Some things never change when it comes to incentive travel. The classic destinations that entice and inspire salespeople to stay that extra hour, make that extra call, and generally fight to make their quota still inspire and remain the most desired destinations. But there's a newish and growing trend to look outside the traditional, with the Lisbons and Belfasts gaining interest that in the past would have stayed with Barcelona and Dublin.
While conventional destinations "were primarily considered in the past, now middle- and second-tier locations are being considered," says Tania Pasi, global product development manager of destination management firm Pacific World. "Emerging destinations have similar 'wow factors' as their bigger and better-known counterparts. Additionally, smaller, off-the-beaten-track communities are viewed as somewhat safer."
That applies not just to the destination the group is going to, but where it goes once it is there, Pasi adds. "We've been witnessing an increase in demand for venues that weren't originally built for events and have been converted to accommodate unconventional dinners and meetings," she says. "Clients are currently looking for unique, experiential and immersive venues."
None of that changes the fact that the five destinations to receive the largest number of requests for proposals (RFPs) in the first six months of the year are France, the U.K., Spain (specifically Barcelona), Italy and Monaco, according to Pacific World. And Paris alone saw a jump of 28 percent in the number of RFPs received through June of this year, compared to the same period in 2017.
Rhea Stagner, vice president of sourcing and supplier relations for Maritz Travel -- A Maritz Global Events Company, says that once clients have "four or more nights for a destination, Europe is a go-to, with Barcelona leading the charge and Paris right behind it."
That said, Pacific World France saw a "significant increase in demand for newer destinations opening up their international offer, such as Bordeaux," according to Laure Le Pendeven, that branch's senior account project manager. Lisa Starr, CMP, CIS, director of purchasing and industry relations for MotivAction, concurs on Bordeaux and adds Lisbon and Porto in Portugal as well as Budapest, Hungary, and Croatia, noting that second-tier cities offer good pricing.
"We are seeing more interest in Ireland outside of traditional Dublin and the castles," says Stagner, adding that groups are now looking into Belfast in conjunction with Dublin or the castles.
Jeff Broudy, president of United Incentives, says Belfast, Havana and Vietnam are all hot destinations now that they've opened up to Americans (legally and by reputation) and built out high-end hotels and infrastructure to support incentive travel. They are "now seen as embracing openness, with first-world tourism accommodations and actively pursuing cultural outreach," he says.
Marrakech, Morocco, "is a brilliant city of culture and marketplaces that excites newcomers with spices, crafts and an array of activities for incentive guests," says Kathy Nugent Delidow, vice president of client solutions development at One10.
Broudy adds that up-and-coming destinations include Montenegro, Amsterdam, Cartagena, Colombia and the Galapagos. "They all share the benefit of [pleasing] smaller, intimate groups where dining and touring can be still be delivered at a personal level of service," Broudy says. "All are places where most of our target audience have not been and have an aspirational appeal." Stagner adds Slovenia and Croatia to that list. Starr concurs on Slovenia as an up-and-coming destination. River cruises are still in demand as well, she says.
"With the U.S. dollar stronger against the euro, many companies are flying across the Atlantic to second-tier countries in Europe that their winners might have never visited," says Mike May, president of Brightspot Incentives and Events. "Popular countries are Ireland, Portugal, Scotland and Spain, along with interest in the smaller cities in Italy. Many of these are often more budget-friendly than their first-tier neighbors."
Closer to home, Mexico and the Caribbean have some hurdles to jump, reputationally, but are both hot and becoming hotter. "After Hurricanes Irma and Maria whacked many Caribbean islands, the resorts have used the downtime, insurance settlements, and new investments to launch massive renovations in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, St. Martin, Anguilla and more," says May. "I anticipate these Caribbean islands bouncing back strong as 'brand new' 2020 and 2021 trips."
Turks and Caicos remain top-notch for luxury hotels, spas and restaurants, says Delidow. "It's famous for stretches of uncrowded beaches, picture-perfect sunsets and vibrant snorkeling reefs that entertain incentive visitors. This island offers posh, unique serenity."
Stagner says Mexico remains, "hands down, our top non-U.S. destination."
She adds, "the combination of a high-end, all-inclusive in Puerto Vallarta and the luxury options of Punta Mita have kept Puerto Vallarta as our No. 1 incentive destination. Cancun and the Riviera Maya and Cabo San Lucas deliver the sun-and-fun experiences our clients are looking for."
Mexico remains a good bargain, says May, noting that the destination still has to "overcome inaccurate headlines, because the bottom-line truth from the U.S. Department of State website is 'no restrictions for travel in Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Riviera Maya.'"
If there's something that everyone can agree on, it is that Hawaii remains among the most desirable incentive travel destinations in the U.S.
"We have seen a significant increase in popularity with Maui and Kauai," says Stagner. "While Hawaii has always been popular with guests, we are seeing more programs book in both Maui and Kauai than any other destination. Maui is popular for the first-time Hawaii visitors, has great flight options, a variety of activity choices, excellent food and beautiful beaches. Kauai has increased popularity for our guests that have visited the other islands and are looking for the unique, untouched feeling of the Hawaiian Islands. Kauai is more peaceful, has less traffic and is a gorgeous destination."
May agrees, pointing to "undiscovered Hawaii." Noting that many repeat incentive travelers have already visited Maui and Oahu on their own or with an incentive group, "we see strong interest in discovering Kauai, Lanai, or Hawaii Island."
In the continental U.S., Florida remains a top destination, with Miami and southern Florida gaining strength and Orlando as popular as ever, says May, "but we see interest in moving up the Atlantic coast a short distance to Palm Beach and Boca Raton, or all the way up the state to Amelia Island [near Jacksonville], or jumping over to the Gulf of Mexico side where Clearwater has added several incentive-quality hotels to their award-winning white-sand beaches."
He adds that new hotel development is bringing more interest to the classic southern cities of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., while Stagner points to the growing appeal of the Orange County, Calif., area as well as Scottsdale, Ariz., which "had dipped in popularity but seems to be on the rise again."
Stagner adds that the "Orange County, Calif., area is a win/win for incentives, with excellent activity choices, a wonderful variety of luxury resorts and great weather."
Broudy points to Asheville, N.C., and Portland, Ore., saying they are "high on Millennial bucket lists," and bring strengths including pedestrian accessibility, an ecological focus, and historical importance, as well as diversity and a craft culture. "The word 'authentic' comes up often in discussing these destinations," he says.
There is a "hunger for authenticity" among incentive travelers, says Pacific World's Pasi. "This growing trend reflects how incentive-goers want to discover the destination's authentic way of life," she says, noting that programs should bring participants into close contact with local communities.
The same applies to dining and beverage experiences, according to Pasi. "Gastronomic storytelling that focuses on discovering the gastronomy, history and culture of the destination is a growing trend," she says. "Guests no longer want just a cooking class. They are now requesting to share food experiences and listen to the stories of local chefs and communities."
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This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Successful Meetings.