by Deanna Ting | November 12, 2012
China is on the rise

While many of the top incentive destinations for 2012 were tried-and-true locales such as Florida and the Caribbean, there was also growing interest in a number of more off-the-beaten-path places. Their common threads? Rich, complex cultural histories and strong  traditions, and a range of activities and attractions for incentive groups, especially those that have already been to traditionally popular incentive destinations. Many of these emerging incentive destinations, while popular with leisure travelers, are just now beginning to attract the interest of incentive groups. The more unexpected the destination, the better.

"Why are people doing incentive travel in the first place? It's to drive behavior and increase sales," says Kurt Paben, senior vice president, business loyalty, Aimia. "We look for destinations that have the ability to be highly motivational in nature so organizations can achieve the objective that they've set up and once they get there, they have a truly memorable experience." Incentive spoke to several influential incentive travel executives for their opinions on what the top five emerging  incentive destinations are for 2012.

China Continues to Attract Travelers
Since China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, it remains top of mind, especially as more U.S. companies expand into the region and more hotels are built in the country. In September, Site Global held its annual International Conference in Beijing, demonstrating the importance of China as an emerging destination for both incentives and meetings.

"China is an extraordinary country," says Paben. "You have the flagship cities of Beijing and Shanghai, and then you also have other great cities like Xi'an and so many wonderful resort areas. The world business community is focusing on China as well. It's a place that a lot of people haven't been to yet, so it's appealing."

Beijing and Shanghai are especially desirable among incentive groups, says Stuart Patton, who handles marketing and industry relations for Emeryville, CA-based event management company The Performance Group.

"The Olympics put Beijing on the map, and the wide variety of activities there keep clients coming back," says Patton. "We polled our clients and found that Beijing was on everyone's travel bucket list."

Julia Tan, director of business development - MICE, for the Kerry Hotel Pudong, Shanghai, echoes Patton's observations. "Shanghai and Beijing are the leading high-end meeting and incentive destinations in China and they reflect different characteristics and strengths in the global meetings market."

For a recent group, Patton took her clients to both cities, beginning in Shanghai and ending in Beijing. "In Shanghai, they enjoyed a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Next, they went to Beijing, an eclectic mix that combines buildings spurred by the Olympics, along with all of these ancient sites. There, they enjoyed a private  dinner on the Great Wall and in between destinations, there was a stop in Xi'an to visit the Terracotta Warriors," she describes. "All in all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip."

Macau, a special administrative region of China, may also see more incentives, predicts Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide's Senior VP of Sales, Christie Hicks, thanks to a number of new hotel developments, including the nearly 4,000-room Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, which opened in September. "If you're looking for an incentive destination, combining Macau with China creates an experience that's really special and amazing."

Beckoned by Bali, Thailand, and VietnamSouth of China, the Southeast Asian destinations of Bali, Vietnam, and Thailand are also developing into key incentive travel spots for U.S. organizations.

The island paradise of Bali, Indonesia, while popular with incentive groups based out of Australia and Asia, is beginning to see more interest from U.S.-based organizations, says Marian Carroll, director of public relations and communications for AYANA Resort and Spa Bali. "We expect incentive group business to increase based on the growth in U.S. arrivals into Bali this year so far, and increasing inquiries from incentive groups to AYANA." Carroll says that her largest U.S.-based incentive group booked a total of 900 room nights last year.

Patton also sees a resurgence in U.S. incentive groups wanting to travel to Bali. "Bali is back, and it seems like a new destination even though it has a long history of successful incentives," she says.

Vietnam, like China, is another destination that is seeing more interest among U.S. travelers and incentive groups. "It's a place that, 20 years ago, you wouldn't have imagined traveling to," says Paben. "It's become a very interesting and exotic destination, and the county has an infrastructure that allows you to create really unique and historical experiences."

Tony Wagner, vice president, Americas, for CWT Meetings & Events, says CWT had two groups visit Vietnam this year with successful results. "We just had glowing feedback from the participants from really having that authentic experience they wouldn't have been able to have on their own."

Paben says that some groups often choose to combine Vietnam with Cambodia or Thailand for incentive trips. Thailand, in particular, has a number of luxury resorts, many of which focus on tying in local Thai culture into group activities. The Paresa Resort in Phuket, for example, has its own Thai cooking school, Recipe, where a small group of up to 12 can create their own traditional dinner party while they have nearly 360-degree views of the nearby Andaman Sea.

On Safari in South Africa
Another aspirational travel experience that more incentive groups are seeking to acquire is a safari in South Africa. "A South African safari is a big bucket-list item," says Meg Pisani, industry relations director of Maritz Travel. "Getting to see the Big Five, well, that alone is just incredible. There's a great pairing of city culture along with safari culture, and a unique experience of being so close to wildlife but also having extremely luxurious accommodations."

Paben agrees, saying, "You have the ability to combine a very cosmopolitan experience in Cape Town, but then fly away or drive to go on a safari on a game reserve that can be equally as luxurious - it's just an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Clients aren't limited to going on safari, either. South Africa's local wineries offer samples of fortified and sparkling wines. At wellness resorts like Karkloof Spa-Wellness and Wildlife Retreat in KwaZulu Natal, guests indulge in rejuvenating spa treatments or even participate in a detox retreat that includes unlimited spa treatments, an individual health and wellness consultation, and fitness and leisure activities.

Alluring Argentina and Peru
South America, like Asia, is a region that is seeing increased interest among incentive travelers, especially in Argentina and Peru.

"Argentina is a world-class destination and it's one that not many people have visited before," says Paben. "There are wonderful activities, great food, and excellent shopping, and it's appealing because you don't have issues related to jet lag or time changes."

Ines Gowland, director of Buenos Aires-based DMC Argentina Travel Partners, says that, in addition to Buenos Aires, popular sites within Argentina include Iguazu Falls, the Andes Mountains, and the winemaking region of Mendoza.

Heather Heidbrink, director of sourcing for Maritz Travel, says that one of her clients' most memorable incentive trips included impromptu tango lessons. "We were at the hotel and there were tango dancers in the lobby, and those who were brave enough could actually learn to dance the tango with the dancers," she says. "Experiences like that give you such an authentic sense of place."

Peru, like Argentina, is a destination that not many Americans have been to, and for many, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu is another bucket-list must-see, according to both Wagner and Pisani. "It's just very special and so spiritual," Pisani says. "You feel like you're in a whole other world with all the comforts of home and luxury in many of the accommodations that you have there, too."

A number of U.S.-based companies are requesting to send their incentive groups to Peru - Starwood among them. Hicks notes that Starwood's May 2013 sales incentive trip will be held in Lima and Machu Picchu.

While many U.S.-based hotel brands can be found in Peru, there are also a number of local, independent properties that are catering to the incentive and meetings markets. For example, family-owned Aranwa Hotels Resorts & Spas, which currently has three properties throughout Peru, is targeting the MICE market with its 115-room Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel & Wellness resort, which is centrally located near Cusco, on the route to Machu Picchu.

Turning Toward Turkey
While Turkey has been a popular leisure destination for U.S. travelers, it is starting to see growing demand as an incentive destination. "Turkey is extremely popular," says Aimia's Paben. "We have so many clients going to Turkey for Istanbul because of the rich cultural history there, and the extraordinary product there from a hotel standpoint."

The presence of major hotel brands in Turkey continues to grow. Hilton is planning to open 13 new hotels in Turkey, in addition to the eight that have opened within the past year, including the Hilton Bursa Convention Centre and Spa. Starwood has a total of seven properties in the country, including the W Hotel Istanbul and the newly opened Le Meridien Istanbul Etiler. The Shangri-La Bosphorous, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts' first Turkish property, is expected to open early next year.

In addition to world-class hotels, the sheer variety of attractions and destinations within Turkey, not just in Istanbul, is making it a popular choice for incentive groups as well. "The country is a captivating blend of  antiquity and modern attractions in cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, and it has spectacular natural wonders like Cappadocia," says Ebru Ejder, director of the Turkish Culture & Tourist Office of New York. She adds, "There are cave hotels, underground cities, churches, hot-air ballooning, superb cuisine and wineries, unmatched ruins like Ephesus and Troy, and miles of beaches and quaint villages from the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea regions."

Ejder says that former Ottoman palaces, a cruise along the Bosphorus strait, and chic rooftop restaurants and gardens throughout Turkey are ideal gathering places for groups. For free-time activities, she says, groups should consider a spa experience in a traditional Turkish hammam (bathhouse) or an archaeological site visit, among many other options.