Incentive cruises have a lot of benefits, starting with their all-inclusive nature -- particularly with a beverage package -- the fact that they charge in U.S. dollars, and the fact that you have a "captive" group that has no alternative but to stay together and network after the day's port excursion.
"Our favorite way to sell a cruise is to do a [full-ship] charter," say Vicki Kern, vice president of global sourcing and proposal development, and Kim Hester, an account executive in global meetings and incentives, at JNR International. "Fly the company flag, create a custom itinerary they can't do on their own, add a celebrity chef or exciting DJ to the mix, and 'own' the experience."
Then there is river cruising, which is "especially popular right now," say Liz Mikkelsen and Elena Overton, both supervisors of event purchasing and industry relations at ITA Group. "It's a great, safe, and easy way to experience several European cities." To say nothing of the Yangtse in China and other more exotic routes on vessels of companies like Crystal River Cruises and Viking Cruises.
On bigger vessels, the Eastern and Western Mediterranean are very popular, while Caribbean cruises are huge due to their proximity to the U.S. Expedition cruise destinations like Alaska, the Galapagos, as well as the Arctic and Antarctic are so popular that Silverseas has four vessels outfitted for icy waters.
But cruising is not for everyone. "We are finding that clients feel very strongly about cruising, and it's really a love/hate relationship," says Kari Vrba, senior vice president of business development of MotivAction. "We do look at cruising when our client is interested in all-inclusive options, but it can be a challenge with finding interesting itineraries in shorter sailings."
"Europe as a whole has been very hot," says Mark Herbert of Incentive Solutions. "The value of the Euro has also helped since it is down versus the dollar." Spear One's May agrees, noting that the exchange rate and VAT refunds, along with what he calls "podium power cachet" of "major European cities such as London, Paris, Rome, and Barcelona," is bringing them back to favor with U.S. groups.
"We will always have first-time travelers that want to go to the traditional destinations first," Maritz Travel's Stagner says. Impact Incentives' Almeas adds "uber-cool" Berlin to the list, citing "great venues, a good air hub, and amazing meeting hotels."
More broadly, Herbert says Italy as a whole is extremely popular. "It is seen as a winning destination," Siewert agrees, pointing to both the exchange rate and lack of terrorism incidents. And it's not just Rome. Both the north and south have "charming cities, stunning waters, and beautiful people," Bishop-McCann's Murray says.
England, Scotland, and Ireland remain favorites with American groups, as does Switzerland, while the Scandinavian countries are getting more interest. Greece is "returning to favor," Murray says. And, of course, both Croatia and Iceland are red-hot [see sidebar Beyond the Wall].
"Monte Carlo, on the French Riviera, is always popular," Murray adds. "Formula 1 Grand Prix racing and James Bond casino experiences [can be] topped off with a side trip to Cannes or Eze for culture, perfume, and food."
Lisbon's rich history and
culture have made it a top
Portugal and its capital city, Lisbon, were also mentioned by seven of our meeting planners, beating out even Italy. "This destination has never received the attention it deserved from the luxury incentive market," Smith says. "In the last year, that seems to have changed. Portugal checks every box on most luxury-group shopping lists and is still an exceptional value." JNR's Kern and Hester add, "Portugal even rivals Spain with scenery, charm, and a booming wine industry."
Vienna is a classical "grand tour" destination that offers a rich history, incredible beauty, world-renowned cuisine, and a wealth of grand venues headed by the Hofburg Palace. Budapest and Prague are safe, offer great value, and, according to Stagner, "carry a sense of prestige where people do not necessarily travel on their own."
2. CANADA, MEXICO, AND LATIN AMERICA
Our neighbor to the north remains "a no-brainer for North Americans," Siewert says. "Whether you need a summer haven for an incentive or a winter wonderland for an incentive, Vancouver and Whistler have it all." Banff and Quebec also got nods.
Canada's stunning natural
surroundings are some of its
many incentive attractions
Down south, Mexico "is a perennial best value for U.S. companies," Siewert says. "The recent travel advisory is not good, but I believe Mexico will continue to be top-of-mind for budget-oriented clients." Beau Ballin, senior director of business development for CWT Meetings & Events, notes that the classic incentive destination, Los Cabos, is joined by Punta Mita in having new properties in place or on the way. Herbert adds that Cancun "is a staple when it comes to all-inclusive resorts" and "very popular for customer incentives." Maritz Travel's Stagner adds, "We're seeing Mexican trips continue to rise steadily since more and more resort and hotel partners are offering high-end all-inclusives that offer great value and are easy to enjoy.
Gear-D'Imperio and Gensone say that Central and South America are hot right now, "with countries like Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia high on the request list. Aside from their lush scenery and abundance of activities to choose from, there is a certain excitement to visiting these less-traveled locations." Murray adds that "with jungles, rainforests, beaches, and waterfalls, Costa Rica's the ultimate adventurer experience, and it's also budget friendly."