When it comes to experiences and interactions, authenticity has become key. In meetings and incentive programs, whether domestically or abroad, attendees want, even demand, authentic experiences that showcase local communities, food, drinks, activities and culture.
It’s no longer enough for tourism offices and DMCs to provide the standard tourist experience, however tried and true an activity or attraction may be. Today’s travelers want a deeper dive into local culture, even when traveling for business. They want an experience that gives them real insight into a destination, from its history, food and people to its very essence. DMCs and incentive providers are front and center in the effort to provide exactly that.
Experiential authenticity doesn’t necessarily equate to pretty or easy. Some authentic experiences challenge travelers to examine tumultuous periods of history and political conflict, as 100 attendees from a U.S.-based multinational conglomerate found during an incentive program in Ireland.
Michael Dalton, CIS, director of sales with Irish DMC Moloney & Kelly, brought the group to Belfast. There they embarked on a Black Taxi tour of neighborhoods affected by “the Troubles.”
“The tour delves into the political past and what life was like for locals on both sides of the conflict and shows how this shaped Belfast to become the vibrant, buzzing city it is today.”
— Michael Dalton
In addition, they had a range of experiences that showcased different aspects of the country’s culture, past and present. Among them was an offsite dinner in Winterfell Castle, home to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” “Everyone got in costume and participated in activities such as archery, and they had their photos taken in the Iron Throne,” Dalton notes. “The local destination experience continued with a visit to the queen’s residence in Northern Ireland for afternoon tea on her very own fine china. On arrival at Hillsborough Castle, the bugler sounded the arrival and guests were treated to a VIP tour where they had the opportunity to peruse family photos of the British Royal Family while enjoying some royal treatment themselves.”
And then there was immersion in a more modern aspect of culture. Just outside of Dublin in County Wicklow, known as “the garden of Ireland,” the group visited Powerscourt House and spent a day at celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio’s Ballyknocken Farm. In addition to being immersed in the postcard-worthy lush green countryside, they experienced local food and music via hands-on experiences.
“Here they learned to make Irish scones and how to play the bodhrán, an Irish drum,” notes Dalton. “They participated in an Irish dancing lesson and also learned the art of sheepherding. One of the evening events involved a local farmer’s market experience at Powerscourt House. The event was designed as a bespoke Taste of Wicklow experience, complete with artisan food, beverage and local craft producers.”
Dalton believes that splitting the program between two locations gave attendees a richer cultural experience. “Showing two cultures within one destination offered unique perspectives to attendees. While Ireland is a somewhat small island compared to any state in North America, we have extensive variety throughout each of the regions. Doing a split program in two locations gave the attendees the opportunity to experience more culture and clearly see the differences between our localities.”
The program exposed the incentive group to what Dalton calls “a full immersion of local food, drink, song, dance, history and culture. It provided attendees with a well-rounded destination experience that afforded them the opportunity to learn something new, be it a new talent, taste or even simply uncovering a new hidden gem of knowledge.”
That said, Dalton notes, “I firmly believe that in any destination, it’s the people and the characters that visitors come across that make the difference. When guests get to hear the stories of the Black Taxi drivers or William from Winterfell Castle or chef Catherine Fulvio, they learn so much. These individuals have enormous passion for their trade, their location and their communities. It gives attendees a sense of fulfillment to learn from these enthusiastic ambassadors and allows them to return home recharged, energized and eager to share their own passionate stories of life, travel and experiences with others.”
In terms of the bottom line, he notes, “For planners it’s important to understand that hotel rates include breakfast, Wi-Fi and all taxes and charges. Resort fees and additional taxes or charges do not exist here. This is important when comparing with other cities,” Dalton says.
“Also, there are practical financial supports in place for such things as site inspections and FAM trips. You can typically expect support to the level of 2,000 euros toward a site inspection for a program consisting of 50 people or more staying a minimum of three nights. As a DMC, we complete the paperwork as a complimentary service and the money is transferred directly to the meeting planner.”
Among the hotels Dalton chose for this group were Culloden Belfast and Powerscourt Hotel.
“Culloden Belfast was a former bishops’ palace and the setting is beautiful. Given the locations that attendees were likely to come from, the client wanted to do a split program in and out of Dublin. Belfast was the perfect location being just 90 minutes from Dublin Airport, or as we sometimes call it, Belfast South Airport.
Powerscourt gave the charming countryside element, stunning spacious bedrooms and reduced the airport transfer on the return journey. Both hotels offer unique settings, styles and locations, which was a perfect mix for this client’s program,” Dalton says.
In fact, the hotels themselves provided part of the cultural immersion. “The Culloden is owned and operated by the Hastings family, who are extremely supportive of local farmers and businesses in the area. For example, every morning at breakfast guests have a little booklet that tells them exactly which orchard the apple juice comes from or which farm supplied the sausages and bacon. And given its location near the oldest working whiskey distillery in the world, guests will always find a bottle of Bushmills whiskey beside the porridge so they can put a little kick in their step each morning.”
Dalton points out that Powerscourt Hotel is set on the grounds of the incredible Powerscourt Estate. “The hotel was designed to feature as many local elements as possible, including numerous nods to the locality, estate and Dublin’s Georgian architecture. This is evident through the Georgian doorways on guest rooms, hot air balloon chandeliers (a nod to the filming of the Count of Monte Cristo in the estate) and the stunning gardens and views from the property.”
While approximately 50 percent of the attendees had been to Ireland previously, Dalton says that almost none had been to Northern Ireland and thus were very excited for the new experience. “It exceeded all expectations and the meeting planner was thrilled with the reaction from the attendees. With quite a number of people having visited Ireland before, the key here was presenting something unique that they had not seen. The major comment that came out from attendees was, ‘Wow I didn’t know this was here. We never knew about this last time.’ ”
By infusing culture, art and creativity into the experience in both destinations, Dalton says it enhanced the attendees’ overall experience. And he believes that DMCs are best able to provide the knowledge, expertise and local characters that groups want and that planners probably would not be able to find on their own.
“Don’t ever be afraid,” he says, “to push the boundaries and embrace fusion between two unrelated industries or activities to create a one-off option that will surprise and delight.”
Catherine Jones, CMP, CMM, CITE, MA, MBA, owner of The Edventive Group, a custom travel consultancy focused on innovative programs, recently took 46 medical professionals to Australia with a goal of giving them not only an authentic cultural experience, but specifically, an authentic dive into Australia’s medical culture and community.
Jones says Australia was “an amazing fit for this group” thanks in part to adequate airlift, overall cost and quality of lodging. But that was just the start.
“For many Americans, Australia represents the trip of a lifetime. The opportunity to explore the country’s culture, abundance of natural riches, exotic animals and the opportunity to explore the training of its medical professionals were lures for the client,” Jones says. “The examination of the training of professionals as well as the delivery of medical care, especially in remote areas, were of interest.”
The group got to interact with and learn from members of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), which provides medical care in the Outback.
“The RFDS faces many of the same challenges that medical providers face in states with rural populations such as Texas,” Jones says. “As is the case at home in similar areas, the RFDS often relies on nurse practitioners rather than doctors to shoulder some of the burden of care in sparsely populated areas, and this was of particular interest to this group. To assess formal training, the group benefited from a symposium and tour that we arranged at the University of Sydney. Additionally, during our time in Cairns, we toured the Daintree forest with an aboriginal guide and learned about some of the complementary medical treatments long used by aboriginal people.”
The group also experienced some of the country’s non-medical attractions. “While in Uluru, we participated in activities such as the Field of Light art installation and a sunrise tour of Uluru, as well as a walking tour of Katja Juta,” Jones notes. “And we spent time with naturalists and oceanographers on our day at the Great Barrier Reef.”
This client has a long history of cultural immersion trips, Jones says, “And in fact the point is cultural immersion. The official description of this program is to ‘focus on the development of the medical professional in the role of citizen and professional in a global society.’ ”
To that end, the group chose the Desert Gardens Hotel at Ayers Rock Resort because it’s a training hotel for the Accor brand.
“Accor Hotels has invested heavily in the Uluru area and runs a training program for indigenous peoples in their hotels.”
— Catherine Jones
Staying there gave the group special opportunities for interaction with, and provided insight into, that indigenous culture. “Being located in Uluru in a hotel staffed mostly by indigenous people offers an amazing experience,” Jones says.
She calls Australia a spectacular location for meetings, conferences and incentives. “The opportunities for cultural deep dives abound. From the exploration of aboriginal culture to the opportunity to explore the country’s rich wildlife, Australia is unmatched. The country’s DMCs are amazing and Tourism Australia has proven to be an invaluable partner for the various programs that I have planned over the years.”
As different as Australia may be, the similarities to areas of the United States and to populations served by medical professionals are readily apparent, and that was a huge benefit to this group. “The feedback from this experience was amazing,” Jones says. “For this group, the similarities in providing health care to remote areas is an issue that they face on a daily basis. The exploration of indigenous cultures was beneficial as many of the topics that were discussed were similar to providing health care to our Native American populations.”
Jones says the key for planners to providing a meaningful experience for groups is to first understand your client’s goals and aims for their program. “Once you have a deep understanding, you are able to work to construct a truly meaningful experience for your groups, one that is not superficial.”
Sometimes, it’s the internal workings of the country itself that give groups opportunities for cultural immersion. Switzerland’s famously punctual and well-integrated transportation system isn’t just a means to get from one place to another. It’s integral to the fabric of Swiss society as well as a portal to the heart and soul of Swiss culture, which in large part is defined by the nation’s eclectic geography. There are French, German and Italian regions, and mountains, lakes and urban landscapes — all defined by the singular cultures within them and connected by an extraordinary transportation system.
Renato Grieco, director of sales with Ovation, a DMC, recently worked with a group of 100 from a company for its annual meeting. “A good incentive in Switzerland is successful when a combination of mountain and lake resorts is selected, such as Lucerne and Interlaken or Zurich and Zermatt or Gstaad and the Lake Geneva Region,” he says.
“Accommodation opportunities in Switzerland are huge — maybe not in terms of hotel size, but definitely in terms of choice,” he notes. “You can go from historical and luxurious properties to charming, family-owned pensions. There is a solution for everyone. Distances from major international airports such as Basel, Geneva and Zurich are quite short, and a transfer in Switzerland is a full-discovery experience.”
Authentic culture, he adds, is simply a given. “Let’s be realistic. It is unlikely an incentive will take place in Switzerland without infusing a local Swiss touch into the program. Sometimes simple things such as a chocolate workshop or a tasting cheese fondue dinner or a visit to a local winemaker can create a rich cultural experience. For this specific client, aspects that were important were innovation and technology, and Switzerland is rich in opportunities when it comes to those areas.”
Grieco believes that cultural immersion elevates a program and Switzerland is easily able to offer that. Guests visiting Switzerland, he says, want to experience what Switzerland is known for, starting with the travel system, which, among other things, allows even less experienced hikers to explore iconic mountains — think of the great rail experiences, for example, such as the Bernina Express, Jungfraujoch and Glacier Express.
“With four official languages, modern contemporary sites, medieval villages, lakes, mountains, glaciers and palm trees, we can truly identify ourselves as diverse.”
— Renato Grieco
“Another aspect of the country is its well-known neutrality, which also translates to safety. Even though the Swiss pride themselves as truly international,” Grieco says, “with over 30 percent of its residents being foreign, the nation itself is neutral and has always been neutral.”
This group was based at The Hotel Royal Savoy in Lausanne. “The Royal Savoy is a historic hotel in Lausanne, featuring an impressive, magnificent building that has been totally restored and brought to its initial splendor,” Grieco says. “And Switzerland is known for its legendary hospitality legacy. If you combine those two ingredients, you are obtaining a genuine, unique and high-end experience.”
Additionally, he adds, it offers a “high level of services, is the perfect size and on top of all is good value for money.”
Beyond the hotel and transportation specifics, attendees can access cultural immersion in multiple ways, including through activities such as golf on a glacier, discovering how to blow into the traditional massive Alphorn, yodel instruction and enjoying a farewell dinner in a medieval castle on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Perhaps most important, groups comprised of a diverse membership will quickly understand and embrace the inherent culture in Switzerland defined by respect for nature, respect for traditions and legacy and respect for diversity itself.
To planners considering Switzerland, Grieco says, “Try to step into a process where you can be a little bit flexible with dates. There can be strong differences in cost if you have the ability to move the event a few days. Also, please be aware that certain cities in Switzerland offer free local public transportation cards when you are staying in a hotel there. This creates enormous economic benefits for group leisure time or activities. And remember that transportation in Switzerland is an experience; it is not, as in most destinations, just a means to go from point A to point B. Traveling by panoramic express, cable car or cogwheel train provides a cultural experience rather than simply a functional need.”
Planners looking for cultural immersion for their groups can find it across the world. But it does take a bit more time and effort to provide the kind of cultural experience that truly elevates an experience and provides true insight into a country and its people.
There are quick options to be sure, such as tasting local food and local drink. But today’s attendees want more than that. The good news is that with the help of local tourism offices and DMCs, it’s easy to find those deeper, more meaningful experiences. C&IT