For the non-planner, cities such as Prague, Budapest and Salzburg perhaps do not immediately spring to mind when considering international destinations that would inspire sales reps to overachieve. More likely, one assumes that high-profile cities such as Paris and Rome would have that effect, or perhaps tropical getaways in Hawaii or the Caribbean. But today’s seasoned incentive planner faces an audience of insurance and financial reps that is more well-traveled each year, and these “second tier” European cities have actually shifted from being adventurous choices to reliable ones.
Based on her discussions with peers and her own planning experiences, Koleen Roach, director of meeting and conference management with St. Paul, Minnesota-based Securian Financial Group, notes that Prague, Budapest and Salzburg, as well as countries including Ireland and Portugal, have become “trusty, consistent incentive destinations that I like to call an ‘ace in your back pocket.’ Every planner enjoys having the opportunity to do an event at those destinations because they’re oftentimes very well-received incentives by the qualifiers. They’re exciting, historical countries, and many of them are English-speaking, which helps a lot.”
Prague, Budapest and Salzburg, as well as countries including Ireland and Portugal, have become “trusty, consistent incentive destinations that I like to call an ‘ace in your back pocket.’ ”— Koleen Roach
And while many second-tier European cities are tried-and-true in the incentive market at this point, they are still “more likely to be new to program participants” than first-tier cities such as London, Paris and Rome, notes Jennifer Mazza, senior manager travel accounts with New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, 30 percent of whose clientele are insurance and financial companies. “From a planning perspective, this provides an opportunity to create unexpected and memorable events and experiences.”
Europe in general appears to be enjoying high demand these days in the incentive market. Jackie Fox, senior manager global development with Salt Lake City, Utah-based Morris Meetings & Incentives, says she is seeing “Europe coming back; the exchange rate is making it more and more doable for us and we’re having a lot more (clients express) interest in Europe. I always get requests for Ireland, for example.”
One of the Emerald Isle’s major attractions for incentive groups has always been its castles, many of which offer lodging and are rentable for private events. The 82-room Ashford Castle, dating to 1228, is in the news lately as it completed a three-phase, property-wide restoration in March. To further promote business tourism, the country offers a range of practical and financial support for incentive groups.
For many U.S. groups, however, travel time is a consideration that can weigh in favor of “closer to home” international destinations. “Programs that are only four or five nights long stay closer to home to keep travel time reasonable relative to the program length,” observes Mazza, whose company is currently planning incentive trips to Cancun and Quebec City. “Groups with limited time but who have interest in international destinations are increasingly turning to Mexico and Canada. And as always, the Caribbean remains strong.”
Mazza also observes that while “budgets among insurance and financial programs are trending slowly up, they are not keeping pace with the rate increases we see in the hospitality industry. Hotel and airline occupancy rates are very high, driving prices even higher.” This is an important dynamic to bear in mind: Planners who find themselves with bigger budgets to work with may set out to arrange an international program in lieu of a domestic one, only to find the greater funds are offset by higher rates. “For many programs, particularly incentives, budgets are often set more than a year in advance, usually based on the previous year. Unfortunately, this is not realistic in the current market,” Mazza notes.
Thus, it remains critical to be resourceful with budgets, even if they have increased in some cases. “I have to be very thoughtful about how to provide a great experience as an incentive and as a reward for our guests without blowing the budget,” Roach says. For international programs, second-tier destinations can be a resource for cost control, in addition to their inherent attractiveness. “Second-tier cities are somewhat less frequented by leisure travelers. This can result in lower hotel and food and beverage rates,” Mazza points out.
The range of potential international programs that would stay within budget is of course very broad, and there is much work for a planner to do in narrowing down the destination options to the handful that will be presented to upper management. Safety and security are always paramount criteria. “It’s a changing world out there, and it’s a big part of a meeting planner’s job now, especially those of us who are involved in international travel, to really assess the risk,” Roach says. “I spend a lot of time on the U.S. Department of State website researching locations and destinations to make sure they are safe, that no travel warnings have been issued, no terror cells have been identified as existing around that area and so on.” That website is an indispensable step in the research process: “Everything is on that website for any place you want to visit, from currency to language to religion to population,” she adds.
Toward determining the “short list” of destinations, Roach also takes into account input from three groups of people: Securian’s upper management and potential qualifiers, as well as her industry connections. “One of the things that our management is really keen on these days is the airlift — how many flights it is going to take to get there — because they want it to be one connection and done,” she notes.
Post-event surveys help to gather site selection feedback from Securian’s well-traveled qualifiers: “We ask what are some future destinations that they would be interested in and would consider an incentive toward their performance goals,” she says. “So I’m always looking at those comments that we get back from our field, and of course those suggestions are as varied and wide as the opportunities out there.”
Further counsel comes from Roach’s colleagues, via “networking with my peers through FICP, or spending time at IMEX in Las Vegas.”
As a general rule, variety is important: Over the past 10 years, Securian has achieved a good mix of urban and coastal locales, and has staged trips to several different continents and islands: Sydney in 2005, Malta in 2007, Africa in 2009 (Cape Town and Livingston split program), Santiago and Cuzco in 2011, Prague in 2013 and Tahiti this year. The programs are attended by approximately 300–350 qualifiers, spouses and significant others.
Destination choice must be coupled with the kinds of local experiences that will leave a lasting impact. Roach gives a few examples: “With our Chairman’s Club in Cuzco, one of the things I was able to do for the group was charter the entire Orient Express train and bring everybody into Machu Picchu. Most people going there on their own probably wouldn’t take the Orient Express; they’d probably take a smaller standard commuter train that goes in and out of the citadel.
“In Sydney, something you wouldn’t normally do on your own is a big regatta with the champion sailboats. And in Tahiti, two hours swimming with sharks and snorkeling some of the most beautiful coral reefs you’ve ever seen, and then swimming with stingrays.”
Says Mazza, “It is very important to provide opportunities for guests to get out of the ballrooms and off-property to experience the unique aspects of a destination firsthand. Whether visiting the open-air markets of Paris or diving in to meet the local fauna at Sting Ray City in the Cayman Islands, some experiences just cannot be found anywhere else.”
Integrating cultural elements is also important: “Many cultures are expressed through their cuisine, and we recommend integrating local flavors, sourced regionally, wherever possible,” she adds. “Events can also include local entertainment, bringing the traditional culture, language and sound to life. This can include flamenco in Spain, ballet folklorico in Mexico or junkanoo in the Bahamas.”
As planners continue to explore new destinations for international incentives, they are not only catalyzing their company’s salesforce to perform — in addition, they are effectively contributing to the tourism economies of a greater variety of countries. “Even though Securian has been going international for about 30 years now, frankly there are still some places we haven’t been to, and there aren’t too many destinations that we’ve repeated,” Roach notes.
The improved U.S. economy also calls for an ongoing effort to ensure employees are incentivized.
“As the economic recovery continues and talent is increasingly hard to retain, clients are focused on remaining the employer-of-choice and on connecting with their employees’ personal aspirations,” says Mazza. “That often means they are looking for the newest thing to generate excitement, and to keep the focus on the organizational goals required to earn a place on the trip.” A less-trodden international locale may well be the “newest thing” that does the trick. I&FMM