The 2017 Switzerland Meeting Trophy

Planners compete for glory, and knowledge, in this year's adventure through Switzerland

mountaintop Switzerland alphorns

If only the rest of the world could follow the example set by Switzerland. No nation on the planet has a better record for avoiding war and political conflict. And it's not like they don't put themselves out there. Every July for the last 13 years, the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau has tempted fate and possible international incident by bringing 80 or so highly competitive meeting and incentive planners from a dozen countries spread across Europe, Russia, and North America to compete for the Switzerland Meeting Trophy, an elaborate road rally around Switzerland to build interest in the country.

"An event like this is especially crucial in helping a destination like Switzerland create brand awareness," says Caroline Pidroni, director of sales and marketing, North America, the Switzerland Convention and Incentive Bureau. "When people think of countries as travel destinations, sometimes they have a hard time seeing beyond the cities -- England becomes London, France becomes Paris, and so on. The Swiss Meeting Trophy enables us to break through that perception by highlighting our cities as well as the great experiences available in the countryside."

The North American group (made up of U.S. and Canadian planners) has never won this competition and, spoiler alert, we didn't win this year, either. Maybe it was the slogan on our T-shirts: "US-EH!" It was supposed to represent the partnership between the U.S. and Canadian planners -- "eh" being that well-known punctuation mark Canadians put at the end of a sentence when speaking. But it did foreshadow the results of our efforts -- though not our fighting spirit. We were behind from the get-go, but we enjoyed each other's company, had fun, and experienced some of the truly spectacular venues to be found in the German region of Switzerland.

One of the more interesting developments in Zurich in recent years has been the reinvention of District 5, a former industrial district that is now a trendy area with hip eateries and other mixed-use developments like Les Halles, a former garage that's now a bar, restaurant, and cheese-and-meat market. Team US-EH! stopped in for a quick bite just after we arrived in the country and met up with a few members of Team Britain. Erin Daoust, program manager of BCD Meetings & Events; Carmelina Manzella-Deignan, vice president, meeting planning, McVeigh Associates; and myself did our best to represent the team. But it was no use, as the Brits proceeded to put us to shame when it came to downing a few pints in the middle of the afternoon. But it was good to have a clear head as we toured the rest of District 5. One of the highlights included Schiffbau, a former shipbuilding factory that's been transformed into a beautiful theater, jazz club, and restaurant with plenty of event space options. Perhaps most interesting was Freitag Tower, a retail store made of 17 shipping freight containers. Not far from there is Frau Gerold's Garten, a mixed-use area of shops and nightlife venues also built partly out of  freight containers.

Team US-EH! got off to a rocky start right out of the gate after breakfast at Laufen Castle at the Rhine Falls. Both arrows from Erin D. and Elizabeth Wolf, director of travel services, MAP Marketing and Incentives, hit their apples in the William Tell competition, but for some reason the fruits did not fall from their perches, so no points were awarded, and the entire team failed to figure out how much water we needed in the water challenge. But Laufen Castle didn't disappoint, offering spectacular views of the Rhine Falls that were so close, liberal amounts of it splashed against us.

It might have been more than an hour, but on the train from Rhine Falls to St. Gallen, Laura Faulkner, event multimedia specialist, Destinations Inc., Alexandra Farrell, event project coordinator at Pr1me, and Emily Williams, team lead operations, Strategic Meetings + Incentives did a great job working out a Rubic's Cube--type puzzle and answering many of the questions about Switzerland in a workbook the teams where graded on. The train we rode on, the Red Arrow Churchill, is available for group charters and has an interesting history. In 1946 Winston Churchill rode the train for a meeting in Geneva. We don't know if there were spies on the train when Churchill was a passenger, but there were definitely attempts among all the teams to steal answers from each other during our trip to St. Gallen.

St. Gallen is a UNESCO World Heritage City that is like a museum come to life. When we arrived, we were treated to lunch in one of the numerous town squares.

As we dined al fresco on delicious cakes, cheeses, and bratwurst, we learned that in St. Gallen the sausage is served sans mustard. Now, this was sacrilege for one of our teammates, Nicole Raudabaugh, account lead and senior buyer at the Appleton, WI--based Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. If there's one thing Wisconsin is known for other than cheese, it's bratwurst -- with mustard. "If this were back home, I wouldn't dare eat this in public without mustard," said Raudabaugh. "But it is delicious, and as the saying goes: When in St. Gallen…"

After a visit to St. Gallen's library (the world's fourth-oldest) it was on to Flims.

During dinner at a mountaintop alpine hut we discussed the merits of a trip like this for both the planners and the suppliers. For Pidroni of the Switzerland Convention and Incentive Bureau, it's not about closing a quick deal. "It can take years for ROI to become clear from an event like this. It's really about the relationships suppliers can build with planners and presenting the destination in a way that leaves a lasting impression on exactly what it is able to offer when it comes to creating memorable meeting and incentive experiences," she said.

Kathy Gibbons, sourcing manager, Creative Group, Inc., says the trip has changed the way she is going to source events moving forward. "I normally don't bring in the CVB or tourist board, but this trip has opened my eyes up to that, because now I see how much they bring to the table," she said. "That's what makes the activities so crucial. On the surface it's just fun and games, but they really do give you insight into what the experience will be like for a group that you bring to the country."

The next morning we hiked to Lake Cauma, a stunning body of water surrounded by a thick forest, and Ashley Hellstern, senior sourcing manager, RX Worldwide/Infinix Global, and Erin Clark Dunstan, vice president strategic account management, Experient, gave it their all in a paddleboat race. They were in great position to win the race until an unscrupulous team that shall remain nameless cut them off and pushed them out of position.

After that it was all over but the shouting. A beautiful boat trip on Lake Zurich and a relaxing walk through Zurich's Old Town softened the blow of yet another loss for Team North America. Who won? Who cares? That was never the point. (Okay, France, if you must know.) While we didn't bring home the trophy, the entire team left with a deeper knowledge of Switzerland as a country and a meetings destination. And that's a win-win for everyone.

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.