Foreign Affairs

International travel programs took a beating in 2001. But that was then; this is now. Ask incentive executives whether groups are going abroad and chances are that most will sound off with a resounding "Yes." While the tragic events of September 11 and the lackluster economy have put a glitch in trips abroad, Americans' apprehension seems to be on the wane.

Consider Equant. Last April, the Internet services and data provider didn't hesitate to take its elite President's Club members on a luxury European cruise despite mounting global terrorism concerns. The qualifying sales professionals spent six days aboard a Seabourn charter, visiting such luxurious port cities as Nice, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Portofino, Florence, and Rome. Scenic shore excursions, cooking classes, bike tours, gaming, and over-the-top events engaged the President's Club winners. Post-trip participant feedback proved positive, with program evaluations generating an average score of 9.56 out of 10.

Equant is one of many companies that continues to venture to international destinations. "The whole purpose of an incentive program is to offer an experience that someone couldn't replicate on his own," says Caren Bigelow, manager of travel planning at USMotivation, the Atlanta-based full-service incentive house that developed the Equant program. "Most of our clients are sophisticated users of incentives. They understand the concept and what elements a program has to have to be successful. These companies want the 'wow' destinations," she adds.

Forward Thinking

According to recent projections by the World Tourism Organization (WTO), tourism is on the road to recovery. In 2001, there were 693 million international tourist arrivals worldwide, compared to 697 million in 2000. The decrease is attributed to both the global economic decline and the September 11 terrorist attacks, and marks the first reduction in tourist arrivals since 1982. Despite the dip, the prognosis is positive. The economy is improving slowly, interest rates are low, inflation is under control, and consumer confidence is on the rise.

Shifts in market conditions and public opinion also influence incentive travel patterns. "It's not a question of whether companies should continue their international programs -- they are continuing," says Michael Hurwitz, president of United Incentives, a full-service incentive house in Philadelphia. "The industry has been through a lot of turmoil. But we have no choice but to move forward and plan accordingly." Obviously, Hurwitz adds, "You don't want to schedule a program in dangerous countries with armed conflict."

"Look at the map of the world and consider some of the popular destinations," he adds. "A lot of cruises are going to Croatia. Keep in mind that they were killing each other a few years ago. Now people say, 'Wow, we are going to Croatia.' St. Petersburg is another hot destination, but it wasn't too long ago when Russia was perceived as an enemy. Things change."

Shortly after the events of 9/11, Hurwitz, like other industry colleagues, saw clients postpone or switch their incentive programs from an international locale to a domestic destination. In cases where companies chose to bring a program back to the U.S., to avoid participant disappointment, planners had to ensure that the itinerary featured experiences as exceptional as those in the initial international incentive. "It's always a challenge when a company is accustomed to going to a high-profile international destination, then suddenly it has to go domestic. On the surface, it might be as enticing to the audience, but this is where creativity in promotion and planning must come in," says Laura Yates, vice president of marketing for the Marlboro, Massachusetts-based full-service incentive house Cornerstone.

Meanwhile, the postponements and cancellations were inevitable. Many incentive insiders say they're just a short-term response. "The concerns are decreasing. We are actively proposing Europe, Asia, Australia, and South Africa. I think after the country got through July 4th without incident, there was a huge sigh of relief and people are moving on," Yates says.

There seems to be a general consensus in the incentive industry on the future of international programs. Across the board, incentive executives say there is resurgence in the desire to take incentive programs outside of the U.S. "To eliminate international travel as an option for conference, meeting, or incentive events, makes the world very small, very quickly. International destinations have broad appeal for a high-performing and travel-savvy audiences," says Kim Streeter, regional director at Carlson Marketing Group, a Minneapolis-based relationship marketing company. "To motivate top performers, we continue to promote international destinations that are deemed 'safe,' avoiding areas of high conflict. Additionally, with companies focusing on global marketing, bringing international audiences together requires consideration of international locations," she says.

When Bear Stearns, the New York City-based financial institution, needed to host a group of its high-profile executives, program manager Jill Langman chose the quaint town of Eure et Loire in France for its April event. "Not one person said no to the program because of safety concerns," she says. "It wasn't an issue at all." After business meetings, spectacular activities such as a private dinner at Versailles, visits to Chartes Cathedral, and private chateau tours gave the participants a memorable experience. Langman stresses choosing an attractive location that appeals to program attendees. "We want an international destination that captures the audience's attention, not just a place in the same time zone. We want to take the group away from their usual environments. When I select a destination, I also look at the available cultural activities since many of the participants are very well traveled." Planning for next year's Bear Stearns event in Florence, Italy, is under way.

Social Security

As international incentive travel resumes, planners are placing more emphasis on security. To address client concerns, many incentive houses have expanded their contingency plans to include worst-case-scenario solutions. "We created a plan for potential program emergencies," Hurwitz says. "For example, what do you do with a group if the airports are closed down again and attendees can't get home?"

In addition to contingency plans to make groups feel safe in an international or domestic setting, incentive houses and destination management companies are fine-tuning their security strategies. Andrea Michaels, president of Sherman Oaks, California-based Extraordinary Events, doesn't take security for granted. "We don't leave anything to chance. The type of security we hire is highly professional. Instead of the standard hotel or convention center security guards, who are often retired people, we go for the Interpol types, the off-duty policemen, the eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head, intimidating professionals, who look out for potential problems," Michaels says.

Confidence in U.S. government security initiatives has also assuaged anxiety when it comes to international travel programs. Measures such as the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the implementation of stringent baggage searches at airports, and other precautions help ease the minds of wary travelers, making people more receptive to traveling abroad. "Not only do people have greater confidence in governmental security, there is a greater confidence in fellow citizens," says Cornerstone's Yates. "As far as a safety vehicle, we can rely more on one another. Before, airline passengers had the attitude of not getting involved. Now people are more empowered. Look at Richard Reid, the 'shoe bomber.' Passengers perceived him as a threat and took him down."

Mike Helin, founding partner of Ambas-sadors Performance Group in Newport Beach, California, says the current state of international programs is not business as usual, but business close to usual. "When talking to clients, there doesn't seem to be an objection to foreign destinations. Most of the decision-makers don't need much convincing," he says. One Ambassadors client, a major insurance company, switched its European program to Hawaii in the wake of recent events, but in 2003 the company plans on returning to Europe.

While uncertainty in other areas of travel looms, the return to international incentive programs is coming. Whether this movement stems from Americans' willingness to move forward, or the safety measures in place to calm people's fears, incentive groups are going global. "Post-September 11, there was clearly a sense that award travel that's closer to home would be appreciated by winners," says Carlson's Streeter. "But in recent months, we see this trend shifting back. Firms are choosing international itineraries."