International Incentives Move the Motivation Factor Up A Notch
By George Seli
Among the tough decisions that many insurance and financial companies had to make during the height of the recession was to cut back on or eliminate international incentives. The U.S. has plenty of intriguing cities with outstanding meeting facilities, but there’s no denying the adventurous quality of heading to a foreign country and experiencing what is often a very different culture, along with historical venues that date from long before the era of the 13 American Colonies.
Humana’s Watchful Waiting
For Charles Lane, director of incentive travel and public relations for Green Bay, WI-based Humana, international is “without a doubt” more motivating to potential qualifiers than domestic. “Obviously we’re not going to places like suburban Green Bay, we’re taking people to nice places here on the continental 48,” he says. “But I think going overseas provides people with something that they probably would not avail themselves of, and if they did, they probably couldn’t do it without some of the imagination and access that we provide, working with vendors that enable us to get into venues that the average person couldn’t.”
Like many firms, however, Humana for several years wanted to avoid the perception that it was exporting U.S. dollars abroad and taking agents to “exotic” destinations, Lane explains. As a result, fewer annual incentive trips were held, and to strictly domestic destinations. “I’m hoping we’re making a comeback and that we find out that it’s more acceptable” to go abroad for motivational programs, he says. A small step to reintroducing international is a Puerto Rico incentive the company has proposed for next April. As a U.S. Commonwealth, Puerto Rico offers easy access and a USD-based currency, easing the logistics of meeting there.
Securian’s Sensational Incentives
Unlike Humana, St. Paul, MNbased Securian Financial Group is a privately held company and less subject to the pressures of perception. The firm maintained its international incentive programs throughout the economic downturn and continues to explore less-trodden ground on that front, most recently taking about 300 Chairman’s Club qualifiers to Chile and Buenos Aires, and 90 Leaders Conference qualifiers to Peru as part of the same May 2011 program. In Peru the participants experienced the modern capital city of Lima; Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire; and the picturesque Incan ruin of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in the Andes.
Overall, the Southern Hemisphere — particularly South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand — has been rather popular lately with incentive groups, observes Koleen M. Roach, Securian’s director of meetings and conference management. There is also a “trend a little more toward what people consider the safer destinations,” she says. Countries such as Greece and Egypt suffer from unrest and may not be the first choice for insurance and financial companies looking to make a cautious reentry into the international meetings market.
That’s a shame, given the striking venues those countries offer to incentive groups, Roach says. Per the common wisdom among planners, the most successful incentive programs give participants an experience they can’t easily get on their own, and a major way to achieve that is to stage a special event at a venue that is not accessible without certain “connections.”
For a 2009 incentive to South Africa, Securian worked with Dragonfly, a local DMC that was able to obtain a permit to hold a dinner for a group of about 100 at the presidential residence, “which would be the equivalent of having an offsite dinner at the White House,” says Roach. “At the time that we were there the president wasn’t actually living in the palace but in a different home on the property. But now the current president, I understand, has moved back into the palace and nobody had lived there since Nelson Mandela, so I don’t think they’re renting it out anymore for private groups.”
Suffice it to say, the experience in retrospect turned out to be even more special. “We don’t cut any corners in this company; we know our advisors work really hard to get to the level of performance they need to qualify for these trips, and we really want to make this a great experience for them,” Roach says.
Another great experience was had in Malta, a Mediterranean country home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Megalithic Temples. “It’s a fabulous destination, very exotic with a vast history, and they speak English,” Roach remarks.
The latter feature is always a plus. “As exotic as my people like to think that they are, they’re always much more comfortable in an environment where they can speak their own language,” she adds. “We had our gala dinner at the MCC (Mediterranean Conference Centre), which is one of the oldest buildings in Malta.”
Erected by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1574, the MCC is located in Valletta, Malta’s capital and itself a UNESCO site. The building is adjacent to Fort St. Elmo and overlooks the Grand Harbour. All of Malta’s attractions are easily accessible given the island’s size. “You’re only 20 minutes away from anything,” says Roach. “If you’ve driven 25 minutes you’re likely in the water.” Indeed, Roach advises planners to consider the amount of transportation to any prospective offsite activity: “ ‘We were on buses for too long’ is a common complaint,” she says.
Among Malta’s 16 five-star hotels and 41 four-star hotels are the 439-room Grand Hotel Excelsior (43,055 sf of meeting space) and the 136-room Phoenicia Hotel (meeting space for up to 300 attendees), both located five minutes away from the MCC.
Brand Versus Independent
One of the site decisions a planner must make when going international is whether to book an independent property like the Excelsior or Phoenicia, or one that is part of a global brand. Independent properties do tend to create a more indigenous experience for attendees, but if a planner has done significant domestic business with Marriott or Starwood, for example, there may be a certain negotiating leverage in booking a hotel in that brand overseas. Plus, it’s easier to know what to expect in terms of quality and service level.
Roach typically takes this approach with U.S. hoteliers who have a global presence. “You tap into those relationships and they can really help you,” she says. She has found that independent hotels in other countries sometimes “struggle with large group business because it really cuts into their leisure and business traveler service that they’re very committed to.”
For example, in negotiating with a hotelier based in Buenos Aires, “I wanted to use the property for six nights in a row, and when they saw that the size of my block was basically a buyout, they wouldn’t do it,” Roach relates. “The thought of turning away their business and leisure travelers was not something that they could process. They did end up giving me three nights at a total buyout, but they wouldn’t give me six. Still, the hotel did a phenomenal job for us. And once we were actually there, I think they fully understood the amount of revenue that a large group can bring into a hotel. After we left, they said, ‘If you need 14 nights we’ll give it to you.’ ”
Lane’s groups have stayed at brand hotels such as the 197-room Four Seasons Dublin (14,381 sf of meeting space), but also at the five-star 300-room Landmark London Hotel (18,000 sf of meeting space) and the 212-room Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa (6,639 sf of meeting space) in Interlaken, Switzerland. “Certain properties have a connotation of high quality, and that’s part of the experience that we’re marketing,” Lane says. The Victoria-Jungfrau is one such hotel, with a panoramic view of the Jungfrau mountain range. Jungfrau is one of the main summits of the Bernese Alps, and the town is a great choice for outdoorsy attendees who enjoy backpacking. Built in 1864, the Victoria-Jungfrau was one reason Interlaken itself became popular among travelers.
Swiss Wish List
Switzerland boasts many such picture-postcard cities in mountain and lake regions where adventureof-a-lifetime activities await, including glacier trekking, mountaineering, canoeing, hiking, river rafting and hang gliding. For the less adventurous, there’s golf and fishing — even city tours by Segway along the River Rhine, according to the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau.
News includes the reopening of the five-star Hotel Schweizerhof in Bern, which completed a makeover of all 99 rooms and suites, with a new wellness complex to be added late this year. In the heart of French-speaking Lausanne is the Beaulieu Lausanne Congress and Exhibition Centre, which began a renovation project in 2010 that will fully upgrade its conference and meeting rooms, and theater. The elegant lounge bar Locarno Lido is a new 4,000-sf event venue on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Ticino.
Apart from overseas hoteliers, airlines also can be unfamiliar territory for planners and attendees. Among the information Securian gave its agents over the 14-month qualification period for the South America incentive was some guidance on using LAN Airlines, based in Santiago, Chile. “Many people in America aren’t familiar with it,” says Roach. “So we let them know how to get their frequent flier miles, what they could expect to pay in terms of fees if they were bringing family members, and so on.”
The information was included in a series of newsletters on the trip sent out every other month during the qualification period. The pieces cull useful facts on the destination from a variety of sources, says Roach, from National Geographic to convention bureaus and DMCs. “Participants love these newsletters, and they read them cover to cover. They’ll show up at the airport with their newsletter in their travel file folder,” she says.
“We always provide (attendees) with all types of reading materials,” notes Lane. “When we went down to Australia, I supplied everyone with a copy of The Fatal Shore, a book on the history of the founding of Australia and how its culture has evolved. So they had some required reading, which they may or may not have done.”
Safety and Security
While reading background material may not be “due diligence” for participants, planners have a major responsibility in researching the safety of a prospective destination. “The U.S. Department of State website is the first place I check. If there are travel warnings established or any indication of terror cells for a particular area that I may be looking at, I’ll just take it right off my list. You’d be really surprised about the places where terror cells are located, places that seem like they’d be really nice to travel to,” Roach points out.
It’s fair to say that a planner should not expect 100 percent safety in any destination. “We’ve been to South Africa and people can argue there are safety issues there, but one can also argue there are safety issues in northeast Minneapolis. Americans are funny, they tend to think we live in the safest country on the planet, which is not necessarily true.”
Roach takes the approach of traveling with both a doctor and security personnel. In addition, she arranges for ambulances to be onsite for any activities in remote venues, such as a polo farm the group visited 90 minutes outside of Buenos Aires.
Another safety measure comes through working with a DMC that can arrange plenty of tours to keep attendees together in manageable groups. “It’s a lot less worrisome to be on an organized tour on buses where you have some semblance of control,” says Lane. “You can limit the number of people who are going to ride off into the sunset and do something foolish” he quips.
China’s MICE Market
Planners interested in China have a new DMC option now that San Francisco-based Imperial Tours is targeting the MICE market. “We’ve done meetings and incentives in China in the past, but this is the first time we’re actively seeking MICE business,” says Margot Kong, vice president, marketing and business development. Kong has a professional background in the financial world, having worked for Merrill
Lynch, Citicorp and other firms. She sees more U.S. companies doing business with China, “and so if you’re doing business there it only makes sense for you to send your employees there as an incentive: You want them to have a good time obviously, but you also want them to see what’s going on and the dynamics of what’s changing in China.”
It seems many firms are doing just that. According to Reed Travel Exhibition’s 2010 China and Asia Meetings Industry Research Report, the overall number of events held in China increased 51 percent in 2010 over 2009, vs. a 28 percent increase for the rest of the world over the same period. One plus is China’s relative affordability.
“We focus on the top end of the China market, but even on the top end you’ll find that China is still a huge bargain compared to Europe or the U.S.,” says Kong. “For five-star hotels you’re looking at $500 to $600 a night compared to $800 to $1,000 in Europe. And if we’re working directly with the hotel and we can guarantee the booking, then we can lock in the exchange rate.”
Imperials Tours has partnered with several financial groups for small meetings in China, ranging from about 20–110 attendees. They include:
• Boston-based Cambridge Associates’ meeting in Shanghai, which featured a cruise on the Huangpu River and a tour of the Bund area with its colonial-era financial buildings.
• A banquet on the Great Wall for St. Petersburg, FL-based Raymond James Financial Inc., complete with drummers and dancers.
Imperial Tours can offer incentive groups special access to the floor of the pit at the Terracotta Warriors, a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of the first emperor of China, discovered in the Shaanxi province.
The company also can gain access to a section of the Forbidden City that’s not open to the public, stage a dinner on the rostrum of Tiananmen Square in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong among many other intriguing possibilities. Groups also are provided “China Hosts,” Westerners who have lived in China for many years and speak Chinese fluently. “They act like a traveling concierge,” Kong explains. “We have one for every 20–30 attendees. They help ensure the best service in restaurants or airports.”
In addition, Imperial Tours can source local experts in China to serve on panel discussions or give keynotes, such as the first hedge fund manager in China, a New Yorker who’s been in China for 20 years; economists; and the foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
China is thus an example of an incentive destination that makes good business sense due to its affordability and position in the world economy, while at the same time being “exotic,” particularly its less conventional destinations Hangzhou and Lhasa.
For planners, determining what will wow seasoned incentive participants isn’t easy. Lane says, “We send out a survey at the end of each of our programs and ask them for their input on future locations, and we get the whole realm. Some want to sleep in a tent in Tanzania and others wouldn’t go near it for the world.”
And while Roach’s team informally asks participants what destinations are on their “bucket list,” given the company’s 30 years of international travel and significant number of repeat qualifiers, “they’ve gotten to the point where they like that element of surprise,” she says.
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