by Matt Alderton | December 15, 2016
If you close your eyes and think of the words "vacation," "travel," or "relaxation," chances are your mind will wander sooner or later to a place that's brimming with sand, sunshine, surf, and seagulls. That's because Americans consistently rank beach destinations as among their favorite vacation spots. In fact, Expedia's 2016  "Flip Flop Report," an annual study of beachgoer behavior around the world, found that nearly half (46 percent) of Americans have taken a beach vacation in the past 12 months, and that roughly the same number (48 percent) plan to take one in the next 12 months.

Their near-universal popularity means beach destinations are an obvious choice for employers who wish to motivate or reward employees with incentive travel -- especially this time of year, when summer feels like a distant memory and employees find themselves staring down the barrel of a long, cold winter.

To find out how to plan the perfect beach incentive, Incentive magazine spoke with Angie Hill, senior event manager at the event company Aimia, which plans recognition and incentive experiences for global client audiences in the technology, telecommunications, automotive, financial services, health care, and pharmaceutical industries.

Incentive: Are beach destinations still popular for incentive groups?
Hill:
 We find that people equate a travel incentive reward experience most often with relaxation in a warm weather destination with luxurious surroundings. A beach destination offers that and the opportunity for attendees to relax and unwind as a reward for achieving professional success. Also, we find that on a global level, these destinations rank high across audiences.

Incentive: For what kind of groups do you typically recommend a beach incentive?
Hill:
 A beach destination can appeal to everyone as long as there is a well-balanced schedule for the event. Incentive attendees are excited to be rewarded and recognized by their peers and management at incentive events. However, they are also excited to spend time relaxing with their guests as part of that reward, and a beach destination is the perfect place to do so. A balance of social events, activities, and leisure time offers something for everyone.

Incentive: What do you look for when you're choosing a beach destination?
Hill:
For our specific incentive trips that must travel in October and November, we look for destinations that offer the best weather during these months.  Another critical parameter in our search is to find the most optimal weather window alongside many cultural and public holidays for the wide variety of global attendees who we serve on our programs.  We also consider destinations with enough airlift with minimal to no connections. Of course, resort size must be considered when choosing a destination for a larger group.

Hawaii and Los Cabos are two favorites because these destinations can accommodate both small and large groups and offer a large variety of resort products along with of all the traditional beach activities and unique excursions for the more adventurous traveler. These destinations also provide fabulous culinary experiences.

Incentive: As you mentioned, some people like to lie around in the sun relaxing. Others prefer to be more adventurous and active. How do you keep beach programs fun for everyone?
Hill
: It is important to offer a wide variety of activities to accommodate everyone's preferences. Spa, golf, and water activities -- for example, snorkeling, sailing, and sunset cruises -- are often the most popular choices, but adventuresome activities such as zip lining and hiking are well received, too. Local food tours and visits to craft breweries have become popular as well. For those that do get antsy and bored, offering to sponsor a rental car can be an attractive option; they have the opportunity to explore on their own.

Whatever the offering, it is important to communicate the itinerary of each activity, and recommended attire and transfer time. While we, as travel experts, are familiar with what to expect while on excursions, not all incentive attendees are well traveled. 

Incentive: Sand and food don't always make a great combination. Do you have any F&B tips?
Hill:
 Menus will need to be customized for beach settings. This is often dictated by location and proximity of the kitchen. Because each property has different capabilities, the best advice we can offer is to have an open mind and be willing to transform your event accordingly. With our most recent incentive, we were accustomed to offering a formal final night party with a plated dinner. Because we held the final night party on the beach, the event was more casual with a buffet menu. The guests really loved a different experience.

Incentive: Beaches aren't exactly considered "dangerous." But, with sun poisoning, heat exhaustion, dehydration, alcohol poisoning, etc., health and safety can certainly be a concern. How should incentive planners prepare for and manage such risks?
Hill:
 Oftentimes, resorts are located at some distance from city centers and medical facilities. We recommend sourcing a paramedic/ambulance as a medical precaution during large group events. Otherwise, our onsite teams always review the resort security procedures well in advance of the group's arrival to understand their protocol and procedures.

Incentive: Although the top reason to choose a beach destination is warm weather, Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. What do you recommend in terms of contingency planning?
Hill:
While no one ever wants to enact Plan B, Mother Nature does often force us to move events indoors. It is important to always have Plan B in mind, whether during venue contracting or throughout the planning process. It is also important to keep Plan B in mind when selecting décor and entertainment, ensuring that it will be adequate and/or appropriate for an indoor setting as well.

Incentive: Finally, can you share your experience from a recent beach incentive? What did you plan, and what made it successful?
Hill:
We recently executed a four-night, five-day incentive program in the Canary Islands, Spain, for 650 attendees in the high-tech industry. The program included two evening events and two days of sponsored activities/excursions. Our beach event on the final night was a challenge, but turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Initially challenged by the outdoor setting and its space limitations, we recommended a few suggestions to reap the benefits of this beautiful location: staggered departure times from the hotel lobby to help the flow with limited buffets on the beach; family-style Spanish tapas placed at each table to further help alleviate congestion at buffets and grill stations; and unique table settings that allowed us to maximize the limited space available. Overall, I believe the program was successful because of the ample amount of leisure time combined with fun, convenient social events. The evening events were both on-property in gorgeous, casual settings.