Given their myriad lodging options and excellent airlift, first-tier urban destinations have often been selected to host national sales meetings, but much less often as rewards for salespeople. Incentive trips have long been associated with resort settings, likely due to the stereotypical notion that big domestic cities such as New York and Chicago are places where one goes to work, not play. Motivating destinations, it is commonly thought, are either “sun ’n’ fun” locales, entertainment-oriented domestic cities such as Las Vegas and Orlando, or classic European cities such as London, Paris and Rome. Yet many incentive planners and groups are showing some “openness to urban programs” held in the United States, observes Katrina Kent, director, The Event Group at TD Ameritrade in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“As many qualifiers make these trips year over year, we’re always looking for ways to juice up the experience. Urban options can play a big part in keeping things fresh.”
“Even if you’ve been to the city many times, to be able to sit down and have a five-star dining experience under a tent in Union Square is pretty fantastic.” — Carvotta-Trexler
Maritz Travel Company, whose financial services and insurance clients represent about 30 percent to 40 percent of its client base, also has been experiencing this site selection trend, although “the majority of our incentive programs are still resort oriented,” notes Tom Wilson, division vice president of sales. “But we do have a number of financial services clients that really thrive on utilizing larger U.S. cities, such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix, for their programs, so (we choose) high-end destinations within those cities.”
On the face of it, big cities are logical incentive choices due to their variety of recreational options, allowing most any potential qualifier to find motivating aspects. San Francisco, for instance, is “known as the city that has something for everyone: food and wine, shopping, museums and so on,” remarks Mary Carvotta-Trexler, chief creative officer, Access Destination Services, Northern California & Wine Country. “So if you’re not a beachgoer it’s not as exciting for you to go to The Bahamas as being able to experience the brand-new Michael Chiarello restaurant, if you’re a big foodie.”
Indeed, the stereotype of the incentive destination as a “sun ’n’ fun” locale essentially stereotypes the incentive qualifier as one who mainly enjoys that kind of ambience, as opposed to a cosmopolitan setting. Moreover, once representatives are “introduced” to the virtues of a city incentive, there not only will be the handful of first-tier U.S. cities to explore, but also new reasons to book those cities for incentives in the future.
Large cities always have new hotels, restaurants, recreational areas and more to entice qualifiers who want to explore the latest hotspots. Just one example is Portland’s Pine Street Market, an epicurean’s delight that will blanket the ground floor of the historic Baggage and Carriage building, which is undergoing an estimated $5 million renovation and will provide two upper floors of creative space for lease. Set to open this fall, Pine Street Market will neighbor the James Beard Public Market, opening in 2018.
There are, however, potential concerns with big cities as incentive destinations. One is that, due to the well-traveled nature of salespeople in the insurance and financial industries, potential qualifiers have likely been to first-tier cities multiple times, and thus may not find such a trip motivating. But as experienced planners point out, the allure comes from the experience created in that familiar city.
“I think a unique experience can be had regardless of whether the group is well-traveled. As long as I put together a program that is customized to our group, I find that is what they take away as their unique experience,” explains Lanie Collins, marketing associate and event manager with Vancouver, British Columbia-based Nicola Wealth Management.
Kent concurs on this point: “When considering a city incentive, the key is to provide seamless access to experiences that the qualifiers can’t get on their own, and that they don’t get in other business trip environments. This can vary from the choice of venue, to activity and dining experiences, to potential guest appearances from local celebs or experts, to top-notch entertainment options, (such as) VIP experiences at sporting events or festivals.”
And speaking of “the choice of venue,” it should be borne in mind that big cities are home to many of the country’s most renowned — and incentivizing — hotels. So while a sales representative may have been to New York City countless times, he or she may well not have stayed at The Plaza or the Waldorf Astoria. “There are great hotel brands in every major city, and they all have the luxury brand and upper upscale. So from an incentive perspective, there is plenty to choose from,” says Wilson.
Another potential concern with these destinations is that they are on the expensive side, particularly in terms of lodging. “Price is a consideration,” Kent says, “but often urban settings have less expensive airlift and more direct flights. There are trade-offs.” In addition, lodging costs can be ameliorated by meeting during the off-season (weather permitting), or by finding “holes” in a hotel’s calendar. Furthermore, some urban destinations (e.g., Philadelphia and Denver) are not particularly strong in the incentive market, and drawing an incentive group from a major company can be attractive to the local CVB and hoteliers. That can be a source of negotiating leverage. Says Carvotta-Trexler, “I think cities always want the incentive business because that way groups are out and about seeing more of the city, as opposed to just having a meeting. And most hotels have a dedicated salesperson for the incentive market, so that tells you how important it is for them.”
Kent also has seen evidence that urban destinations are pursuing incentive groups. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in incentive marketing from several Southern cities, like Austin, Charleston, Nashville and New Orleans,” she says. “What’s also great about these places is that the weather is conducive three-fourths of the year almost. People like to be immersed in the essence of the place they are visiting, and cities like these have such strong identities that can work really well to add value to incentives.”
Certain precautions should be observed to ensure that attendees fully enjoy a city incentive. The first is to be aware of the city’s often-busy calendar of events and plan accordingly. Incentive winners should not have to undergo the transportation challenges and distracting commotion that can arise with these events as they are trying to explore the city. A DMC’s assistance can be useful here. “We have so many festivals and events that shut down areas, so we keep a citywide calendar that lets us know everything from sporting events to festivals to car races,” says Carvotta-Trexler. The same DMC can work with the city to obtain permits for renting municipal venues and public spaces, allowing for those kinds of experiences that attendees could not get as tourists, and source experienced vendors for these private events. “You can get shut down pretty quickly, especially by the port authority and city fire department,” says Carvotta-Trexler. “All of a sudden they can decide that there’s no open flame permit at your outdoor event, for example. So you have to figure out who are the best vendors that can handle such last-minute changes in city policy. It is essential.”
Carvotta-Trexler’s team at Access Destination Services handles programs in Northern California and Wine Country, and while Napa and Sonoma certainly have incentive appeal, San Francisco also gets a share of the incentive market. Due to its generally pleasant climate and accessibility to activities beyond urban adventures, San Francisco is the big city that “tends to be the first try for planners that have been doing resort destinations all along and want to try something a little different,” Carvotta-Trexler observes. “And I think that is because we’re a location that can offer so much outdoor recreation, such as golf, hiking, sailing and kayaking, which a lot of city destinations just can’t offer.” Apart from Wine Country, the city is a day trip away from resort areas such as Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea, which can be reserved for a smaller, top-tier group of qualifiers, for example.
Last year, Access arranged an incentive program to San Francisco for Deerfield Beach, Florida-based JM&A Group (Jim Moran & Associates Inc.), the finance and insurance division of JM Family Enterprises. The group of 550 attendees included the winners of a four-month contest for automotive dealership owners and general managers and their significant others. They arrived at The Westin St. Francis, an emblematic San Francisco hotel that opened in 1904. The Union Square property houses 1,185 guest rooms and 56,000 sf of function space. “It is in a terrific, central section of the city with great retail and dining venues within walking distance. It also has a historic feel that we appreciated,” remarks Rosie Puello Burkman, vice president, marketing with JM&A. “The group are huge shoppers so for them it was a very big plus: You’re in the middle of a shopping mecca with Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Saks, Barney’s plus 250 specialty stores,” Carvotta-Trexler adds.
The experience began with one of those personalized touches that are the mark of good incentives. “The first night we picked our travelers up from the hotel in trolley cars with side panels reading ‘JM&A loves (red heart) their customers,’ ” Burkman relates, “and proceeded to a cruise around the Bay.” The trip included numerous activities, including day trips to Muir Woods and a full day in Napa Valley with a private lunch at Inglenook winery, built by Francis Ford Coppola. “Our group could do as little or as much as they wanted. Most took advantage of every opportunity to see the city,” she says.
Access created a powerful memory of the city for the final-night dinner, which was held under a clear-span tent in Union Square. “Even if you’ve been to the city many times, to be able to sit down and have a five-star dining experience under a tent in Union Square is pretty fantastic,” says Carvotta-Trexler. “It was under the San Francisco skyline in the middle of Union Square, where you could see beautiful lights from the buildings surrounding us. It was a private party in the park and people felt special just being under the Big Top,” notes Burkman.
Qualifiers for Nicola Wealth Management’s financial advisor retreat to San Francisco also enjoyed an exclusive experience: The City Club of San Francisco. “It is only accessible by members or if you book a group dinner (which we did),” says Collins. The club is housed in the historic Stock Exchange Tower, built in 1930 and considered the finest example of the interior art deco style in the city. “Being in finance, our team was very interested to go to the Stock Exchange, as well as to see the Diego Rivera murals that the general public doesn’t get to view,” says Collins.
Regarding the choice of San Francisco itself, Collins comments, “The destination for the program is typically a resort, but I felt that switching it up and going to an urban destination would help make the retreat more interesting, especially since San Francisco is such a great historical city.” She booked the Fairmont San Francisco for the group of about 30 qualifiers. Offering 592 rooms and 55,000 sf of function space, the Fairmont affords city views from atop Nob Hill. The downtown area, financial district, Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf are all a short cable-car ride away.
The availability of bastions of commerce, culture and education for private events is one of the features that most distinguishes cities from resort areas, and planners do well to complement recreation with one of these more enriching experiences.
Maritz, for example, has brought a financial incentive group to Boston, where they were given special access to unique venues at Harvard University, says Wilson. “Even though it’s an incentive, many financial and insurance companies still require some level of content, so (holding an event at) Harvard would be a great example,” he notes. Harvard’s rentable event venues are many and varied, including the Museum of Natural History, Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Faculty Club, Plaza Tent (completed in 2013 and accommodating 1,000 attendees) and the iconic Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark built in 1878.
Similarly, Maritz has utilized facilities at UCLA for a brokerage company incentive in Los Angeles.
With so many event possibilities in just one major institution, planners considering a city destination truly have a “bonanza of incentive opportunity,” as Kent puts it. But the array of possible group activities can certainly be pared down by discarding the more common, touristy ones. “It’s really important to focus on giving people access to things they wouldn’t typically experience on their own,” says Kent, who is considering a New York City incentive for TD Ameritrade in the future. “That can be a backstage meet-and-greet with actors at a Broadway show, a suite at Yankee stadium, shopping at private sample sales, lunch with a New York City icon in a luxurious private penthouse, cooking seminars at the city’s world-renowned cooking schools, private world-class museum tours, trapeze lessons at Chelsea Piers or taking over a hip rooftop beer garden in an outer borough — the sky’s the limit in New York City.”
As it is with many other big U.S. cities, slowly coming into their own as incentive destinations. I&FMM