Whether it’s a “day as a rock star” in a recording studio in Austin (also known as the “Live Music Capital of the World”), a catamaran cruise off the island of Hawaii at sunset or a Broadway play performed exclusively for your New York group courtesy of a theater buyout, the goals to inspire, energize and motivate can be accomplished across the board and across the world.
Here are some destinations that appear custom-designed to incentivize, along with info from some of the industry’s key, in-the-know players.
“Hawaii is a fabulous option for all-incentive programs,” says Debbie Grassi, vice president of sales with Lynette Owens & Associates, an incentive/meeting management/event planning firm in Rancho Sante Fe, California, specializing in insurance and financial service markets. “Each island offers a uniquely different ‘feel,’ so coming to Hawaii but visiting a different island each trip gives attendees a different experience every time.”
One client example Grassi cites is a group of 125 West/Midwestern attendees of a major IMO whose incentive took them to Maui. Its meeting planner’s selection of island activities included a snorkel/cruise/lunch excursion, swim with the turtles, luau and a day drive to Hana — not your typical teambuilding ventures. The IMO planner says the feedback he received of the rewards trip to paradise was a thumbs-up from all, even those originally from Hawaii, for whom the incentive was like a trip back home. Would he do it again? “In a heartbeat,” he confirms.
“We encourage visitors and attendees to embrace the Islands and engage in inspiring programs and rejuvenating experiences that leave them feeling invigorated and, ultimately, allow them to take a little bit of Hawaii’s ‘Aloha Spirit’ back home with them,” says Mary Neister, CMP, vice president MCI, Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.
Among these activities, Neister mentions authentic Hawaiian experiences for teambuilding — outrigger canoeing, throw-net fishing, harvesting kalo from loi (irrigated agricultural terrace) and helping to restore centuries-old loko ia (fishponds) built by early Hawaiians.
For groups looking to support Hawaii’s sustainability and reforestation efforts are activities involving the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI), which has planted more than 340,000 “legacy trees” across 1,000 acres on the island of Hawaii (creating the only “legacy” forest of its kind). Planning something “different” is always memorable, shares incentives specialist Grassi.
“Cattle drives, visiting a dormant or active volcano, watching sunrises from atop a dormant volcano and then biking down it — anything that is different from where they live, people will remember forever.”
Her assessment of an incentive to the islands: “Hawaii offers it all — warm weather, eternal sun, beautiful beaches, great resorts, fabulous restaurants and friendly people — all within the safe boundaries of the U.S. Plus, no passport is required.”
According to the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, Hawaii is experiencing a 63 percent growth in the number of incentive bookings, which accounts for a 75 percent growth in room nights for that segment. Neister’s assessment: “The outlook on Hawaii’s incentive business remains very strong, as organizations bringing incentive programs to the Hawaiian Islands recognize that not only does employee productivity increase when Hawaii is the ‘prize,’ but attendees also return feeling rejuvenated and inspired to focus on personal and professional growth.”
“When setting up an incentive trip, it really starts from the moment they receive the award,” says Jennifer Garcia, executive administrative assistant to CEO, InterWest Insurance Services LLC, a Northern California company comprised of nine offices throughout the state. She continues that it’s about having personal touches — from the invitations and making all their arrangements to greeting their arrival with a welcome card and gift basket, and ensuring everything throughout the event runs smoothly. “I try to make each attendee feel like the trip was planned with just them in mind.”
Having used a variety of locations in coordinating the Chairman’s Award Weekends for groups from 16 to 85, a tradition for the past 10 years, Garcia details her frequent choice of Lake Tahoe.
“For us, the Lake Tahoe region is close enough to be a destination area, but without traveling too far. It’s unique in that you can spend the morning snow skiing and the afternoon in a boat on the water. I’m not sure there are many locations you can do both in the same day.”
As InterWest Insurance’s incentive focus is family-friendly, Garcia highlights this region’s endless variety of activities: golfing, horseback riding, fly-fishing, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, boating, Jet Skiing and waterskiing; and with winter comes downhill skiing (it’s the setting of the 1960 VIII Winter Olympics). She singles out Resort at Squaw Creek for its access to the slopes (winter teambuilding activities include broomball, dogsledding and snowshoeing) and the AAA Four Diamond, 422-room waterfront Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino — noted for its private beach, Stillwater Spa and Grand Lodge Casino.
“We stick to the Tahoe and Napa areas for our incentives,” says Garcia. “Why travel to farther away locations when you have world-class locations just hours from you?” Beyond the central location of the Napa region (Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville) to this Northern California-based company, the planner adds, “It’s wine country and that, in itself, sets it apart from other regions.”
Among its numerous appeals are hot-air ballooning, skydiving, wine tours, the Napa Valley Wine Train, plus harvest season — (its busiest season, rates are higher, and it’s more difficult to negotiate, but it provides an above-and-beyond experience). Two of the planner’s preferred locations include Harvest Inn (St. Helena) and Napa Valley Lodge (Yountville). Of practical but additional appeal is the region’s proximity to three major international airports — Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento.
“We treat incentives as an opportunity to celebrate success of the organization while having an adventure in a new place or in a common place in a new way,” says Renee Black, principal and senior meeting planner for planitomaha, a Midwestern-based company dedicated to event and meeting management solutions.
Selecting Chicago time and again, most recently for this year’s April event attended by 500 attendees of a market leader in financial services, utilizing the Hilton Chicago, Black applauds the city’s versatility. “Chicago has many options for large and small high-end programs because they have multiple properties with 5,000-square-foot ballrooms, as well as 20,000-square-foot ballrooms. And, as a meeting planner, I appreciate that the (air) lift is excellent — with almost every market having a direct flight to the city.”
“We encourage visitors and attendees to embrace the Islands and engage in inspiring programs and rejuvenating experiences that leave them feeling invigorated.” — Mary Neister, CMP
With the additional offerings of sports, the arts, restaurants, tour attractions and excellent shopping, the planner summates, “Many of these items translate to the ability to book a rooftop venue such as The Ivy, rent space at Willis Tower, take a boat excursion on Lake Michigan and arrange a private Second City show (a top attendee favorite).”
Another hit for Black is always a “taste of Chicago,” where the planner’s group is presented with a selection of the city’s most famous foods, including an authentic deep-dish pizza.
Known for its innovative culinary scene, the latest on Chicago’s radar is the September opening of VU, the South Loop’s first rooftop bar presented by the James Beard-nominated Concentrics Restaurant Group. Set 22 stories above McCormick Place, designed for al fresco and indoor drinking, dining and lounging and touted as one of the city’s hottest venues, it also offers a karaoke room, boardroom, club bar and solarium bar — making it more enticing for planners.
When taking an incentive trip to the Entertainment Capital of the World, there is no shortage of options to add an exclamation point to any event.
According to Amy Riley, senior director of business sales, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, “Just as Las Vegas is an around-the-clock destination, it’s also an unbeatable place to bring incentive groups all year long.”
Las Vegas averages 320 days of sunshine and less than five inches of annual rain, the weather is a perfect fit for hosting outdoor functions and events, as well as golfing, hiking and pool parties.
Additionally, many newly opened or planned venues, such as ARIA, Park MGM and CAESARS FORUM, have incorporated outside options into their event spaces. With the combo of high-profile events and professional sports franchises now calling Las Vegas home, the city is also emerging as a top destination for sports fans. And, in winter, there’s an abundance of lounges, reception areas and shows guaranteed to keep attendees engaged.
Top teambuilding ops include driving an exotic high-end car at SPEEDVEGAS, toasting colleagues atop the world’s tallest observation wheel during its “happy hour,” hands-on culinary experiences alongside celeb chefs, backstage tours of major stage productions and helicopter excursions over the Strip and the Grand Canyon.
Las Vegas hosts nearly 22,000 annual meetings, has nearly 150,000 rooms and an international airport with nonstop service from more than 130 cities. Riley says, “Insurance and financial planners often have particular needs for their groups which may require a certain level of confidentiality. The beauty of hosting these types of events here is that there are plenty of things for attendees to explore and enjoy while also providing privacy for groups.”
Known by many incentive planners for its festivals — from Austin City Limits Music Festival and Formula 1 United States Grand Prix to Austin Food + Wine Festival and South by Southwest Music Festival — this is Austin. What additionally differentiates the city as an incentive destination? Visit Austin’s Courtney Sculley, director of northeast and international sales, offers a three-word, one-thought response: “Location, location, location.”
She explains that Austin is far enough south where visitors can enjoy the outdoors year-round. It’s only a three-hour flight from either coast, making a national or global recognition program easily accessible from most locations. And its walkable downtown offers six unique entertainment districts but is less than 30 minutes from the rolling Hill Country and award-winning golf and spas.
This is a city where beyond-the-norm activities can include sampling a selection of its 1,400 different food trailers via an Austin Eats Food Tour, checking out its craft beer scene through a private brewery tour of Jester King in the Hill Country, learning how to row at the Austin Rowing Club on Lady Bird Lake and getting behind the wheel of some of the world’s fastest Audi Sport vehicles on the nation’s only Formula 1 circuit with a pro driver as your guide (including the racing world’s Eric Paradis).
“Austin is positioned to provide a ‘WOW’ experience without the perception of a highly scrutinized, exotic location,” says Sculley.
She gives stats: The Texas city offers more than 250 live music venues and 200 restaurants within the central business district. “For planners, navigating ‘all’ the live music and entertainment options is overwhelming, and we often hear, ‘There are too many options!’ We are one of few DMOs that has its own music office tasked with hiring local talent for VIP events,” she says.
“Incentives are a growing market in Austin,” Sculley adds. “We believe it’s a testament to our new luxury hotel product.”
Since 2017, Austin has welcomed a 1,048-room Fairmont Austin and the $75 million renovated LINE Austin as part of the Sydell Group. Other projects opening next year include The Proper Austin Hotel (244 rooms), Hotel ZaZa (160 rooms) and Commodore Perry Estate (53 rooms). Currently, there are more than 10,000 downtown rooms, with almost 40,000 citywide.
Even its airport, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), a state-of-the-art facility, provides a fun and efficient time. Among its perks are 350 daily flights with nonstop service to more than 80 destinations, Southern hospitality-style customer service, a selection of local food (including breakfast tacos, brisket and Shiner Bock beer), 1,500 live music performances last year and the expansion of nine new gates in 2019.
What better incentive than the lure of the warm sun and white-sand beaches of the Mexican Caribbean? Mexico’s year-round tropical climate gives visitors the chance to relax and enjoy whenever they want.
Designed with incentives in mind, Hotel Xcaret Mexico is an all-inclusive resort in Riviera Maya, very close to the center of Playa del Carmen. The property has 900 rooms distributed in “Casas,” different buildings that pay special tribute to the Mayan region.
The resort offers plenty of perks, as well as the opportunity to visit the best parks in Riviera Maya and Cancun. All-Fun Inclusive by Hotel Xcaret México is the only all-inclusive concept in Riviera Maya with unlimited access to Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor, Xplor Fuego, Xavage, Xoximilco and Xenses parks, as well as tours to Xenotes and Xichen, food and beverages, transportation between parks and airport shuttle.
“Hotel Xcaret is the ideal destination because our All-Fun Inclusive concept grants guests complimentary access to our parks and excursions,” says Wendy Canul, groups director at Hotel Xcaret Mexico. “That’s, of course, in addition to our stunning venues located throughout our ‘caletas’ and private beaches, which offer guests the unique opportunity of interacting with nature while enjoying top-notch accommodations, service and gastronomy provided by the hotel.”
The upscale resort boasts more than 35,000 square feet of multifunctional indoor and outdoor meeting space. Other luxurious amenities include infinity pools, three gyms and 10 restaurants.
“The need for incentivization continues to grow, as gift cards do not offer the same motivation as trips to enviable destinations,” says Jerry Cito, senior vice president, convention development at NYC & Company, the official destination marketing organization for New York City.
Discussing the city in terms of the time of year, the New York City specialist lists the best of each season. Winter brings the exuberance of the holidays — lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, private walking tours of decked-out department store windows and VIP views overlooking Times Square for the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop.
In spring, the city’s more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities come alive with Central Park and Prospect Park becoming car-free this year. Now open are the waterfront developments of Hunter’s Point South (phase II) in Long Island City, Domino Park on the Williamsburg waterfront and Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
In fall, the proliferation of high-end retailers and exclusive behind-the-scenes shopping opportunities are unmatched for incentive participants with a passion for purchasing, including such perks as VIP access to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Recognizing this city as the Big Apple of incentives is a meeting planner from a major Midwestern fraternal insurance company, where his group of 900 enjoyed a harbor dinner cruise on the Fourth of July (complete with fireworks, of course), a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and a Broadway play (if the group is large enough, a theater buyout is possible).
What is the greatest appeal of the nation’s largest city to the incentive market, especially to insurance and financial planners? Cito says, “New York City is the financial capital of the world and is home to iconic destinations, including Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.”
A city where everything is possible, this is an incentive destination where even functions at the UN are not off the table and zip lining in a compact city of more than 8 million is also available at the Bronx Zoo.
New York is where a planner can charter a cruise to Ellis Island for the private use of the historic terminus, arrange batting sessions with former Yankee players, coordinate VIP entry to the opening and/or closing ceremonies of the U.S. Open and watch sunrises from the top of the Empire State Building. Bottom line: It’s a sky’s-the-limit kind of town. I&FMM