Beyond the Wall
When the planners we interviewed for this story were asked about the hottest new incentive destinations, two small European countries came up again and again: Iceland and Croatia. And there was a similar reason for both: their use as locations in the hugely popular HBO series, Game of Thrones.
"People that follow Game of Thrones have seen the grandeur and beauty of Iceland's scenery," says Scott Siewert, president of Fab At Incentives. Even though it is a bit of a challenge to get to, Dubrovnik, Croatia, is seeing the same thing "because of Game of Thrones," says Ira Almeas, CITE, president of Impact Incentive & Meetings. Of course, it is also a good value and has wonderful venues, he adds.
The TV show isn't the only reason, of course. Iceland has been trending dramatically in the last few years. "Iceland has seen a huge boom in popularity and is becoming a favorite of the rich and famous," says Sarah Thompson, director of purchasing and product development at EGR International. And its location -- the closest part of Europe to the U.S. -- is a big boon in a time when air travel is seen as an increasing hassle.
As for Dubrovnik, "the combination of aesthetics of the old city and the rich cultural influences of the area keep this destination on the top of upscale incentive groups' lists," adds Patrick T. Smith, senior director of group sales, North America, for Leading Hotels of the World and treasurer of the Incentive Research Foundation. Mike May, president of Spear One, adds that the activities, history, nature, and food-and-wine culture give this one-time cruise port the ability "to stand on its own as a host destination. It is a gem on the Adriatic."
Incentive travel may make up a small part of the meetings, incentives, conventions, and events industry, but it is a lucrative one, and in many ways as important as the much larger events in the acronym MICE. After all, incentive travel is a vital tool that many companies use to retain their best and brightest salespeople and woo their biggest customers.
All incentive travel programs have two goals in common. The first is to wow the participants with a trip that they couldn't take on their own so they know how highly the company values their achievements. The second is to inspire them to keep going above and beyond, so they get to go on a fantastic trip again next year.
Here is a look at where companies are sending their best of the best:
THE UNITED STATES
Within the U.S., there are the perennial favorites that will always be at or near the top of any list of hot incentive destinations, chief among them Florida, and notably Southern Florida. "For winter warmth, the South Florida area -- Miami, particularly South Beach and Key Biscayne -- is really the main destination for a U.S.--based company that wants to stay domestic and still have almost a guarantee of nice weather in the traditional incentive months of January, February, March, and April," says Scott Siewert, president of Fab At Incentives.
Mike May, president and CEO of Spear One, believes that this is a good time to head up the west coast to Clearwater, saying that its award-winning white-sand beaches have recently been joined by some new and renewed incentive-quality hotels.
Although the flight time is far longer, Hawaii is a destination that "never fails to appeal to any group," says Sarah Thompson, director of purchasing and product development at EGR International Inc. "It's exotic, far enough away from the mainland that attendees feel that they are really 'getting away,' the activity options are endless, and there are a plethora of hotel options within a large range of rates."
Then there is Las Vegas, which Siewert calls "a no-brainer." JNR International's clients are "booking a lot of programs in Las Vegas," say Vicki Kern, vice president of global sourcing and proposal development, and Kim Hester, an account executive in global meetings and incentives at the firm. "Our clients are doing a lot of larger programs, and Vegas has great airlift, easy transfers from the airport, flexible function space, and top-quality hotels."
Also near the top are the traditional big cities: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and, of course, Miami, which does double duty as a beach destination. "Urban experiences offer historical, cultural, and local experiences," says Kendra Murray, CMM, CIS, vice president of meetings and incentives for Bishop-McCann. "They are a big hit with every generation!"
MotivAction is "finding a great deal of interest in second-tier cities such as Austin, Nashville, Asheville, San Antonio, Boston, and Philadelphia, says Kari Vrba, the firm's senior vice president of business development. "There are new or refreshed hotels and rooms inventory and as long as the airlift works out, then our groups are open to looking beyond the traditional cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Orlando."
And first- or second-tier, major cities offer a lot of activities that can't be found anywhere else, says Richard Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives, who points to Boston for its "history, great restaurants, sports teams, attractions -- and the Wynn Casino is coming to Boston."
Cities that are rugged-yet-beautiful outdoor destinations like Denver and Scottsdale, AZ (right next to Phoenix), remain popular. "We're also seeing a lot of interest in mountain destinations, such as Aspen, Vail, and Jackson Hole," says Thompson. "For incentives that regularly visit a beach destination, mountain locations can offer a fresh change of scenery, whether the group travels during ski season or summer season.
But the one city that came up more than any other was Nashville, named by seven of the 14 meeting and incentive planning firms interviewed for this feature. Walkability, a central location for the East Coast, a unique culture, interesting history, and great entertainment all factor into Music City's popularity, planners said. Nashville has "become popular among Millennials for the different atmosphere it offers: a music scene, eclectic eateries, and alternative activities such as an Amazing Race teambuilding event," say Beth Gear-D'Imperio, project manager, and Gregg Gensone, venue sourcing manager, at Ashfield Meetings & Events. "It is a unique environment for not only the younger generation but for all active thrill-seekers."
Come Sail Away
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."
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.
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."
Security The Danger Zone
From terrorism in places once thought to be "safe" to panic-inducing health threats like Zika to the "100-year storms" that seem to come every couple of years now, clients no longer see security as an afterthought in choosing a destination and planning an incentive trip.
"It is impacting everything and we only see this taking more of a role in 2018," say Liz Mikkelsen and Elena Overton, both supervisors of event purchasing and industry relations at ITA Group. "Clients are going to Hawaii instead of booking internationally."
"We have had emergency-preparedness plans for as long as I remember," says Rhea Stagner, CIS, division vice president for sourcing and supplier relations at Maritz Travel. "Most times, the clients never cared to even ask about it. They just said, "We know you've got it, we're fine. If there's a hurricane, if something happens, we're handled." We've talked about it more in the last year than we ever have. And we don't talk about it just with our customers. We're pulling in our destination management company partners, our hotel partners, our cruise lines -- it is a very open conversation."
Kari Vrba, senior vice president of business development for MotivAction, sees clients being more resilient, than Mikkelsen and Overton. "Many are well-traveled and understand that things can change in an instant, and they are not making any big changes with their destination choices. We have seen a bigger impact from viruses -- such as Zika -- affecting travel choice than security issues."
That said, it is important to choose a location where people feel comfortable, says Beau Ballin, senior director of business development for CWT Meetings & Events. "This is true for every type of meeting or event but it's particularly true of incentive events. Unsurprisingly, people aren't as motivated if they think they'll be uncomfortable in the reward location."
3. THE LONG HAUL: ASIA-PACIFIC, AFRICA, AND THE MIDDLE EAST
Once you look past Europe and the Americas, the choice of incentive destinations becomes more complex, in large part due to the time and cost of getting there. For incentive groups, business-class airfare to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East is out of budget reach to all but the highest-end groups -- typically dealer channel programs. And having your winners traveling 12 to 24 hours each way in coach not only means full-day travel times that will keep them out of work for at least a full week, but they will go through an ordeal to get there and get back. In fact, the flights are the main reason Stagner says Maritz Travel is not seeing much long-haul incentive business.
That said, "the distance is well worth it" once they arrive, say Kern and Hester.
"Africa continues to be a bucket-list star. Once guests have the opportunity to explore charming Cape Town, go on safari in the Kruger National Park, and marvel at Victoria Falls."
More exotic destination such as Dubai, Bora Bora in French Polynesia, Thailand's Phuket, Bali in Indonesia, "and similar destinations are very popular," says EGR's Thompson. "They will always be bucket-list destinations."
Ballin mentions China, "where new hotels with sophisticated facilities seem to be opening weekly." And May points to Beijing, challenging planners to "try topping an excursion to the Great Wall and a private dinner for your group in the Ancestral Temple courtyard in the Forbidden City."
Vietnam is another country on American groups' minds. "It is exotic, has interesting history, and breathtaking beauty. It's also less expensive than bigger neighboring cities in China," says Murray.
There are other top countries, of course, including Japan, Thailand, and South Korea, as well as Australia and especially New Zealand. In the last few years, the latter has been discovered by Americans to be a destination in and of itself, rather than the smaller island nation lumped in with Australia. Siewert calls the country "the most beautiful place on earth," adding, "I continue to be amazed at New Zealand's welcoming attitude, wonderful infrastructure and amazing sights. You have a fantasy destination that is real."
4. THE CARIBBEAN
The interviews for this story were done before hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated many Caribbean nations including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Martin and Anguilla, and Cuba, as well as Puerto Rico. The Dominican Republic was hard hit but its tourism infrastructure appears not to have suffered long-term damage, and Maria's impact on The Bahamas is not projected to be as severe as elsewhere.
Speaking before the storms, Thompson said: "The Caribbean will probably always reign supreme as an incentive destination for the U.S. market. White, sandy beaches, interesting culture, and good lift will always make the area an easy and popular decision."
Although the loss of life and has been tragic and property will take time to repair, it's worth remembering that tourism is a huge part of the region's economy, and provides many local jobs. Just as the MICE business supported New Orleans after Katrina, the Caribbean will no doubt see the same outpouring of support.
Questions or comments? Email [email protected]
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.