by David Block | September 03, 2016
For the past 12 years, the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau has organized the Switzerland Meeting Trophy, a road rally around Switzerland to build brand awareness and strengthen relationships with international meeting planners. The event is a competition among eight teams of planners from Europe, Russia, and North America.

As an embedded reporter from Successful Meetings this is my third time as a member of the North American team. The teams drive around the country and compete in events that allow them to experience Switzerland and learn about what the destination has to offer groups. "Every year we choose a different region to showcase our diverse cities and mountain scenery," says Caroline Pidroni, the director of sales and marketing for the North American Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau, a part of Switzerland Tourism. "The key is 'experience.' We get the delegates engaged in the learning experience through the fun competition format."

The Learning Objective
The itinerary this year focused on the country's French-speaking region. The agenda included Valais, home to the Switzerland's highest mountains; glamorous Verbier in the heart of Switzerland's skiing and summer resort area; the scenic diversity of the Lake Geneva region; stately Lausanne; and several spectacular stop-offs in between - including Montreux, known for its annual Jazz Festival. Our modes of transportation were cable car, train, bike, scooter, and automobile.

To sweeten the deal, the winning team would be given a cow for 12 months. The prize included visitation rights, plus all yogurt, milk, chocolate, and other products emanating from the cow for one year.  

The North American group, made up of U.S. and Canadian planners, has never won the Switzerland Meeting Trophy but our group had high hopes of ending the drought. We even displayed it on our team shirts, which read: "US CAN Just do it!"

On the Road
The competition began at Verbier, one of the world's most glamorous ski resorts.  The opening buffet at Le Rouge restaurant was the first and best chance for the delegates to mingle and share ideas with foreign contemporaries.

We were fortunate to spend two luxurious overnights at the 123-room, five-star W Hotel, overwhelmingly praised for its ingenious design and state-of-the-art amenities and services.

At the launch of the rally we gathered with each group wearing something to demonstrate the country they represented. Most noteworthy were the United Kingdom team, donning bowler hats and the Dutch team with high crowns and royal regalia. Off we ventured, up the mountain by cable car into breathtaking mountain scenery and the first tussle: hiking-boot throwing.  Each team launched two heavyweight shoes toward a trio of nearby baskets. The North American team's efforts hit the mark each time. Quickly catching our breath for the Alphorn playing contest, our team's representative blasted a creditable 30-plus seconds to consolidate our promising start. Another North American contestant did equally well at donning a "Tschäggatta" costume of furs, bell belt, and headdress, and running a short race (including elbowing aside a Nordic) to chalk up some more valuable points. Then a wheel of Raclette cow's milk cheese weighing 13 pounds appeared for our group to melt and slice onto a plate. That was smoothly executed and we began to feel we were on a roll.

The adventurous were offered alternative down-mountain transportation comprising bicycle or scooter. "One of my most brilliant experiences ever," panted Trevor Pirri, account manager at the Toronto-based event management company Wynford. The day's last event was volleyball, at which we were no competition for the other teams. But we also had to answer dozens of questions set to emphasize the region's attractions and unique selling propositions, and at that we excelled.

Dinner at the W Hotel that evening included the announcement of the results so far. We held an encouraging second place. But even more important, our group and the other teams had gathered valuable information that would help us plan effective events in the region. "I've been planning events for 30 years and this is the best fact-finding trip I've ever participated in," says Julie White, vice president, meetings and incentives for the Boulder, CO-based Cain Travel Group.

The Home Stretch
The next day we drove to the Lake Geneva region near Montreux, an area famous for its scenery and its world-leading research and educational facilities. Coffee was served at the medieval Chillon Castle, then it was onto Vevey (where milk chocolate was invented).

Guessing how many corks were in a jar followed a wine-tasting challenge. We guessed incorrectly, but we finished strong with the concluding two challenges: chocolate tasting and photo identifying.

We arrived for our final stop at Lausanne's legendary 150-year-old Beau Rivage Palace on the shores of Lake Geneva, where we were to recline, but not until the results were announced. We were runners-up to Belgians. But second place is the best showing the North American team has ever mustered, so we were all proud and grateful for the education on the Swiss product the event had given us. "Such a clever way to introduce the country's assets," said Kim Hester, senior account executive at the Irvine, CA-based incentive house JNR Inc.

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This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.