The Top Incentive Travel Destinations of 2012
By Deanna Ting
October 1, 2012
Domestic destinations like Los Angeles remain popular
Incentive travel, while not as robust as it was
prior to 2008, is in a fairly healthy state of recovery this
"The current incentive travel industry is rebounded," says Marty Doyle, director of travel programs for Dittman Incentive Marketing. The
industry isn't out of the woods quite yet, however.
"Is it still fragile? Yes," Doyle says. "It could turn on a
Doyle and other incentive travel experts agree that this
cautiously optimistic outlook has had a direct impact on this
year's list of the most popular incentive travel destinations in 2012.
"For us, our client base has stayed relatively close, and
within the Northern Hemisphere," says Richard A. Blabolil,
president of Marketing Innovators. For Blabolil and his team, that meant
organizing more trips to the Caribbean, Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, and various
Respondents to Incentive's
"2012 Travel IQ" survey were in
agreement. Topping the list was the Caribbean, which was the most popular international destination for incentive travel
while. Domestically, Florida took top honors.
If there were a concurrent theme or connection among all of the top destinations, it would be good
weather and a variety of outdoor activities. Active, more
hands-on adventures in those locales were also popular with
incentive groups in 2012.
Here's a closer look at the top incentive travel destinations
for the year:
Fun and Sun in Florida
Florida, thanks to its extensive theme park offerings,
expansive beaches, and variety of resort accommodations, was
named as a top spot by every incentive travel planner interviewed by Incentive
In Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ Survey," 48.7 percent of
respondents named it as one of the most popular domestic
incentive travel spots in their programs. Within Florida,
Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami were the most popular
locales for hosting incentive groups.
"Florida has wonderful beaches, a great infrastructure, great
food, and good nightlife," says Kurt Paben, senior vice
president of business loyalty for Aimia.
For incentive groups that include family members, Orlando, in
particular, has enjoyed success. "In Orlando, we're very
fortunate because we have so many options just for families,"
says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales
and services for Visit Orlando. "There's no end to the number of attractions. The cultural it that are geared toward the family, and our infrastructure in
general, is very geared toward families. It's not just about
the theme parks but our overall infrastructure that offers so
many family-friendly amenities," she adds.
Close on the heels of Florida was California, which was named a
top domestic incentive travel destination by 41.4 percent of respondents in our "2012 Travel IQ" survey. As with Florida,
California was also mentioned by every incentive planner whom we interviewed. The
Golden State's extensive variety of locales and destinations is
its biggest strength by far.
"If you look at California, you can have a very different experience depending on where you go," says
Paben. "You can go to California year after year and have a different experience each and every time." Paben says he has
arranged many incentive trips to San Francisco, Napa Valley,
Santa Barbara, Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, in particular, has hosted many incentive groups
that seek a combined city-and-beach experience in the
culturally diverse locale that Hollywood calls home.
"No other destination in the country offers true luxury like we
do, and I think we offer it in a setting that, in today's
world, is less tricky," says Michael Krouse, senior vice
president of sales and service for the Los Angeles Tourism and
Convention Board. "You can truly do luxury here and not be
crucified because you're in Los Angeles," he adds. A number of
new hotels, attractions, and restaurants are drawing attention
to the city's downtown and Hollywood neighborhoods, says
Krouse. The former Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, located on
Hollywood and Highland boulevards, was recently rebranded as
the new Loews Hollywood Hotel. Recent improvements to the
city's subway and rail systems have also made it even easier
for groups to travel throughout the city using public transportation, Krouse notes.
In San Diego, another popular choice for incentive groups, Margie Sitton, senior vice president of sales and services for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that she has seen
incentive travel bounce back in recent years.
"I think that the incentive market is definitely coming back, and our resort hotels are
certainly enjoying good occupancy rates," she says.
Sitton touts San Diego's easy accessibility, great beaches,
vibrant arts-and-culture scene, and emerging culinary and
microbrewery offerings as major highlights for bringing
incentive groups to the city.
Sitton also says that many incentive groups that are traveling
to San Diego are taking part in traditional beach
Olympics-themed activities. Local destination marketing
companies are also focusing on San Diego's strong military ties
by offering armed forces-inspired training and teambuilding activities.
Coming in third in Incentive's
"2012 Travel IQ" survey was Hawaii, with 37 percent of the
total vote. The island destination, which includes Oahu, Maui,
Kauai, and the island of Hawaii, the Big Island, remains
extremely popular with incentive travel planners who want to
offer their participants a taste of paradise without straying from U.S. shores.
"Hawaii is one of the most popular incentive destinations in the world because of its resources, beaches, and activities;
it's one of the most popular destinations in the world," says
Paben. "Each island is quite different, so it's not unusual for clients to return to Hawaii
but go to different islands for new experiences in a familiar
This year in particular has been a banner year for overall
Hawaii tourism, especially on the leisure side.
"We're on record pace to break all [tourism] records ever for
the state," says Michael Murray, vice president of the Hawaii
Visitors & Convention Bureau's corporate meetings and
incentives division. "That consumer confidence should translate
to confidence in the meetings and incentives market, too,"
Increased airlift from major feeder markets, not only on the
West Coast of the U.S., but also from the East, have made it
even easier for travelers to find themselves in Hawaii's idyllic paradise.
Fairly recent hotel openings and renovations in Hawaii include Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa on Oahu's North Shore; the newly renovated Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay (formerly the
Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa) on the Big Island; and
the newly renovated Sheraton Kauai Resort and Spa.
Upping the Ante in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, with its mega resorts and range of entertainment
options, ranked fourth on our list of top domestic incentive
travel destinations in the "2012 Travel IQ" survey. The city
continues to update itself with new attractions, restaurants,
and luxurious properties, ensuring that travelers will always
have a different experience with every visit.
New developments include two different observation wheels
currently being constructed along The Strip, both of which are
scheduled to debut in 2013.
Caesars is investing $550 million into constructing a new
retail, dining, and entertainment concept, The Linq, located between the Imperial Palace and Flamingo Las Vegas. It should open in late 2013. Caesars Palace
Las Vegas will also be home to the world's first Nobu Hotel, a
boutique hotel within a hotel, similar to THEhotel at Mandalay
Bay. The Nobu Hotel is inspired by the cuisine and design aesthetic of
acclaimed chef Nobu Matshuhisa, and is scheduled to open on Oct. 1.
New restaurant openings from celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jose Andres are also attracting gourmands to Sin City.
Gordon Ramsay Steak opened in May at the Paris Las Vegas casino
hotel. Over at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, Andres is
utilizing the street food cultures of China and Mexico in his new restaurant, China
Poblano. In April, ARIA Resort & Casino welcomed the newest
restaurant by acclaimed Michelin-starred chef Masa Takayama,
called Tetsu, which offers teppanyaki-style Japanese dining.
Arizona, with its wide variety of resorts, is still a favorite
among groups that want the option to host traditional golf-and-spa
incentive trips with opportunities for other adventurous
activities, from rock climbing to cycling. As the fifth
most-popular domestic incentive travel spot, according to the
Incentive "2012 Travel IQ survey," with 19.4 percent of the
vote, Arizona offers great value to planners, says Marketing
"Arizona has been very cost effective for our clients," says Blabolil. "My incentive groups
love that you have the ability to take advantage of some very
nice luxury resorts in Arizona." He adds: "There are lots of great hotels and resorts, and the ability to play golf and do other adventures is so appealing.
You can get more adventuresome in Arizona, and there's also a
sharing of cultures." He says that hot air ballooning, mountain
climbing, and hiking have also become popular for incentive groups in Arizona.
The Caribbean remains the top international incentive travel destination region according to
the results from the 2012 and 2011 editions of Incentive's "Travel IQ" survey and
feedback from many incentive houses. The region's close proximity to the U.S.,
easy airlift, sunny weather, and beautiful beaches make the
region a favorite among incentive trip planners.
Within the Caribbean, most planners we spoke to saw a growing
trend toward smaller, more off-the-beaten-path destinations
such as Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, and Nevis. Popular locales
like Puerto Rico, Turks & Caicos, and the Bahamas are also
in high demand.
Both Paben and Doyle mentioned the Atlantis, Paradise Island, resort in the Bahamas as an
extremely popular incentive trip location. "We've sent more
than 1,000 people there on multiple trips," says Doyle. "It's
not too far from home, and there's so much to do during the
day; it could be considered on the pricier side but you get so
much entertainment and dining and it's all right there."
The number of incentive cruises to the Caribbean region is also
growing, note Paben and USMotivation's President, Tina Weede.
"We are seeing a lot of groups requesting cruises more on the
luxury and higher-end side," Weede says. She says the most
popular cruise requests are for the Caribbean - both eastern
and western. Adds Paben, "Caribbean cruises are a great way to see a lot of the
In the Dominican Republic, a new and improved highway system,
El Coral, debuted in September and connects the all-inclusive
resorts of Punta Cana to the charming and historic town of La
Romana to the south. Patricia Perez, director for the Midwest
U.S. at the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, hopes that
with El Coral, it will be easier for incentive groups staying
in Punta Cana to venture off the all-inclusive resorts and
beaches and into La Romana for a more authentic look at
This destination just south of the U.S. border continues to be popular with leisure travelers and
incentive groups who seek fun, sun, truly genuine hospitality,
and value. "Mexico is a great destination, and it has great
product and great experiences," says Paben. "Mexico can also
offer great value to clients." In the "2012 Travel IQ" survey,
32.2 percent of respondents selected Mexico as a popular
international incentive travel destination, right behind the
Within Mexico, Paben sees Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta,
Punta Mita, the Riviera Maya, and Cancun as the top spots for
incentive groups. Cozumel, Blabolil notes, was also a popular
destination among incentive groups traveling to Mexico.
Although widespread media reports have noted drug- and
gang-related violence in the country within the past few years, the
incentive planners whom we spoke to said that these resort
areas in Mexico are still regarded as a safe destination for their clients.
"There are certainly some destinations in Mexico to be conscious of but in the resort towns, they have
been very well secured," says Blabolil.
Western Europe Beckons
The allure of Western Europe and its iconic cities - Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Madrid, Monte Carlo,
Paris, Rome, Venice, and Vienna - continues to drive incentive travel demand to the region. Nearly 23 percent of
respondents in Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ" survey selected
Western Europe as one of their most popular international
incentive travel destinations. Aimia's Paben believes that many
of the region's cities are so popular with incentive groups
because of the aspirational desire attached to them.
"Paris is such an iconic destination," Paben explains. "It has iconic history and monuments and it's a
place that everyone knows. It's a destination that people have
on their bucket lists."
Many planners mentioned that, because of this year's Summer
Olympics, demand for incentive travel to London and other parts
of the United Kingdom was up.
Italy was also noted by many planners for its natural beauty, cultural aspects, history, and exquisite dining. "We are seeing so much incentive
activity in Rome, Florence, and Venice," says Paben. "So much of it is very
culturally driven: the art history of Italy, imperial Rome, the
Vatican, the food and wine, and even Italian fashion."
Monaco, a destination often associated with glamour and luxury,
is also popular with incentive groups. "For many types of incentive audiences,
Monaco is the carrot to be dangled," says Cindy Hoddeson,
director of meeting and incentive sales for the Monaco Government Tourist Office.Hoddeson says that incentive groups in Monaco are seeking
somewhat more casual and relaxed experiences, and are
particularly interested in activities that combine a corporate
social responsibility (CSR) component.
Our neighbor to the north is also a top destination for international incentive travel, with 18.9
percent of respondents saying that it was one of the most
popular spots for their programs this year. Ample airlift and
access to Canada's major cities - Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal - makes it easy for groups to
travel to Canada.
Vancouver is popular with groups who seek an outdoor adrenaline
rush in the form of skiing, snowboarding, and even paragliding.
This July, Calgary celebrated the 100th anniversary of its
annual Calgary Stampede. Toronto's luxury hotel offerings have
grown with the addition of The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, last
year, and the brand-new Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto, which had
its soft opening in August. The Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto
features 202 rooms and has 12,000 square feet of meeting and
function space. Montreal's unique French-Canadian culture and
affinity for gastronomy is transforming it into a popular leisure travel destination for Americans.
Costa Rica Charms
One destination that resonated with nearly all of the incentive
travel planners interviewed was Costa Rica. The tiny Central American destination, best known for its famous refrain
"pura vida," or "pure life," appeals to incentive groups
searching for adventure, luxury, untouched natural rainforests,
and friendly hospitality.
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Adventurous activities, ziplining included, topped the list of
favorite incentive trip itineraries for Costa Rica. The destination's emphasis on
eco-tourism is also a major draw, and Blabolil says that he's
had many groups participate in such CSR activities as helping
to save endangered turtle eggs while staying in Costa Rica.
Like Costa Rica, many of the planners Incentive interviewed
mentioned Tahiti as a favorite incentive travel destination
that is coming back in terms of demand.
"Tahiti is very interesting, and it's well equipped to handle
incentive programs," says Paben. "Places like Bora Bora are
quite beautiful." Luxurious resorts with overwater bungalows
and villas, such as the St. Regis Bora Bora, are a favorite
among incentive groups. While in Tahiti, many groups take up
snorkeling, yachting, jet skiing, and jeep tours as