What Incentive Winners Want Most From HotelsNovember 1, 2013

Above All, an Experience That Makes Them Feel Special By
November 1, 2013

What Incentive Winners Want Most From Hotels

Above All, an Experience That Makes Them Feel Special
TD Ameritrade's President's Club meeting at Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands. Credit: Rainbow Visions Photography

TD Ameritrade’s President’s Club meeting at Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands. Credit: Rainbow Visions Photography

Business travelers have a variety of expectations, or at least wishes, when it comes to hotels, everything from ergonomic desks to free Wi-Fi to digital safes to lobby kiosks that provide airport check-in. But incentive travelers aren’t just looking for a pleasant, convenient lodging experience. They want a hotel or resort that is part of the reward for making their sales quota over a long, challenging qualifying period. That means luxurious amenities and, ideally, something that catches their eye after a career of upscale trips to many corners of the world.

“Generally these folks have been all over the world because they do these trips often, and many of them go on our competitors’ trips,” says Lisa Ramsay, CMP, director of meetings and incentives, life and annuity division, for Protective Life Insurance Company, Birmingham, AL. “The element of surprise may set us apart from our competitors to get them to come on our trip.”

Most recently, a Protec­tive Life incentive group visited Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho, and many golfers among the group had a “surprising” encounter with the famed 14th hole, which lies on a made-made island, essentially a floating green.

Brand Loyalty

Unusual amenities and experiences help to make an incentive memorable, but in a different respect, recognizability and familiarity also can be desirable in a hotel. When insurance agents hear the name of a renowned independent property, such as The Broadmoor or The Greenbrier, or an elite brand name such as Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, they feel assured they will enjoy a lodging experience that is worth the effort to qualify. But since companies often have longstanding relationships with international hoteliers and thus enjoy negotiating leverage with them, economic considerations sometimes weigh in favor of the big-chain properties vs. independents as incentive locales. After all, incentive programs have rebounded since the recession, but unchecked spending has not.

“The most important factor in our incentive marketing is building the prestige associated with qualifying for the trip. …Destination is foremost for incentives at TD Ameritrade, but the choice of venue is a close second.”

— Katrina L. Kent, CMP, CMM, Director, The Event Group, TD Ameritrade, Jersey City, NJ

Another reason in favor of the big-chain hotels is consistent service across many properties. “Independent hotels actually don’t factor in (as incentive site choices) as greatly for us as the more expansive, corporate hotel partners,” says Katrina L. Kent, CMP, CMM, director, The Event Group, TD Ameritrade, Jersey City, NJ. “One of the most important reasons is service levels. There is great service out there at some independents, of course, but overall service is something that we see is more consistent at luxury brands with established cachet. So we lean a lot on luxury hotel partners we can count on. Other four-star hotels actually also have some great upscale resorts that can be packaged as ‘luxury,’ especially given their destination, and that offer great value.”

Luxury hotel brand names alone can sometimes draw a planner’s attention to a potential incentive destination. For instance, when Eldon Gale, incentive travel manager at Columbus, OH-based Nationwide In­surance, was considering Dublin, “it was really the brands that got us there in the first place,” he explains, referring to the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin and the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, County Wicklow. “The two brands by themselves were strong enough that they gave cachet to the location. I thought, ‘There is obviously enough draw to support those brands, so it’s (incumbent) upon me to look at the location.’ And then once we got there, we dug in a little bit deeper and discovered there was enough (activities and attractions) to support our five-day program.”

Green Bay, WI-based Humana has its sights set on the Penha Longa Resort in Portugal, managed by Ritz-Carlton. “They have a huge monastery on-property, a golf course, a very beautiful spa, and it’s located where the royal family used to summer,” comments Charles Lane, strategic consultant, incentive travel, for Humana. Furthermore, the Ritz-Carlton brand “comes with high expectations, and I’ve never seen them not deliver,” he adds.

“The insurance market is trending quite consistently and remains strong for The Ritz-Carlton,” says Lulu Stribling, director of global accounts, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Site board member. “Europe and Caribbean requests continue to lead in popularity, with growing interest in Asia and/or the Middle East. For the financial market, most of the companies remain loyal to our resorts in the United States, Caribbean and Hawaii, with a growing percentage of very high-tier incentive groups going abroad to our more exotic destinations.”

According to Stribling, among the newer Ritz-Carlton properties that are especially viable for incentives is Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, located 45 minutes outside of San Juan, PR. Opened in 2012, the boutique property is situated along a three-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline that is the former site of the Laurence Rockefeller estate. In addition, “The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba is scheduled to open at the end of this calendar year. It’s a very exciting project, and clients are sending a great number of leads for 2014 and beyond,” Stribling comments.

Location, Location, Location

While the quality of the resort is a prime site choice consideration when it comes to incentives, typically the destination takes precedence in the marketing initiative. Says Kent, “The most important factor in our incentive marketing is building the prestige associated with qualifying for the trip, and that elite accomplishment. Destination is foremost for incentives at TD Ameritrade, but the choice of venue is a close second.” Ramsay, in effect, concurs: “Usually our first priority is destination. It needs to have a ‘wow’ factor or big draw, because if it doesn’t excite the attendees right off, then certainly they will not want to attend just because of a particular hotel chain that we are going to use.”

Thus, three features that incentive travelers look for in a hotel are, as the old adage goes, location, location, location. Accordingly, Kent’s site inspections for incentives “really take a look at the sense of place more holistically than they do for a straight business meeting,” she explains. “We are looking more closely at the entire destination, the local flavor, the differentiators within the location itself, activities, leisure vibe, local food and recreation.”

The Experience

Once the destination has been determined, the hotel choice still can be challenging, because most top cities in the incentive market have a variety of luxury properties. And oftentimes, the properties’ specific locations will afford distinct experiences of the destination.

Gale’s team faced that kind of decision with respect to the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin and The Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, County Wicklow: the former enables an energetic, urban experience of Dublin, while the latter is located 30 minutes outside of the city on a 1,000-acre estate in the countryside, with nothing but golf and gardens in the vicinity. Both hotels, Gale notes, have comparable in-room product and meeting space, and both have brand cachet.

“It was a difficult decision, so what it came down to for us was, what is the experience that we want our people to have? Is the program about going to Dublin and having a Dublin experience, or is it about having kind of an Irish countryside experience?” The desirability of each hotel, then, was relative to the program design and goals. After Gale’s team spent a week exploring the hotel’s respective areas, they decided that the rural experience would be the focus of the incentive. Qualifiers could “have a beautiful view of the countryside, walk out of their door to these gorgeous gardens and just really feel like they’ve escaped.”

A similar decision had to be made with respect to two New York City properties for a mid-July incentive program with about 700 attendees, including children. Would the group be based at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, or at the historic Waldorf Astoria, a little more removed from the heart of the city near Central Park?

“For us, it was again an issue of the kind of experience we wanted our people to have,” Gale says. “We recognized that this was first and foremost a family program, and that people were coming here to have a quintessential New York City experience rather than a luxury experience near Central Park. So that put us in more of a tourist frame of mind, and that’s why we put the group right in the heart of Times Square at the Marquis. You can’t get more centralized than that.” The many first-time visitors to the city would appreciate the Marriott’s accessibility to all the iconic sights, Gale explains.

Hotel Amenities

While incentive qualifiers will sometimes be new to a destination, they tend to be very experienced travelers in general, and know what they want in terms of hotel amenities. Kent cites several: “freshly renovated guest rooms, cutting-edge technology (superior wireless at no charge, digital televisions), fantastic service, healthy food (organic, whole foods, locally sourced) and access to fitness activities.” All of these aspects become part of the site inspection checklist, not to mention the two standbys: golf and spa.

“We visit the golf course and look through the pro shop because we do give out a number of gifts,” Lane says. “We chat with the golf pro and get his ideas and input on the tournament.

“We also look at the spa rooms and their best treatments,” he continues. “The capacity of the spa is very important. Two years ago we had a program at a very nice resort that had a very nice spa, but they sold it out in advance, and by the time our people came to the property, there was no space available for them.”

Another important feature, Lane remarks, is the size of the swimming pool. “It doesn’t sound like a major thing, but people like to gather during the day at the pool and chitchat with each other,” he says.

Personalized Service and Rooms With a View

Elegant spaces for a reception, poolside or otherwise, are also an important criterion, but meeting space and AV capabilities, even if less than ideal, are not “deal-breakers” for incentives, Ramsay explains. “Rooms with a view,” she adds, are preferable for incentive guests. “We try to get the best rooms in the hotel: large, with balconies and the best views.”

And then there is guest service, which always can be improved with the right pre-meeting communication with the staff. “When we go out to do the site inspection, that’s when we sit down and lay out what we expect of them in a program like this, and so nobody is confused about who the group is or (the nature of the program), whether it’s an incentive or a business meeting.”

It’s important to “understand how the participants got there, what they did to be able to partake in this special incentive trip,” Stribling stresses. A great hotel staff makes it a point to learn and use guests’ names, and find out their service preferences. But in the case of incentive travelers, it’s helpful if they also know the effort the guests made to be on the trip, and its status as a reward for that workplace performance. Such a perspective will encourage staff to give the group not just the fine service that all guests receive, but optimum personalized recognition. What incentive travelers want, above all else, is the feeling of exclusivity, and the level of attention from doormen, caterers, front desk representatives and other staff can certainly help to foster that feeling. I&FMM

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