Vegas? Been there. Florida? Done that.
When it comes to selecting a destination to hold that special meeting or an unforgettable incentive program, planners are increasingly looking for a “wow” factor that will drive attendance, engagement, and loyalty.
Enter, well — the rest of the world.
Whether heading to proven marquee stars such as Paris or Hong Kong or venturing further about to such developing destinations as Morocco or Vietnam, there is almost no limit to the international options available for meeting planners to consider when trying to break the mold. And setting a program in a foreign location isn’t just about stocking up on passport stamps — companies are identifying tangible benefits to their globe-trotting.
“International destinations drive impact within an organization,” explains Cate Banfield, CIS, vice president of Event Solution Design & Strategy for BCD Meetings & Events. Banfield notes that companies are increasingly shifting budgets back to incentives, allowing them to explore countries that might not have been deemed possible in the past. “Customers who have typically had their programs in the U.S. or Caribbean are now starting to explore further afield to destinations where some of their folks have never been.”
Catherine Chaulet, president of Global DMC Partners, concurs.
“The world is much bigger, and there are so many options,” Chaulet says.
Canada’s Québec City, for instance, is one such option. Although it’s not an overseas destination, it offers the look and feel of a European city, which makes it attractive to planners and attendees. According to a recent report, the Québec City Convention Centre hosted 210 events in the last 12 months, including 71 conferences — 18 international and 53 national. The venue can accommodate up to 9,000 attendees and connects by an underground walkway to the Hilton Québec and Delta Hotels by Marriott Québec.
Also, Travel+Leisure magazine recently gave Québec City the No. 1 spot on its list of Top 5 Canadian cities. Other notable hotels in the area include the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, the Hôtel Manoir Victoria, The Relais & Châteaux Auberge Saint-Antoine and Québec City Marriott Downtown.
“Going international has always triggered a lot more interest, especially with the financial and insurance industries,” Chaulet says. “For a lot of these companies, these incentives have one main goal: increasing the corporation’s revenue by tapping into the employee’s desire to win a spot on one of these incentives by selling and promoting more of the corporation’s services.”
Chaulet says utilizing new and exciting destinations for incentives can be a tool for attracting and retaining employees. “It’s becoming so critical, particularly for these industries. Not only do we see an enormous need to invest in incentives, but also in creativity, so a lot of effort is put into building programs that cater to millennial and Gen X employees, thinking about networking while addressing the needs of the individual. It’s a combination of business and leisure — ‘bleisure’ — and providing enough flexibility for attendees to have alone time.”
Joe Reise, Manager of Travel Sourcing & Supplier Relations for Motivation Excellence, Inc. adds that the companies themselves are seeking to broaden their horizons, to develop a more global perspective. During incentive programs held in London and Prague, McKenzie Financial Services organized a dinner joined by finance professionals from England and Czechia.
But from a purely motivational viewpoint, Kip Lambert, CIS, brand ambassador for Destinations Inc., says travel resonates on emotional levels. “Travel is romantic. Travel is learning new cultures, experiencing sights and sounds, smells and tastes and uncommon experiences,” Lambert says. “Because travel-based incentives motivate at these emotional levels, they can be far more memorable and effective than a cash reward.”
One of Lambert’s recent clients was the U.S. insurance company EMI Health, which provides its 40 to 50 best brokers with a trip to an overseas destination every year. For an incentive last year, EMI chose New Zealand. “What attracted our client most was New Zealand’s bucket-list nature and the wide range of group activities available,” Lambert says. “The client’s priorities were a ‘wow’ destination that would influence their insurance brokers’ selling decisions; a five-star experience including all meals, lodging, excursions and entertainment; and a good mix of free time and scheduled group events to facilitate networking. They felt that New Zealand had that star power.”
With New Zealand’s top attractions spread across two islands and hundreds of miles, Lambert says one hurdle for the client was the duration of the trip, often a consideration for overseas meetings. “We had to paint a picture for the client to convince them that they needed to make this trip two days longer than previous programs, to make sure that the itinerary had everything packed in that they wanted to accomplish.” The 100-member group started their tour in Auckland, the usual point of entry for North American arrivals to New Zealand, before moving on to the South Island, where many of the country’s more adventurous activities are based.
Lambert says the highlight of the program was a visit to the Kawarau Bungy Centre outside of Queenstown. The bridge crossing the Kawarau River gorge is the location where AJ Hackett invented the bungee jump, leaping off the bridge with an elastic cord tied at his ankles. It’s become one of New Zealand’s top tourist sites and has grown to include a viewing platform and meeting spaces.
“Our group arrived and enjoyed cocktails while they watched the experienced jumpers show off their trick jumps, while dinner was also being served in the indoor space of the Bungy Centre. The space is well designed and fits the theme of the mountain, the bridge and its history with bungee jumping. Our favorite small touch were the centerpieces, complete with sections of bungee cords bundled and cut into small pieces, with a small card explaining the origins of bungee jumping and how the cords are made, all for guests to take home as a memento of their evening.”
In the end, Lambert says more than 40 of the brokers stepped up to the do the jump.
“Find out what your group is really into,” Lambert adds. “We were surprised at the level of participation for the bungee event. I also wish I could’ve gone back to the beginning of planning to get a better gauge of our guests’ interest in Hobbiton and the Waitomo Glow worm Caves. On their last full free day, many guests decided to make an independent drive to these venues, located more than two hours from Auckland. If I could do it over again with this knowledge, I would have made a plan for the group or I would’ve advertised this more heavily as an option that people could book ahead of time.”
What criteria should be considered before diving into international waters?
Chaulet says her No. 1 criterion is airlift — considering where the employees are based and how difficult it is to reach various destinations.
“The budget is a big part of it,” Chaulet adds. “Time of year is another consideration — what kind of look and feel they want? Do they want nice weather, or do they want more of a cultural element in the program?”
Chaulet says she also finds out what level of knowledge the company has about international programs.
“There are logistics around passports and security,” Chaulet says. “Will the organization take care of this or is it something we will be expected to do? How much do they want to outsource vs. manage themselves? We always think of logistics first.”
“We had a financial company that was very interested in doing an international event in Asia,” Chaulet recalls. “At first, everything was very exciting to them. But the minute we started explaining the logistics, we realized that by educating the client a bit further on the nuances — budget, flight time, passports, and comfort level of the attendees to travel far — it wasn’t the best fit anymore. In the end, we reverted to a Caribbean destination, which was much more practical option for this particular company.”
Fortunately, a number of places that might have been unaffordable for some planners just a few years ago — Europe or Australia, for instance — have become more accessible as the U.S. dollar has strengthened.
“We’re in a good spot because the U.S. dollar is so strong,” Banfield says. “For instance, destinations in the U.K. have become more affordable. London is certainly expensive, but the prices aren’t as high as people think and they’re really trying to capture those groups. We’ve been doing city-country splits — a central London hotel paired with a country experience in a manor house. It’s all about that cultural immersion and finding the places and spaces that allow you to create authentic experience that you may not find on your own.”
Southeast Asia is one place meeting planners are finding excellent value, and for a recent Asia Cash Cycle Seminar organized by Currency Research, Britnee Hursin, CMP, conference director, chose Bangkok, Thailand.
“We considered all the major Asia-Pacific destinations,” Hursin says. “But Bangkok has both regional and international appeal, offering a great location with accessibility to international direct flights, good value for the budget, five-star service and a vibrant culture. Everyone speaks English and is very welcoming to foreign visitors. It was particularly attractive to us because the Bank of Thailand — the central bank for the country — had previously reopened their money museum. We thought that this would be a great attraction for our delegates. I found Bangkok to be one of the easiest places to host a conference.”
The seminar attracted 223 delegates from 36 different countries, all of whom were based at the Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok, set along the Chao Phraya River. While not located in the central business district, the Shangri-La is close to shopping and attractions and the river provides a buffer from the traffic and pace of Bangkok. The city’s metro system and river taxis make travel easier to other areas of the normally traffic-clogged city.
“The team on-site at the Shangri-La Hotel property is by far one of my favorites to work with,” Hursin says. “They acted like an extension of our own staff and were dedicated and invested in making sure the event was memorable. They truly went above and beyond, and some staff members even helped me set up registration, something which is never expected.”
Hursin continues, “We had planned to host a dinner outdoors but due to weather we unfortunately had to take our guests to the same ballroom that they had been sitting in all day for educational presentations. But the hotel staff whipped out a surprise dance floor, some lighting and table décor to help transform the ballroom into a social space. I cannot talk enough about how accommodating the staff was to our last-minute requests and their efforts to ensure that everything was delivered on-time so we had a successful show.”
Hursin also lauded the services offered by the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau. “They provided excellent support and all the information I needed to share with our delegates regarding local restaurants, sightseeing and emergency safety information. They also provided us with VIP express passes to expedite airport visa control for our staff, which made arrival to Bangkok much easier after the long journey from Austin, Texas. This was my fifth time back to Thailand, and I enjoy each trip more every time,” Hursin says, adding a pro tip: A foot massage after a long, hard-working day. “They are easy to get at one of several shops just outside of the hotel — amazing massages for under $10.”
Reise is another incentive planner who finds Thailand offers “exceptional value.”
“Getting over there is the tough part,” Reise says. “It’s a long travel day. But once you’re there, you’re getting five-star hotels for three-star prices, with outstanding service. Plus, it gives people an opportunity to experience an exotic destination that they might not otherwise get to in their lifetime.”
Reise says his company looks for value in tertiary destinations. “Instead of Berlin or Munich, we go to Dresden, Germany. Costs are about 35 percent less, and yet you can still have the same European culture and entertainment experience.”
For a U.S.-based healthcare services company, Reise took his 240-person group to Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland for an incentive and award meeting. “We also looked at Montreux and Barcelona,” he explains. “But Scotland was chosen because the client had just acquired a major company in the U.K., and also because the company’s top VIPs are major golf enthusiasts — Scotland has world-class golf. The hotel offered an excellent blend of unique Scottish ambience and a plethora of activities on-site, as well as world class sightseeing nearby in Edinburgh and other areas of Scotland.”
Reise made sure the entire program was infused with a solid dose of Scottish culture. “Our first night was themed around ‘Scotland through the Centuries,’” Reise recalls. “We used multiple rooms, each of which represented a different century in Scottish history, including different foods, décor and entertainment unique to each century. And for our final night party we took over Stirling Castle. The men received kilts and the women Scottish sashes to wear for the final evening — we reconfirmed fittings on arrival day. We had bagpipers, Scottish entertainment and it was a smash hit.”
Reise notes that it can be difficult to find hotels with larger meetings spaces in Europe, but for another evening event, Gleneagles worked with Reise to convert its indoor tennis facility into the client’s desired set-up for meeting space and the awards dinner. “This was challenging, as we wanted to create the illusion that people were entering a meeting venue. We required 9,000 sf and Gleneagles was one of the few hotels or venues that could accommodate this. Together with the hotel staff and DMC we created a very unique and special environment for participants to meet and receive their awards.”
Reise adds, “Europeans think differently than Americans. What we take for granted in American hotels can sometimes be considered an exception in a European hotel. Pay attention to details for non-traditional venues that require you to do things like bringing in a kitchen. Make sure you are aware of what capabilities and limitations there are for hosting an event that includes off-site catering. It’s important to communicate all of these details up front before committing.”
Chaulet adds, “This is why it’s important to work with professional meeting planners, so you can go in with your eyes open. Financial and insurance companies have very sophisticated meeting planners at the helm. But more important than the destination, it’s always — how are we going to build the program?”
What countries are planners hearing requests for with increasing frequency? “A lot of companies are exploring the Pacific Coast of Mexico, and San Miguel in Central Mexico,” Banfield says. “They may not have the budget to go to Spain, but they want that Spanish history and culture and they can find it in San Miguel. People are also paying attention to Peru and Cartagena, Colombia.”
“My favorite incentive destination right now is Croatia,” Banfield adds. “It’s the most epic, epic experience. It’s still a spot where you can find really great value, but that’s going to flip pretty soon. More and more people are exploring Croatia — it’s really skyrocketed in popularity.”
Chaulet says Europe remains tried and true, and that southern countries such as Italy, Spain and France continue to attract a lot of insurance and financial incentive programs.
“What is interesting, is the secondary destinations that are popping up,” Chaulet says. “In Italy, we’re noticing demand beyond Rome and Florence, such as the Puglia region, and offering something more unique. Instead of big hotels, we’re seeing smaller groups and catering to a more exclusive experience. Northern Spain, the Basque region — these were not places we looked at before. The Nordic countries are becoming extremely attractive, as well as eastern countries like Croatia and Montenegro, and Prague is very much of interest.”
Asked to name one country that will be on our radar soon, Chaulet picks a sleeper.
“The destination in the pipeline that is going to have a lot of visibility for the next two years is Malta,” predicts Chaulet. “This is a destination that has aggressively pushed for more visibility, has done a superb job with infrastructure and it has historic as well as resort activities. There are direct flights from anywhere in Europe, and then one quick flight to Malta.” I&FMM.