As part of her role as event specialist for the Alerton and Trend divisions of Honeywell, Lacey Hein plans many international events. “We’ve done a couple of our conferences on the Trend channel overseas, mostly in England,” she explains, “because our parent company is there. But incentives are mostly what we’ve been doing internationally because it’s a little bit more special. It feels like you’re getting something more.”
She described one trend that is impacting her planning. “Lead times are getting longer as things are rebounding. Rates are going up, and they’re starting to sell out more, so it’s definitely something that we’re paying attention to. (Previously) we’ve been planning six to nine months out, and now we’re trying to get our 2015 lined up. We’re really planning a year and a half and maybe two years out.”
— Lacey Hein, Events Specialist, Honeywell – Alerton & Trend, Redmond, WA
Two Maritz Travel executives, Meg Pisani, director of industry relations, and Heather Heidbrink, director, sourcing, say that the globalization of U.S. companies is creating new opportunities for international meetings. “Most of our clients with a global presence share their company’s mission and sales strategies with their colleagues abroad. One way to achieve this is by recreating the same meaningful meetings held in the U.S. for those abroad, essentially creating regional events around the world. (By doing so), companies have the ability to allow employees in foreign areas to attend meetings closer to home that infuse their company and local culture. This strategy is becoming increasingly popular due to a few factors, including annual airfare increases and economic fluctuations.”
Joe Lustenberger, director of marketing, North America, for euromic, an events and destination management partnership with offices in 36 countries, shares his company’s global perspective. “What we see and perceive from corporations is that even if they are U.S.-based, when they become a global company, there is a reluctance to organize their events in the U.S., so they tend to move internationally. And the natural process takes them, usually for the first time out of the U.S., to Europe to one of the major destinations, i.e., London, Paris or Rome.”
While the “wow” factors and/or convenience of a destination are important, so is the value that a destination offers. “I have found some great values overseas like Aruba in September,” Hein notes. “It’s not quite low season yet for them. It’s a little bit of a shoulder season. I was able to get great all-inclusive rates at The Westin (Resort & Casino, Aruba). Additionally, we were just in Jamaica this year for another incentive in April, and again, I found that to be a great value. It was all-inclusive, as well.”
Hein says they just started using all-inclusive properties this year. She learned about them by attending shows such as the Incentive Travel Exchange and IMEX. “I’ve gotten exposed to more of what’s out there. (All-inclusives) work out great. Your food is covered, your beverages are covered. You add in some activities and that’s it.”
She says that for another program, they looked at the Mexico destinations of Cabo and Cancun, and ultimately decided on Puerto Vallarta. “Los Cabos is where everybody on the West Coast goes, so Puerto Vallarta is just a little bit further and slightly more exotic.”
Hein explains that she normally does a ski incentive trip that is coming close to pricing itself out of the market because of the rising cost of room rates at the high-end ski resorts her group is accustomed to staying at. “I can take them to Mexico or the Caribbean and pay half of that,” she says.
“We’re looking at a complete revamp of our programs for 2015, and we’re looking at going even further internationally and looking at places like France and Barcelona, places again that are those incentive destinations where you feel like you’re getting a much cooler trip,” she adds. “We also looked at Monaco. It wasn’t that badly priced. When you start looking at activities, you can add a lot of cost there because you have to transport everybody everywhere. But for us, it’s an owners/managers trip, and we’re competing for their travel time. These guys can afford pretty much to go anywhere they want. For us to take them, we have to make it worth their while. That’s why we’ve really started ramping up our international trips. People are starting to expect it. We’re also trying to drive sales, and so if we can say ‘if you do X,’ you can go to Monaco, I think that’s going to be a better increase for us.”
Minimizing risk is an important facet of any international program, and local destination management companies (DMCs) can play a key role in helping to ensure a group’s safety and security. “We can support the company’s own security staff and supplement with local ones, Lustenberger explains. “We can also provide all types of warning information needed in the destination. As the ‘feet on the ground,’ we are more aware of local trends and have great knowledge of security concerns and contacts in the location.”
He noted some additional advantages of working with a local DMC when visiting an unfamiliar foreign destination. “The DMC knows the location and the suppliers. They speak the local language and know the customs and common business practices. They develop relationships with local suppliers, ensuring the best rates, services and venues.”
That local knowledge can prove to be invaluable. Conceptours, euromic’s affiliate in Athens, shared an example of an emergency situation they handled for a major client. The day before the group’s 450 guests needed to be transported to the airport for their departing flights, the local bus owner’s union unexpectedly announced a 24-hour strike. Conceptours was able to overcome the situation by working throughout the night to contract public buses to get the guests to the airport in time for their flights. The fact that the DMC had those local contacts and relationships literally saved the day.
A representative of Destination China, another euromic partner, adds that a local DMC also can help planners create a more meaningful theme for their program, one that incorporates the local culture and the reasons for meeting in that destination. They say that DMC representatives also can help ensure that the meeting’s content and materials won’t be in conflict with local customs to avoid offending anyone in the host city.
Euromic recently launched a new mobile website at m.euromic.com to provide planners with a mobile-friendly version of its website for use with tablets, smartphones and other mobile technology. It also links planners to the email, phone numbers and social media outlets of euromic’s partner DMCs around the world to facilitate convenient communications.
Holding a meeting or incentive in a foreign destination also can provide opportunities to incorporate memorable community service projects into the program. Mark Jordan, sales manager for Amstar DMC in the Dominican Republic, says, “While Punta Cana has been a favored incentive destination for a number of years now, the increase in corporate groups deciding upon our destination for their meetings, events and functions has increased three-fold since 2010. The increase in groups has also seen a change in the activities and events that are now on the rise here in Punta Cana. The traditional activities of zip line and snorkeling adventures are still as popular as ever, but we have seen a lot of companies now combining these with outreach projects in the community such as helping to improve local schools and orphanages by building basketball courts, sports facilities, painting and improving buildings, donating school/sports supplies and providing water pumps where needed.”
Pisani and Heidbrink shared some of their top international meeting destination picks for value and safety. “Currently, we’re finding high value in locations like London, Frankfurt, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Barcelona and Madrid. Value-wise, these cities are able to accommodate large group movements. In addition, these cities have fabulous airlift.
“Spain, Frankfurt and the Asian cities offer competitive pricing and are major international centers of commerce, making them great sourcing cities when seeking an international meeting destination. Also very popular, London, Madrid and Dubai are major international centers of commerce. These cities provide great options for meetings (including 10,000+ conference attendees) of any size with great airlift and a high concentration of hotels.”
As for “up and coming” destinations, Pisani and Heidbrink are noticing that Asia, South America and the Middle East (Dubai specifically) are all experiencing a lot of growth. “In addition, many of our hotel partners are showing huge growth in China, India, Brazil and Russia.”
Nikki Nestor, president and CEO of World Class Travel by Invitation, has been planning incentive programs since starting the company in 1991. International programs are the company’s specialty. “I think Italy, no matter how expensive it gets, seems to be a destination that individuals who perform highly cannot get enough of,” she notes. “They do the iconic destinations first — Florence, Venice and Rome — and then they say, ‘What about Tuscany and how about a cruise of Italy?’ We also like South America, which is coming along very well in terms of its infrastructure. We really like Peru and Argentina, which have really been popular with our clients.”
She adds, “We always like Tahiti because it’s such a fantasy destination. In Moorea and Papeete, for what you can buy in terms of theme parties and entertainment, it becomes very cost effective. It takes knowledge of how to move people around and how to work in the island, but Tahiti has what I call ‘authentic hospitality.’ It comes from the heart. It comes from who they are.”
One sure way to motivate incentive program participants to achieve their goals is to offer them a program that will allow them to check off multiple “bucket list” items in one trip. In that case, New Zealand may very well fit the bill. Tourism New Zealand has developed a series of sample itineraries to demonstrate the number of amazing experiences that can be packed into a single memorable trip. For example, a group could start out in Auckland by touring the city on the back of a Harley Davidson, learn the ropes of sailing on a racing yacht that once competed in the America’s Cup and dine on the city’s scenic waterfront — and that’s just the first day!
“We really like New Zealand,” Nestor states. “It has two wonderful islands. It takes time to do two islands, so what we’ve done in the past is to do South Island and the Queenstown area because of all of the wonderful activities and the natural beauty. The people are lovely and the food is fabulous and the wines, of course, are one of the things that they’re very famous for. Then we do a pre- or post-program extension for people who want to see Auckland or another area.”
From its stunning setting on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown makes the ideal base for outdoor adventures that include river rafting, bungy jumping, jet boating, hiking, golfing, helicopter tours, skiing and off-roading. Fans of the “Lord of the Rings” films can even visit many of the sites where the movies were filmed. Their experience will quickly reconfirm the fact that director Peter Jackson knows a thing or two about choosing scenic backdrops. For the group’s awards dinner or farewell gala, it’s hard to beat a gondola ride to the top of Bob’s Peak to watch the sunset and take in magnificent lake and mountain views over dinner at Skyline Restaurant.
“There are certain destinations that are more tax-friendly,” Nestor explains, noting Monte Carlo and Mexico as examples. “It’s an advantage when they’re bidding against another destination, another country.” Monaco, for example, has passed legislation that allows for the refund of the Value Added Tax (VAT) on certain business expenses. In Mexico, meetings are exempt from VAT as part of the country’s commitment to winning international meeting and event business. Nestor says that getting the taxes refunded may require some extra effort, but it’s well worth it in the end.
Hein also pays close attention to the amount of time it takes to get to a destination. She says, for example, that an island destination that would require multiple flights and then a ferry would be a deal-breaker. “If it’s too hard for people to get there, no matter how exotic it is, that’s all they’re going to remember and all they’re going to complain about, especially if it’s three or four nights.”
Pisani and Heidbrink also report, “One of the key trends we’re seeing in international meetings is a focus on quality and employee engagement, specifically making sure that guests’ cultural viewpoints are incorporated into the meeting. When designing any meeting, domestic or international, it’s always important to consider design and guests’ expectations. Overall, meeting design helps create a high level of engagement and relevance for participants.”
For many groups, having the opportunity to attend a meeting or incentive in an international destination offers a rare opportunity to embrace and explore a different culture. The challenge for planners, however, is that many groups today are composed of attendees from multiple generations, each of which has different expectations. For some incentive participants, having a chance to chill out on the beach or spend some quality time in a spa is a dream come true. For others, it’s the thrill of extreme adventures. So what’s a planner to do? The obvious choice is to find a destination that offers something for everyone.
Costa Rica is one such destination. For many U.S.-based companies, it’s a natural choice because they already have operations here. For others, the country offers a choice of spectacular coastal resorts for beach lovers as well as eco-friendly coffee plantation tours and other activities for those passionate about sustainability. But the country is probably best known for its stunning tropical terrain and diverse ecosystems. It is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. This natural setting enhances the experience of thrill-seekers as they soar through the treetops of the rainforest on a zip line, go white-water rafting down the rapids or ascend through the mystical beauty of a cloud forest as they climb to the top of a volcano. With one visit to this tropical wonderland, visitors quickly understand why the national saying of Costa Rica is “Pura Vida” which translates into “Life is Good.”
The 372-room Real InterContinental, located in the capital of San Jose in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, offers a balance of luxury and adventure. Set in the upscale community of Escazú, the hotel features five dining venues, a luxurious spa and a separate club tower with 98 rooms and suites to accommodate VIPs, including the largest Presidential Suite in Central America. Costa Rica’s most modern shopping mall, Multiplaza, is just across the street, and a wide variety of rainforest adventures are readily accessible in the surrounding area.
With so many choices around the world, it pays to stay flexible. As Hein says, “We’re just taking it as it comes and looking at things and not necessarily setting our hearts on a destination until we figure out what it’s going to cost.” C&IT