Eight Days in May
By Leo Jakobson
November 30, 2009
At a time when a lot of groups have canceled or postponed incentive travel programs over fears of being perceived as extravagant, one high-profile organization was not afraid to hold the incentive program to end all incentive programs.
In May, for its 50th anniversary, global direct-selling organization Amway feted 3,800 top performers from around the globe with a program that impressed even its Las Vegas hosts. From private concerts by Sting and Elton John, to a fleet of charter executive jets that even included a plane just for overflow luggage, to a hologram of a late company co-founder, Amway’s 2009 Global Diamond Forum was an event that its attendees will never forget.
This wasn’t the typical yearly Diamond Forum; this was Amway’s golden jubilee. So instead of hosting many individual-market Diamond trips throughout the 80 countries in which it operates, Amway brought all of its Diamond qualifiers together for one huge blowout event. The program didn’t even begin in Las Vegas. It started at Amway’s world headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI, to highlight the 50th anniversary of the organization, which has grown from a family-owned business to a global giant with $8.2 billion in annual sales. The theme, “Celebrate Together, Create Together,” “was that it’s not all nostalgia,” says Tina Bain, director of global special events for Amway. “We are a growing, forward-looking, dynamic, for-the-present business—fifty years old but relevant and with a lot of excitement about the future.”
The eight-day Grand Rapids-to-Las Vegas bash started with Amway’s tip-top recognition event, the Global Founders Council (GFC), which consisted of the organization’s 91 largest distributorships, almost all of them indepedently owned husband-and-wife businesses from around the world. “That was a one-day event in Grand Rapids,” Bain says. “Typically, that’s a four- or five-day event on its own. But we brought them into Grand Rapids one day early.”
Much of that first day was for business, with meetings with Amway Chairman Steve Van Andel and President Doug DeVos that focused on various business issues. “They had a reception that night, and then the real festivities started with the arrival of the next highest qualified group, the Executive Diamond Council (EDC), the next day,” Bain says. The program’s opening-night entertainment started with a gala dinner and a concert by Wynton Marsalis. That was followed by what Bain calls “the most amazing fireworks you have ever seen in your life—it was all finale from the beginning.”
In fact, the fireworks show featured 4,500 rockets in eight minutes—about four times the 1,200 usually used in that span, according to brand marketing and engagement agency TBA Global, which handled the creative, production, technological, and logistical work for Amway during the 27 months of planning the 50th anniversary program.
The EDC consisted of 544 top-performing businesses from around the world, also virtually all husband-and-wife partnerships. Including the 180 individuals in the GFC, 1,200 people qualified for the Grand Rapids portion of the program that lasted three days before the shift to Las Vegas. The second day consisted of a business meeting, an afternoon at leisure, and an evening dinner followed by a LeAnn Rimes concert. The next day was a Sunday, which was, again, a leisure day. Qualifiers played golf, went to the beach, and toured Grand Rapids. That night, there was a grand-finale dinner and a concert by Sting.
After that, the 1,200 participants took charter jet transfers to Las Vegas—in an operation planned by TBA Global that resembled a military exercise—for the Global Diamond Forum for 3,800 participants. Amway’s Incentive Philosophy
“Incentives have been important in our business since the early days,” says John Carrington, Amway’s director of sales. “In the early 1960s we started with a Leadership Seminar, which included our Platinum-level distributors. It was a forum where we brought everyone together to discuss business issues and also to entertain our top qualifiers.”
Now, Amway offers two levels of events in each market it operates, the Leadership Seminar and the Diamond Forum—the latter for top salespeople, who are full-time Amway independent business operators (IBOs). “Many of our affiliates also conduct an Executive Diamond event,” Carrington says, noting that there are 13 Diamond levels recognized by the company.
The main qualification period for the program was September 2007 through August 2008, mirroring Amway’s IBO business cycle. That was followed by a just-in-time qualification period that ended in February. The number of distributors that qualified for the Las Vegas portion of the incentive trip was 15 percent more than usual. “And we had a 15 percent increase in sales, as well,” Bain says. “So it was very motivating to be part of this 50th anniversary event.”
Asked whether it would be possible for Amway to get those results without its incentive trips, Bain is unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” she says. “We don’t talk about our qualifiers as winners; they earn these events. All of the attendees qualify to be there.”
Carrington considers the incentive travel programs a “core competency” for Amway. “We don’t spare any expense in treating our qualifiers at the Diamond levels to a really unique program,” he notes. “Our distributors aspire to obtain those levels so that they can qualify.” Beyond that, distributors use these trips as a sales tool to sign up and motivate new distributors under them. “Amway provides a great quality of life and an opportunity to see the world,” Carrington says. “So it’s certainly one of our value propositions for our business.”Where Else But Vegas?
From an incentive planner’s perspective, the most impressive part of the whole program was perhaps the GFC’s and EDC’s move from Grand Rapids to Las Vegas that coincided with the 2,600 Diamond Council qualifiers’ arrivals into the city. “That arrival day was a very long day,” Bain recalls. “We checked 3,800 people into the MGM Grand in a span of eight to 10 hours.”
Just moving them from McCarran International Airport to the MGM Grand required hundreds of stretch limos and chauffeured cars. For the transition from Grand Rapids to Las Vegas, Gulfstream executive jets went on multiple flights, in conveyor-belt fashion, to move the participants. “First wheels up was 7 a.m., with the last arrival into Las Vegas at about 6:30 p.m.,” Bain says. “It went flawlessly. That took an unbelievable amount of planning. A lot of hair was lost.”
Then, there were planning issues like language and dietary requirements. Bain’s team and TBA Global had to provide simultaneous speech translation in 27 languages, as well as accommodate a host of dietary restrictions and regional food preferences ranging from halal, to kosher, to providing hot soy milk and rice porridge for breakfast. “I think we had four vegetarian menus,” Bain recalls. About 600 people were required to pull off the program, including the Amway and TBA Global staffs, other workers, and show performers.
Other major logistical and creative chores for TBA Global were designing a stage, shooting custom attendee videos, and devising a backstage system that kept the recognition portion of the program from being an endless microphone handoff session.
On arrival night—a Monday—the entertainment consisted of a Parade of Nations Spectacular, which featured musicians and dancers from all over the globe; a Las Vegas legends show; and a performance by Tsai Chin, a popular singer among the many Taiwanese qualifiers. Tuesday was a leisure day with a variety of activities offered. That night, Amway bought out both of Cirque du Soleil’s KA performances and held a KA-themed dinner.
Wednesday was the recognition program, which featured keynote addresses by Van Andel, Doug DeVos, and Amway’s co-founder, Rich DeVos. It began with onstage recognition of the 180 GFC members and ended with another part of the program that may be the most impressive: a “conversation” between Rich DeVos and a hologram of the late Jay Van Andel, Amway’s other co-founder.
Recognition of the very top performers is a key part of Amway’s incentive strategy, Carrington says. “I can’t express the importance of recognition in these programs because that’s really a sales driver,” he says. “This is not egalitarian. We make a big deal out of the special treatment of the EDC and [GFC] members, and that’s very aspirational to their [Diamond] counterparts.”
The GFC qualifiers’ perks ranged from special seating at concerts to personalized video postcards. “One of the ways we help capture this for them and help them market these events [to others] is we create video postcards for them,” Bain says. “The Diamonds all get a generic video postcard, a nine-minute video of the program. But we had six crews following the 91 [GFC] couples to make personalized videos of their experiences.”
The meeting kicked off with a show by Anti-Gravity, a dance and acrobatics troupe. Executive presentations were interspersed by performances by Blue Man Group and a children’s choir. The stage itself was a huge undertaking, including an 88-by-20-foot panoramic, high-definition video screen. Pyrotechnic displays varied in intensity and visual impact with each level of onstage recognition.
The day’s presentation finale was the emotional highlight of the event. This was the “conversation” between Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, who passed away in 2004. The latter was a life-size, three-dimensional hologram constructed from archival film and video footage, which TBA Global suggested and oversaw. “It was very important not to have him play a lesser role because he is deceased,” Bain says. And while there was concern about it being strange, it was “pretty amazing,” she summarizes. “It wasn’t at all weird. It looked like Rich was onstage talking to Jay. It flowed very naturally. It looked real.”
The final day was Thursday, a leisure day capped by one last blowout: a gala dinner decorated by 30,000 long-stemmed red roses in MGM Grand’s Marquee Ballroom followed by a private concert by Elton John. The crowd loved it, with standing ovations after every song.
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