Call it the Downton Abbey effect: When it comes to incentive meetings, austerity measures are out and bespoke is in.
“We wanted to give them a feel for what Portuguese royalty would have felt like,” says Kristin T. Huston, CMP, director, conferences and meeting planning, for Penn Mutual Life Insurance.
For her company’s annual Golden Eagle elite conference in June 2015, she opted to take her group of about 100 advisors, field leaders, and home office executives and their families to Lisbon, where they stayed at the Four Seasons.
At first glance, Lisbon is an unlikely choice; certainly it’s not a common bucket list destination — for attendees or, presumably, for royals. But Huston says that’s part of why it works so well: It’s “fairly cost-effective compared to somewhere like Monaco. You feel very welcome; people want to do so much for your groups because they love the business.”
“We wanted to give them a feel for what Portuguese royalty would have felt like.”
— Kristin T. Huston
The attendees felt cared for in ways both big and small: They were provided a police escort to their venues, so locals believed they were celebrities; they received certificates with seals noting they’d been to the western-most point in Europe; and a select group of “star producers” had photo opportunities with people who appeared to be royal courtiers. Attendees also visited a UNESCO World Heritage site, the 19th century Romanticist Pena National Palace, on a hill above the town of Sintra, about 20 miles from Lisbon.
Huston strives to make Penn Mutual’s conferences warm and inviting; attendees are encouraged to bring their children and, as such, they become very involved in each others’ lives. On the first night, a fado singer performed in the Four Seasons ballroom, which Huston says has a “high-end yet friendly feel, so people don’t feel it’s a stuffy experience.”
For awards night, the group convened at the 18th century rococo-style Queluz National Palace; they walked through various rooms of the palace, greeted by different characters of the period dressed and coiffed ornately, before reaching the gilded throne room for the awards ceremony.
The evening’s entertainment also was period-appropriate, including dances and an opera singer.
On the final night, attendees repaired to the Carmo Convent Ruins, created during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The ruins consist of the original convent walls but no ceiling. “During the day you see all the ruins; as the sun starts to set after dinner, with uplighting, it totally changes the appearance,” Huston remembers. The evening began with a cocktail reception in the square, then the sound of approaching drumming: an all-ages parade of drummers dressed in white and red. Dinner was buffet-style, with a giant paella station in the center of the ruins: “comfortish food with a twist; people really loved it.”
Later, a robed, hooded group walked in accompanied by acoustic music; once they reached the stage, they lowered their hoods and began singing gospel music. “Amazing music in the open air, looking out at the stars. The whole group danced, and this is not a dancing group! It was such a powerful evening that brought everyone together,” Huston says.
“Even for someone like me, who’s traveled so much, this was a really exhilarating experience,” she says. Her executives said it was one of the best conferences they’ve ever been to. “If you can end a conference on a wow, it’s really what people remember.” Next year, she has her sights on Scotland’s Balmoral, complete with highland games, log throwing and an award night with men dressed in kilts.
One group that has already visited Balmoral did so in May 2015 as part of an agent incentive award trip. Johan Marzuki, account executive with BCD Meetings & Events, offered his group of about 170 agents from a Michigan-based insurance agency a taste of both town and country: Edinburgh at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – the Caledonian, and Perthshire at the Gleneagles Hotel. “We wanted the group to get a rounded experience of the destination,” he says. Gleneagles, as the location of the 2014 Ryder Cup, caused extra special excitement for the group of gold enthusiasts. A “welcome” event held there “showcased the experiences the group can and will have the few days that they were there, exhibiting local falconry, gun dogs, off-road vehicles, archery, horseback” and, of course, golf.
Along with another “welcome” at the British royal family’s private estate, the group also enjoyed a gala dinner at the cliffside Stirling Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots was once crowned, as well as country manor dinners. At the latter, agents broke into small groups of 12 to 20 to enjoy a “quintessential Scottish country dining experience with excellent food, wine and whiskey,” including an authentic Presentation of the Haggis at the final dinner.
Marzuki found not only the magnificent venues but also the people of Scotland to be a big draw: “extremely friendly, accommodating and so keen on sharing their personal space and lives with visitors.
“We provide the group with a trip survey at the end of their program, which was rated 4.7 out of 5.0. The client also measures the productivity of the following year’s trip promotion as a gauge of the program’s popularity.”
He says timing is everything. “We were blessed by the weather allowing everyone to enjoy the countryside, and the city of Edinburgh.” But if you go earlier than April, he says, “you may encounter colder weather prohibiting you from enjoying the outdoors and the countryside experiences that make Scotland unique and exciting.” He also recommends giving the local watering holes a heads-up before arriving so they’re prepared to accommodate a large group. “They will be happy to accommodate and anticipate your arrival with good notice,” he says.
Also in Edinburgh, Dundas Castle hosted a group of 85 delegates and 17 senior members in October 2015, the second time this group has chosen the castle for an incentive. The 17 stayed overnight, filling the castle’s available en suite bedrooms; the other attendees stayed 1.25 miles away at the Dakota Edinburgh hotel. Built in 1818 and now the private home of Sir Jack and Lady Stewart-Clark, Dundas Castle includes its own 600-year-old “Auld Keep” — a kind of giant medieval “panic room” tower. Both the keep and the castle itself offer meeting spaces, and the castle also has a dining room and a billiard room. The 1,000-acre grounds include a golf course and a helicopter pad, and though attendees might expect to see Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham himself approach at any moment, in fact the spot is 10 minutes from Edinburgh Airport and 30 minutes from downtown Edinburgh.
Alyson Thompson, operations manager for Dundas Castle, notes that the owner of the castle mingled with attendees during the cocktail reception, welcoming them to his home. After a tour of the keep, including a visit to the roof for views that include the Forth Rail Bridge UNESCO World Heritage site, the group had a dinner catered by Sodexo Prestige that included all locally sourced foods, including haggis, foie gras and mushroom duxelle, fillet of Buccleuch beef and cep tortellini with red wine jus.
“Despite many of the delegates being local, very few of them had previously had the opportunity to visit the castle…which left them feeling valued and rewarded by their company,” Thompson says.
Dittman Incentive Marketing chose Barcelona for a 200-attendee, four-night combined incentive and networking event for a U.S.-based insurer. The group stayed at the Ritz-Carlton’s waterfront Hotel Arts Barcelona, where art figures heavily throughout. “At every turn, there are interesting pieces, often by local artists,” says Jennifer Mazza, senior manager, travel accounts for Dittman Incentive Marketing. Mazza also was impressed with the lower-level meeting space, where “the architecture echoes the ‘caves’ of Spanish wineries and incorporates the same regional artists featured throughout the hotel.”
Choosing the hotel “allowed us to thematically link our events and materials, with art and creativity as a recurring element,” including tours focused on Antoni Gaudí and Pablo Picasso and a gala dinner at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, “the absolute highlight of the program.” After cocktails and live music in the entrance hall, attendees convened in the courtyard to watch nearly 40 “castellers” build a human tower, or Castell — a Catalan tradition that dates back to the early 18th century and truly exemplifies the notion of teambuilding.
The group then moved to the museum’s 15th century Gothic chapel to dine on Spanish cuisine at “long tables beneath a soaring vaulted ceiling” to the strains of flamenco performed by a string trio. “The décor included vast arrays of candles, florals and gold chargers, giving a warm glow to the entire event,” Mazza says. Post-trip, attendees rated this event 4.9 out of 5 stars; post-program surveys showed that more than 90 percent of the participants considered the travel program effective to very effective at inspiring them to reach their peak performance.”
She advises planners considering Barcelona to take note that city leaders “are working hard to protect Barcelona from too many visitors,” including limiting the number of new hotel rooms and restricting access times for some tourist attractions. A local partner is de rigueur for this destination. Mazza also suggests: “Leave yourself enough time to sort out any differences of understanding,” particularly with contract negotiations, “and to discuss the program face-to-face whenever possible. A site inspection can be invaluable.”
To help attendees cope with jet lag on arrival, often long before check-in was available, Mazza offered small walking tours of the neighborhood as an option to orient attendees. “This was a very popular component of the program and got our guests off to a great start,” she says. The hotel also offers its own guided running tours of the city.
Sometimes, one destination just isn’t enough, as Alan Melichar, account director for Aimia, determined when he prepared an eight-day travel program in May 2015 for State Auto Insurance’s Super Achievers Program. The pressure was on to provide something really spectacular because the attendees, two groups of 280 each, are in high demand; not only do they provide 100 percent of the organization’s sales, but they are well-traveled and wooed by competing insurers to attend other incentive programs.
Melichar offered each group the option of spending the first four nights in either Beijing, China, at the Shangri-La Hotel, or Hanoi, Vietnam, at the French colonial Hotel Metropole Hanoi, built in 1901 and now run by Sofitel. Both groups then converged at the Shangri-La Hong Kong, centrally located in Kowloon, for the final four nights. The itinerary was further complicated by the fact that the second group of 280 arrived in the first two cities just as the first group was leaving for Hong Kong.
“The high number (of participants) was particularly challenging in both Hanoi and Hong Kong,” Melichar notes; both cities are overpopulated, and simple logistical moments such as loading buses can become nightmarish if planners overbook. Further, participants needed to be registered with the embassy before arriving and they needed visas. He partnered with Travisa to create a custom website to track where attendees were in the application process, which he says worked very well.
Once the groups arrived, it was nonstop “surprise and delight.” “Food was not only consumed; it was experienced,” he says, noting the various cooking classes he arranged in each city and the quality of the meals and the unexpectedness of the settings.
A particular highlight in Beijing was a private dinner on The Great Wall of China, complete with traditional Chinese music during the cocktail reception and a traditional Kung Fu demonstration. “Dinner was set outside on the Great Wall while the group welcomed in the night by witnessing the wall light up before their eyes,” he says. Attendees who chose Hanoi had a private dinner at the Temple of Literature, built in 1070.
Melichar also arranged for unexpected transportation in each city: rickshaws in Beijing; three-wheeled taxi “cyclos” in Old Hanoi; and in Hong Kong, a trip “back in time” on the Star Ferry for the Hong Kong tour, followed by a tram ride to Victoria Peak, where attendees were treated to dinner with a view. The agents also took a ride on traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats called sampans and had the option of day trips to Macau, Lamma Island and Lantau Island.
“A program is successful if employees or partners sell more, are encouraged to stay with the brand longer and invest more with the brand. (This) program knocked all three of these objectives out of the park, which is why the client continues to find incentive travel as the best way to motivate agents,” Melichar says. “Spouses and other guests are known to push their agent to sell more State Auto business, so they have the ability to travel with the group again!”
For a sales incentive trip in August 2015 for 40 couples, one planner split the trip between Cape Town, South Africa, at the One&Only Resort and Sabi Sabi Bush and Earth Lodges in the 7,523-square-mile game reserve, Kruger National Park.
The group’s time in Cape Town included a Cape of Good Hope tour, a tour of Robben Island (notorious as one of Nelson Mandela’s prison sites), various wine tastings, lunch at Delaire Graff Estate winery and a wine-blending competition. Their gala dinner on the final night was held at the Cape Town Club, built in 1898, where the attendees had the opportunity to be photographed with a cheetah.
But it was Sabi Sabi that really wowed the group. “This was a ‘bucket list’ trip for many of them. Sabi Sabi was first class all the way, service, F&B, rooms, guides, beauty of the area. The safari game drives by far were the most popular, just the sheer beauty of the bush, seeing the animals in their natural habitat and so close up.”
On the last night at the reserve, the group had “dinner out in the bush. It was in a boma (a colonial fortified compound) with beautiful décor and lighting — a spectacular way to end a memorable trip.”
“Not sure how we will top this one!” she says. “Our participants raved about the trip and said our trip by far surpassed safari trips they had been on in the past.” I&FMM