their closing night suddenly thrown into doubt, Miller stepped in and found a solution to the problem. “She and the owners of Terramar really came to the rescue,” Abers says. They knew the people who owned the property adjacent to the JW Marriott, and they were able to lease that property for us so we could build the ship and execute our big event as envisioned.” However, the acquisition of permits to stage the event presented another obstacle that had to be overcome. And then better sand had to be brought in to make the beach setting more aesthetically pleasing.
The end result: The program came off in spectacular fashion. “The event turned out to be phenomenal,” Abers says. “And at the end of the night, we did a sensational fireworks display over the ship. The client and all of the attendees were thrilled. And no one but Cheryl and me knew how much work had gone into pulling it off.”
The most important key to success, Miller says, was an honest and trusting relationship forged under pressure between strangers. “My stress level in taking over a program that faced such challenges was up there,” Miller says. “But David and I were very much on the same page in terms of what his client expected and what we had to do to address the various issues and make the program a success.”
As a result of their shared success, ITA has worked with Terramar on two additional incentive programs, for other clients in Cabo San Lucas, and they are now working together on a 2019 program to Panama on behalf of the original client. In addition to its Cabo San Lucas headquarters, Terramar has offices in Cancun, Mexico and Panama.
“The keys to the relationship are open, honest communication and mutual trust,” Abers says. “And with regard to the importance of those things, this was a learning experience for me.”
When it comes to its annual user conference held each March, Pleasanton, California-based software supplier Ellie Mae has a simple goal: It wants to be able to claim the most sensational event in its industry. In order to achieve that lofty goal, for the last two years the event has been held at the tony Wynn Las Vegas hotel. And Susan Chenoweth, Ellie Mae’s senior vice president of marketing, has worked with Activity Planners, one of the city’s most acclaimed DMCs, and its president, Stephanie Arone, DMCP.
“We rely on Stephanie and her team for many elements of the event,” Chenoweth says. “But one key is that each fall, we come up with a major marketing campaign and theme for the company for the following year. And then that theme is promoted at our conference and carried out throughout the year. And it’s always used in a big way at our conference.”
The theme for this year’s event was “License to Succeed.” And, Chenoweth says, what that meant for Ellie Mae’s customers was to “get all of the tools and techniques they need to be successful with our software, successful in their business and successful as individuals.”
Chenoweth relied on Activity Planners to bring the theme to life for the conference. “And that meant carrying it out through a number of elements of the conference,” Chenoweth says, “but most importantly on the main stage for our opening general session.”
Working as a team, Chenoweth and Arone developed a James Bond/007-based “superspy/superhero” theme. For example, registered attendees applied for their licenses to succeed and were granted secret code names and badges. The theme also was carried out through all marketing and promotional materials and across the various meeting venues at the Wynn.
“The planning for this event starts the year before, and once the theme is set, then we go through a lot of ideas to see how to best deliver it,” Arone says. “For example, there are a lot of ways you can do a spy or James Bond theme, so it’s a matter of clarifying and refining how it can be made to work best for this particular group. And to do that right is actually a complex project.”
A primary focus this year was a blockbuster, high-energy production for the opening general session, designed to deliver the wow factor with a capital W. Program elements included a custom-produced, theme-based video and a live production that culminated in a Las Vegas magician-level “reveal,” or surprise physical introduction, on the general session’s main stage, of company CEO and president Jonathan Corr. An illusion worthy of David Copperfield used a phone booth to transform a stunt man, dressed as a superhero, into the CEO in dramatic fashion.
The custom-built magical phone booth was then moved into the exhibit hall to host photo shoots with attendees and costumed superheroes. In another spectacular flourish, stunt professionals on motorcycles roared into the opening general session. “They rode the motorcycles up the aisles, and it was incredibly exciting,” Arone says. Adds Chenoweth: “Can you imagine what we had to go through to make that happen? But it was well worth all the effort. It was really amazing. People were really shocked.” And that was exactly the reaction Ellie Mae wanted. “Our goal is to really wake people up and get them going,” Chenoweth says. “We want high energy, high impact, right from the start.”
In a budget-conscious era, not many corporate clients aspire to, or are willing to, pay the cost of such creative and sensational meeting attributes, Arone notes. “The level of commitment that Ellie Mae makes to really deliver a spectacular attendee experience is at the high end of the scale,” she says. “It’s very important to them as an organization. But not many companies these days think that way or are willing to make the investment that is required to do something that unique and spectacular.”
The result? This year’s conference drew 3,000 attendees, up from 2,200 in 2016.
“And one of the reasons our conference has grown so dramatically over the last several years is that our attendees have such a great experience,” Chenoweth says. “If they’re going to take the time and spend the money to attend, we want to make sure the event is very special to them and that they are as excited and engaged as they can possibly be. So we work very hard to deliver an awesome experience. And really great partners like Activity Planners play a major role in that.”
When the Pacific Rim division of a major information technology company began planning its high-end spring 2017 incentive program for 42 attendees, the identification and selection of a destination that would offer a truly unique experience was at the core of the exercise.
Working with the Melbourne, Australia-based incentive house 212ºF, the company ultimately opted for New Orleans and its French Quarter landmark hotel, the Royal Sonesta.
Why The Big Easy? “When my client was looking at destinations, they wanted one that would be a genuine experience, something their attendees would typically not be able to do on their own, and something that was a party,” says 212ºF Account Director Tanya Henneman, who led the planning of the program. “But they also wanted culture and history.”
New Orleans fit that bill perfectly. However, given the timing of the trip — during Mardi Gras in February — a central issue became delivering an authentic experience of the singular culture and cuisine of New Orleans, and not just the world-famous celebratory madness of Mardi Gras.
Accomplishing those dual goals required special expertise and experience. As a result, 212ºF turned to DMC Hosts New Orleans, the local outpost of worldwide DMC Hosts Global.
“The challenge,” says Hosts New Orleans Associate Director of Sales Yvonne Collazo, CIS, “was operating a high-end incentive program of this caliber during Mardi Gras. There are a lot of unique obstacles that are created for a group during Mardi Gras. So that meant we had to have many detailed conversations during the planning process about what was realistic. For example, the client wanted to do the closing event on Fat Tuesday. Operating in the French Quarter on the final day of Mardi Gras presents unique challenges for obvious reasons. And those kinds of considerations really applied to the entire program because of Mardi Gras. For example, we didn’t want the group to get stuck behind a parade, because then you’re part of that parade for as long as it goes on.”
Despite such a challenge, based on its longstanding and exceptional local expertise, Hosts New Orleans created a spectacular program that showcased the very best of the city, while also capturing the singular magic of Mardi Gras.
Program highlights included an opening night “New Orleans Food Experience” at one of the French Quarter’s renowned restaurants, which features an outdoor patio and live jazz. Another classic New Orleans experience included a po’boy event based on the city’s legendary sandwiches, created in the 1920s and typically featuring roast beef, local specialty andouille sausage, or fried seafood served on crisp, light French bread with an array of condiments.
Other program high points included an interactive mixology experience with a live musical performance at the Royal Sonesta’s Jazz Playhouse, and a lunch and sea plane/airboat outing at time-honored offsite venue Bayou Barn in swamp country outside the city. A dinner highlight was a New Orleans-style feast at Court of the Two Sisters, one of the French Quarter’s oldest and most beloved restaurants.
The most unique and thrilling high point was VIP admittance to an exclusive Mardi Gras ball hosted by one of the city’s most celebrated Mardi Gras “super krewes,” the Orpheus parade, produced in the 1990s by Harry Connick Jr.
“The Orpheuscapade was at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and it was a very sophisticated black-tie ball,” says Hosts New Orleans Director of Operations Carol Padgett. “Our attendees were hosted by the captain of the krewe. That’s an experience that very few people from outside New Orleans ever get to have. Our group got a police escort from the parade to the party. It’s something you remember forever.”
On their last day in the city, attendees experienced a speakeasy-themed gala event — An Evening of Fringe, Feathers and Fedoras — at the Napoleon House, one of the most iconic destinations in the city. The gala featured handsome gangsters and beautiful flappers who greeted guests with feather boas and fedoras on arrival, an absinthe tasting station, a six-course menu with premium beverages and wines, and a late night burlesque performance.
Although the program generated rave reviews from the client and attendees, for Henneman the most satisfying part of the experience was working so successfully with Hosts New Orleans. “The biggest thing for me was that they actually listened,” she says. “They paid very careful attention to exactly what we said we wanted, what we were aiming for as an experience. And a big part of that was that we wanted something different, something really special. And not only did they bring it all to life, but they brought it to life just as I had imagined it. They really came through. Everybody loved the experience they had. But for me as the planner, the main thing was that my DMC perfectly executed my vision. They delivered exactly what I wanted and hoped for. And we got the best of both worlds, the Mardi Gras experience and the traditional New Orleans experience.”
The end result: The new planner-DMC relationship has blossomed beyond New Orleans, and 212ºF will now work with Hosts Global in various destinations around the world for future events on behalf of multiple clients .C&IT