The U.S. Virgin Islands (pictured) offer a variety of beautiful beach resorts
As more U.S.-based groups consider international destinations for their incentives, there's an emphasis on experiencing new things in traditionally favorite destinations and cities, and finding those one-of-a-kind experiences in places a bit further off the beaten path. "The appetite for global incentive travel and true native experiences continues to build, and we've seen healthy growth in this space," says Alison Taylor, senior vice president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Sales Organization.
The Caribbean Still Reigns
According to both the IRF "Fall 2014 Pulse Survey" and the most recent "Travel IQ Survey," the Caribbean reigns supreme when it comes to being the most popular international incentive travel destination. It's not hard to understand why. Its Instagram-worthy white-sand beaches, warm weather, intriguing cultures, multiple cruise itineraries, and easy airlift make the Caribbean a no-brainer when it comes to incentive travel programs.
"The Caribbean has decent airlift options from the U.S., depending on the time of year, with many different categories of hotel offerings," says Kurt Paben, president of channel and employee loyalty at Aimia. "Many of our North American clients require a beach, and the Caribbean destinations have some of the best in the world. Clients looking for an exotic international draw, appealing weather, luxurious amenities, and a destination not too far from home find the Caribbean resorts to be a great option."
At Aimia, Paben says the most popular Caribbean destinations for clients include the Bahamas, Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Nevis, the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), St. Lucia, and Turks & Caicos.
At Dittman Incentive Marketing, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic was its single most popular incentive destination this year. "The destination was new for a number of our clients," explains Marty Doyle, senior director of travel experiences for Dittman Incentive Marketing, "and offered recently renovated hotels, spectacular beaches, and improving infrastructure, including the relatively recent addition of the highway from the airport. The large scale of resorts in Punta Cana also meant that it was possible to find good availability with shorter lead times, and nonstop flights required by many clients. The value pricing of all-inclusive resorts allowed us to offset the relatively high airfare."
Joost de Meyer, chairman and CEO of Orlando-based First Incentive Travel, also notes that for his U.S.-based groups, the USVI and Puerto Rico are often big draws since they are U.S. territories and do not require passports or visas for U.S. citizens. Although Puerto Rico is in the middle of an economic crisis, the U.S. territory's meeting and incentive group business remains strong. More than 30 different groups, totaling 23,000 room nights, were confirmed to hold their meetings and incentives in Puerto Rico during the months of August and September.
Much More to Mexico
Much like the Caribbean, the coasts of Mexico are always a favorite among incentive groups from the U.S. "Mexico has beautiful beaches with a variety of activities, both land and water, to satisfy varying participant wants," says Paben. "Mexico continues to produce some of the most luxurious all-inclusive properties as they continue to be built and renovated. It's a close-to-home option with a foreign flair."At Aimia, Paben says Cabo San Lucas, the Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta were especially popular with incentive groups.
Doyle says this year, "Mexico continues to rebound. The service levels are exceptional and we can rely on strong DMC support." The Yucatan Peninsula, home to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, he says, was particularly popular with Dittman Incentive Marketing's clients this year.
Kate Rice, senior travel buyer for Emeryville, CA-based The Performance Group, says a number of her clients chose to go to Punta Mita, near Puerto Vallarta, in Riviera Nayarit. "We've been focusing a lot on the Four Seasons and St. Regis properties in Punta Mita," she says. "It becomes a slam dunk for our clients because we know they'll do an amazing job and also give us a great deal. There's great airlift into Puerto Vallarta and typically mild weather year round. Some other locations might not always be great year-round, but even in September and October, Punta Mita is just fine, weather wise."
Tony Wagner, Minneapolis-based vice president of CWT Meetings & Events Americas, says many of his clients chose Gulf Coast properties in Mexico because of their "luxurious amenities and full spectrum of activities and entertainment to choose from."
While Mexico's beaches are the most popular with incentive groups, de Meyer says he tries to encourage his clients to consider Mexico's interior as well. "Those older cities are so beautiful," he says. One of his favorite incentive itineraries includes a trip to Guadalajara, the birthplace of mariachi music and tequila, where groups can learn how tequila is made, and later head to nearby Puerto Vallarta for beach time.
One spot in Mexico where Marilyn Murphy, CEO of Woodland Hills, CA-based CTP Group, recently brought a group is Todos Santos in Baja California Sur, Mexico. "You enter via San Jose del Campo, and it's just very unique and unspoiled and somewhat undiscovered. It's bohemian and artsy, and it's one of those places that's hasn't yet been overdone."
As department manager of special events for Atlanta-based Mercedes-Benz USA, Hans Lupold is always looking to create unforgettable incentive programs and earlier this year, he had two "incredible" programs at the newly opened Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina in St. Lucia. One was for "Year-End-Sales Contest" winners, and the other for "Best of the Best Managers," each program comprising approximately 200 to 240 winners and their guests.
While St. Lucia and the property itself were both lush and luxurious, what really made the trips so memorable were special appearances from Capella Hotels & Resorts Founder Horst Schulze, who spoke to the groups. "He's like the father of American customer service as far as I'm concerned," says Lupold.
Schulze is a hospitality legend, having transformed The Ritz-Carlton brand during his long-term tenure as president and COO during the '80s and '90s. During Lupold's programs, Schulze personally took the time to speak to incentive winners about the importance of empowering employees and delivering customer service. Says Lupold, "Everyone was all eyes and ears."
Equally inspiring, says Lupold, was eavesdropping on Schulze's two-hour staff meeting during the morning of the first group's arrival. Lupold says, "All the Capella staff came out of the meeting so ready, and I could just feel that energy. The result was just amazing customer service, and it inspired our winners to take that back to their dealerships." Lupold's group was the first large group hosted on the property.
For Schulze, it's crucial employees know they are valued and empowered and that translates to impeccable customer service. This was especially challenging considering that the hotel, formerly Discovery at Marigot Bay, had gone bankrupt before it became a Capella property.
"There was a negative air around it before we arrived," Schulze says. "It's always more difficult to turn around a work culture when old habits exist, but the fundamentals don't change. You still need to give people objectives and spend time training, and let them share in your organization's dream, to be excellent and create excellence in our industries," Schulze says.