by Deanna Ting | August 03, 2015
This year, while some U.S.-based incentive travel programs are sticking to the tried-and-true, there are a few incentive planners and organizations looking at more far-flung and unexpected destinations.

"Looking ahead, we'll see more clients continue to look toward international destinations," says Tony Wagner, vice president, CWT Meetings & Events, Americas region, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, based in Minneapolis. "This is really the first time since the recession that international destinations outside of Mexico are on the radar for many planners. And we're still living in the 'age of experience,' so travelers are seeking opportunities to immerse themselves in the cultures that they are visiting."

Marty Doyle, senior director of travel experiences for New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, adds, "Most of the exciting new opportunities we see are offshore, as we wait for some new hotel products to come on line in the U.S."

Curious About Cuba
In the Caribbean, tremendous interest is building about Cuba as an incentive travel destination. "While it will be some time before it's the right destination for the incentive industry, it should provide some very interesting opportunities in the not-too-distant future," says Doyle.

According to "The Incentive Industry Trends 2014 Pulse Study" released in August 2014 by the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), 47 percent of respondents surveyed indicated that the Caribbean was their chosen region for incentive travel. The popularity of the region for incentive programs continues to dominate, and some destinations are beginning to market more heavily toward incentives.

True North
The same IRF study saw 43 percent of respondents choosing North America as their chosen region for incentive travel. This year, some incentive planners are seeing growing interest in more off-the-beaten-path locales.

"I have a few clients who are looking at mountain destinations like Wyoming and Montana for their incentives," says Kate Rice, senior travel buyer for Emeryville, CA-based The Performance Group in the Bay Area. "These are clients who have typically gone international, but wanted to try something different. So, we're doing a few programs in the Rocky Mountains, as well as some glamping [luxury camping] options for a very upscale client who tends to go to really exotic places."

Rice thinks this reflects a growing trend. "People are traveling so much that to have an incentive where they don't have to travel too far is refreshing. It really helps with establishing that balance of work and life. When you're glamping or spending time in the mountains, it's about getting away and getting into some wide-open space."

European Classics
Europe was chosen as the No. 3 incentive travel destination in the IRF study, with 34 percent of respondents choosing it. While perennial favorites remain popular with incentive groups, a number of groups are finding new ways to explore Europe. "We think that small cruise lines are emerging as great potential solutions for our clients," says Doyle. "There are a number of different options in Eastern Europe aboard Danube river cruises that include Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria, or even Istanbul. This area has not been heavily explored by American travelers, and holds many opportunities to discover. Despite a history of conflict, the region is now very stable and offers high value."

The rising strength of the U.S. dollar is also making Europe a much more attractive -- and affordable -- destination, especially for places such as Vienna and Monaco, both of which have always been popular for incentives.

Adventure Awaits
Other international destinations that seem to be attracting interest from incentive groups include Southeast Asia, South Africa, and Bora Bora.

"For those willing to go a little farther afield, Southeast Asia also provides some unforgettable small-vessel cruises," notes Doyle. "For example, a Mekong river cruise can offer remarkable luxury while exploring Vietnam and Cambodia."

Rice adds that she has a number of clients looking at South Africa for the coming years as well, in addition to the South Pacific destination of Bora Bora in Tahiti.

Other locations growing interest among travelers include Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, Qatar, and Dubai -- with each of these regions investing heavily in developing or expanding their respective tourism infrastructures.