When a meeting planner is tasked with planning an incentive — a reward that checks all the boxes in fulfilling an attendee’s dreams and desires — one prime-time piece of this puzzle is the destination. But what makes a destination desirable, so desirable that participants are over-the-top enthralled by the choice and so energized by its selection that they leave determined to qualify for a repeat performance? Opinions vary, but after visiting with an assortment of experts, cases are made for a variety of places — from the tried and true to those beyond expectations.
“The destination, resort and experience are, of course, the stars of the show as motivators,” says Maritz Travel’s Ryan Mulholland, account manager responsible for the annual pitch perfect group/destination match of a corporate team from the automotive industry with the Indy 500. “My client’s goal in hosting this event is two-fold: to strengthen partner relationships and to create mindshare for their brand,” the planner says. The home base for this group is the JW Marriott Indianapolis, and it is a week full of city activities by day and dining experiences each night. However, the main event is race day, when the entire group travels to the track to watch the fast-paced extravaganza.
“As a city, Indianapolis is perfect for meetings. Their ability to host major sporting events makes it appealing for incentives. The dining scene is also solid in Indy and is still developing into something better and better each time I visit,” Mulholland says.
Concurring with Mulholland’s assessment is Daren Kingi, senior vice president of sales for Visit Indy, who underscores his city’s sports orientation. “Indy’s reputation is raising the bar on the event experience when we host major sporting events like the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Fours and Big Ten Championships, as well as those in our upcoming calendar, including the NBA All-Star Weekend and 2022 College Football Championship. All have caught the attention of incentive planners.”
Among other domestic choices, Mulholland hails Southern California “as good as it gets for an incentive destination” and gives a special shout out to San Diego, Laguna Beach/Orange County and Santa Barbara. “Many of the attendees we see with our various clients are wealthy and can afford to do almost anything they’d like if they were traveling on their own dime, so our challenge is to create an experience that money can’t buy and to leverage our volume to do it. This would be something like a private tour of the Vatican.”
From years of experience, Mulholland knows that attendees especially enjoy authentic destination experiences, so things like dine-arounds and activities that give people a chance to feel like a local always go over well. “And if we can set them up with information and opportunities to know what good ‘non-touristy’ attractions there are, they love us for it,” he explains. “We are the specialists at designing and creating experiences that people want to be a part of, so if anything, millennials have challenged, really nudged, the M&I industry into embracing this concept. I don’t think it’s influenced the choice of destinations, but I do think it influences how we design the experiences offered, wherever the destination.”
With respect to the planner/client relationship, Mulholland says his clients are typically groups of about 100 for a six- or seven-night trip, so accessibility and travel schedules are important. Thus, they need enough lift to get everyone in without issue and without a long ground transfer once they’ve arrived at the airport. “A truly world-class destination could make these factors less important, like the Maldives and Bora Bora, but generally these are the first things we think about. It’s certainly not important to all clients, so you just have to know who your clients are,” he says.
However, planners don’t have to traverse the Pacific to reach stunning beach locations. Sarasota County, Florida features 35 miles of pristine sand on the Gulf of Mexico and its namesake city has the state’s highest concentration of Zagat-rated restaurants. Little known to many planners, however, is Sarasota’s reputation as Circus City. Having once been the winter home of circus owner John Ringling, Ellen Thomas, senior meeting sales manager, Visit Sarasota County, says: “Groups love The Ringling (aka Ca ’d’Zan, “House of John”) where events overlooking the bay on the patio of John Ringling’s elaborate home, or in an Italian palazzo can be designed. Tours of the circus museums or of a priceless fine art collection are included in this exclusively Sarasota experience.” Upping the ante is the Circus Arts Conservatory, a 15,000-sf Big Top show and event venue where willing attendees can learn the skills of aerial silks, tightrope and trapeze.
Like real estate, the guidelines in selecting incentive destinations are ‘location, location, location.’ However, if an international location is the preference, but the priorities are proximity, cost and familiarity, look no further than Vancouver, British Columbia. This Canadian metropolis, that in the category of environment alone, espouses it all — a harbor, the ocean, the mountains and all the activities that come with these geographic blessings. It is home to the mildest temperatures in Canada, a 1.5-hour drive from Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, a 20-minute float plane ride from BC’s quaint capital city of Victoria and is a great value while the U.S. dollar fluctuates. One U.S. dollar buys $1.30 U.S. of hotel rooms, meeting space and F&B in Canada.
Here, it’s possible to breakfast with bears and sightsee from the top of a wind turbine on Grouse Mountain; join a chef’s tour, shopping excursion and cooking class at Granville Island Public Market; attend a Vancouver Canucks NHL hockey game for high-end dining and a meet-and-greet with players; and visit the Vancouver Aquarium to feed and train the marine mammals.
Sweetening the deal are the city’s 13,000 rooms in its downtown core and the ability to fly in/out of Vancouver International Airport, officially designated “best airport in North America for 10 consecutive years” by the Skytrax World Airport Awards, and is served by 56 airlines flying to 125 non-stops destinations and the arrival of 78 U.S. flights daily.
“My clients are focused on tropical destinations such as Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas and the Caribbean,” says Deanne Vigil, regional vice president for HelmsBriscoe, a company dedicated to matching the needs of the meeting and incentive planners with the right hotel and destination. When looking domestic, Vigil’s groups typically desire a beach destination, but she’s also seeing a greater interest in international cities such as Dublin, Ireland and Florence, Italy. The goal is simple: “Clients want to offer an experience that their attendees may not have had on their own.” Case in point: An incentive trip to Florence and the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze for 100 top sales performers of a Southern California pharmaceutical company — a group that this year traveled to the Caribbean’s Nevis and is considering Prague or other European cities for 2021.
Vigil’s destination selection guidelines are the following: Travel is typically late April/early May; accessibility translates to no more than one connection and not more than an 8- to 12-hour flight. Authenticity is essential and there must be things to do for a group of 100 with varying interests. She details that award dinners are always unique to the destination — such as private homes or beach venues for Hawaii, Nevis and historic palaces or castles for choices such as Italy and Ireland. And with respect to a new take on accommodations, Vigil adds: “We are starting to see more interest from start-up and tech companies looking at air streams and non-traditional hotel or resort experiences. ‘Glamping’ is also a newer trend for incentives.”
According to Elizabeth Anderson, event manager, and Ruth Wikoff-Jones, CSEP, senior new business specialist with One10 — a company experienced in travel & events, incentives & recognition and marketing services — Hawaii is an ‘it’ incentive destination for a variety of reasons. “Often incentive groups trend toward places that offer warm weather and sandy beaches, experiences in local culture and history, multicultural and hyper-local culinary experiences and excellent shopping. Hawaii ticks all these boxes.”
The One10 duo explain that it’s approachable, relaxed and though it’s a part of the U.S., a group feels like it’s landed in another country. Additionally, each island has its own feel — metropolitan Oahu, lush Maui and Kauai and volcanic Hawaii — so planners can take the same group multiple times and have different experiences by changing the island. “It has become a go-to for companies looking for an alternative to Mexico for groups who are sensitive to issues there, as the perception is that Hawaii is a safe destination,” Wikoff-Jones says.
Breaking down planners’ considerations into categories: seasonal travel, cost and the three A’s (accessibility, accommodations and activities), they expound. With respect to seasonal travel, there really isn’t a bad time to go there. Cost-wise, Hawaii is not an inexpensive option, but it is on par with destinations in the Caribbean. And because the destination of Hawaii knows how to work with groups, there are cost-saving measures in place. Hawaii offers good air lift from the continental U.S. and once you get to Honolulu, flights to the other islands are readily accessible. The availability of excellent hotel products is remarkable for such a small geographic location. Luxury options include brands such as Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton; and for the more price-conscious incentives, major hotel brands and even boutique resorts are in the mix. Hawaii is a great destination because of its authentic offerings and its ‘Aloha’ ways, with locals always friendly, welcoming and eager to share their culture and a cuisine that reflects the melting pot of ethnicities who have inhabited these islands — Polynesian, Japanese, Maori and even the U.S. mainland.
Having planned several sales incentive trips last year for leaders in the automotive industry to a variety of resorts on two islands, participants were greeted with an endless list of made-in-Hawaii options. Two days of activities entertained a group last year of 45 couples at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui. Among these enticements were a catamaran cruise, zip lining, golfing, spa going, a kayaking adventure, an afternoon of leisure with the option of shopping in Whalers Village and Lahaina Town and a farewell finale on Ritz-Carlton’s Beach House Lawn, complete with traditional hula dancers, a fire dancer and a lively band.
In July last year the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay hosted and entertained One10’s group of 35 families (150 participants) with water-oriented activities, horseback riding, shooting, archery and a family friendly outing called the “Animal Lovers’ Experience.” Custom designed for the group, it included a stop at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary where attendees were able to interact with all sizes and ages of felines, an outing to the Stables at Koele to learn about and work with the horses and a visit with resort “ambassador” Uncle Bruno and his on-property assortment of birds.
This resort was so hands-on that when one of the younger guests lost her stuffed Snoopy, the onsite team and hotel partners whipped into action to find the treasured friend. However, as it was after the girl’s departure, the hotel made Snoopy an honorary manager and returned him with a great adventure photo booklet detailing his journey.
“Know you audience and demographics,” Anderson urges. The demographics of last year’s incentive trip for 70 couples to Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea was on the younger side and as a result, they were offered a “day your way” with a rental car option and two free evenings to explore the area. “It was a hit!” With respect to millennials, “It’s important to capture luxury experience — high quality and refined — without the pretentiousness and ‘stuffiness’ of what would be considered traditional, and that includes the destination, hotels, venues and overall experience,” Anderson says. She elaborates that while they value luxury, they want it delivered in an uncomplicated and more relaxed manner. They have also redefined luxury as the ability to “choose” rather than gravitate to high-end brands.
Set on another island in another ocean was the intimate incentive for 30 of LegalShield’s top earners — destination Iceland. Having learned from planning this annual event last year that the close-knit group of colleagues enjoys adventure and discovering new places together, the One10 team ensured every experience was extraordinary — exploring Reykjavik via tuk-tuks (six-person buggies), driving off-road jeeps over the Mars-like terrain, dining on lobster in a quaint village by the sea, a dip in the Blue Lagoon, climbing a glacier in Mercedes 4×4 vehicles for snowmobiling and ending with a meal called “a dinner in the skies,” complete with mesmerizing views of the Northern Lights. The planner says of the trip and its accolades: “We never tire of hearing the sentiment ‘best trip ever.’”
Bottom line for One10’s meeting professionals regarding destinations and what they offer: “Attendees are demanding more opportunities to customize their experiences, even within group travel, more exclusivity and unique happenings, far beyond what they could do on their own or have done in the past,” Anderson says. She additionally sees an increase in the desire for more ‘active’ options and the inclusion of learning opportunities such as cooking, mixology, fashion and art. “They want the bragging rights to share with colleagues and friends,” Wikoff-Jones concludes. C&IT