The U.S. incentive travel market is in expansion mode, with nearly 40 percent of companies using travel to reward and recognize top performers, and budgets on the rise, according to the "Incentive Industry 2017 Outlook" report, released in January by the Incentive Research Foundation. And that means planners are looking to expand their destination options.
"Part of it is the strong dollar, and part is just budgets availing themselves more to being able to go farther out," says IRF president Melissa Van Dyke.
But companies continue to seek exciting places to motivate their employees, in order to avoid the "been there, done that" factor. So which places did they name? There were dozens -- no surprise, given how subjective a word like "excitement" is.
One planner said New York always makes the list for U.S. destinations. Some mentioned that "glamping" (glamorous camping) continues to interest groups, and praised The Resort at Paws Up, in Montana. And Costa Rica continues to lead the pack for eco incentives. But the latter two concepts are for select groups.
Some planners mentioned that having younger audiences means including more outdoor activities in programs. While that's true, what others noted, regardless of generation, is making activities more personalized, and creating really small groups for activities.
"The more intimate and experiential you can make it, it makes them feel like they live there," says Meg Pisani, director of supplier relations for Maritz Travel. "They're not going to get that touring as 25 people following someone with a hat and a flag. They'll feel like sheep being herded. Guests really want to be treated like individuals."
It was hard to narrow the list, but here are the places that came up multiple times.
Planners practically crooned when they talked about this island in the Atlantic, which is attracting groups for its one-of-a-kind sights and outdoor adventures. "It's absolutely stellar," says Jo-Anne Helotes, principal of Progressive Inc.
A broadcast client brought 80 attendees to Iceland and activities included self-drive super Jeep tours (with 38-inch wheels to navigate the island's terrain), snowmobiling on the Langjökull Glacier, ATVing in back country, dogsledding, spelunking, ice hiking, and more. Naturally, there also were stargazing and seeing the Northern Lights.
For Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management at Aimia, the response from groups to Iceland "has been off the charts." Another bonus: It's easy to get to from both North America and Europe.
A client's recent four-night sales program with 35 attendees featured some of the same elements, but also helicopter transfers to the glaciers, the Blue Lagoon hot spring, and snorkeling in the Silfra fissure -- which has 100 meters of underwater visibility and is located atop the North American and European divide. It's often rated as one of the world's top-10 dive sites.
"All those activities and the safeness, the closeness, and the ease of moving around all created an outstanding program," Boisner says.
Incentive groups have long enjoyed Dublin, but they're now discovering thrills in Northern Ireland's Belfast and its surrounding counties. Plus, it's only a two-hour transfer from Dublin. This location will especially appeal to foodies, as many of the top restaurants focus on local, home-grown specialties. Michelin-starred venues include Eipic and Ox.
Popular activities are a class at the James Street South Cookery School and a County Down food tour, which includes baking Irish breads; tasting Northern Ireland's first raw milk artisanal blue cheese; and visiting an oyster farm to learn how to shuck them, then enjoy both oysters and mussels with wine.
There's also a private meal with Lord and Lady Dunleath at their Ballywalter Park estate, with transfers by vintage cars. Lady Dunleath is a food historian, and "if there's a special date in your company's history, she'll pull the menu from a royal dinner" and will personalize the experience, says Jodi Swailes, lead buyer and geographic specialist for ITAGroup. "That's something you can't get a lot of other places."
And we can't miss the Game of Thrones experience at Castle Ward & Demesne, which is the set of Winterfell for the show. Guests can dress in costume, practice archery, and enjoy a banquet. Boisner attended a themed event there and, even having not watched the series, says she and others came away calling it the "highlight of the trip."
MONTE CARLO, MONACO
For a pure luxury experience, it's hard to beat Monte Carlo, where in one square mile perched above the azure waters of the Mediterranean, royalty, history, and local culture converge. Transfer from Nice via helicopter, then sip a cocktail while watching luxury cars parade around the square in front of the city's world-renowned casino and Hotel de Paris, both open since 1863, with the latter undergoing a vast renovation.
The city is home to the legendary annual Grand Prix car race, but groups can also see the Historic Grand Prix, held every two years. This May, it plays host to the second edition of the ePrix, in which electronic cars compete. Groups can enjoy a Ferrari driving experience along the Formula 1 route or classic car transfers into neighboring Provence. One client combined the countryside experience with a visit to a perfumery in mountaintop Eze and had individualized scents created, says Swailes.
For dining, Elsa, the restaurant at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, is the first 100 percent certified organic restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. Its chef, Paolo Sari, serves only locally sourced ingredients, and "his idea of luxury is to have something in the earth at 9 a.m., pull it out, and have it on a plate at noon," says Cathleen Kelley, director of North American group sales for Monte Carlo Société des Bains de Mer (SBM).
SBM's Thermes Marins houses a cryotherapy chamber, an anti-aging treatment that helps to reduce stress and aid jet lag recovery, where the temperature plummets to -110 degrees Celsius. "It can make you look 10 years younger," says Kelley, adding that groups have had it as a prize during welcome cocktail parties. The 90-second treatment can cost as much as $150, she says.
Graber noted he's seeing a lot of interest in Canada lately, because of the weakened Canadian dollar. Groups have been heading to Banff and Vancouver, but planners particularly noted Whistler.
This year-round destination offers hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking during the warmer months, and skiing, dogsledding, and snowmobiling during winter, explains Graber. "The Millennials, especially, like those high-action sports."
Swailes adds that groups have gone on ATV tours or Jeep excursions looking for bears and other wild animals. There are also geo-tracking activities, where participants are sent off and have to find their way back to base camp. Plus, Whistler has Olympic venues. "It's great when you have a program the year prior [to a Games], as it's a great way to theme it and get them excited for the Olympics," she says.
Dubai has seen an increase in incentive bookings the past year, says Steen Jakobsen, director of Dubai Business Events, and 2017 is looking to be another strong year. The destination provides a taste of the Middle East, with desert safaris and camel rides, coupled with private dining and even overnight experiences on the dunes for a Bedouin experience.
Culture enthusiasts can visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the souk where they can learn the art of bartering. Swailes said having an Arabic luncheon with a local and asking him questions about the culture appealed to many attendees on a recent trip.
And luxury is everywhere. There are five-star hotels where you don't check in -- your private butler greets you to take you to your suite overlooking the water, says Nixon. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is where you can have cocktails among the clouds on the 124th floor. You can also helicopter off the top of the building to Ferraris below and drive to Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, then get a behind-the-scenes tour with engineers and drive simulators, she adds.
Hawaii offers a little bit of everything, which is why it's so appealing. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the compound annual growth rate for incentive visitors to the islands is 17.1 percent since 2012, with the total number nearly doubling since then. U.S. visitors account for nearly one third of that total, and have increased 16.5 percent during the period.
Outdoor adventures are the main draw, and groups aren't just going scuba diving or learning how to surf anymore. They're scooter snorkeling (powered by an underwater motor) and subwinging (pulled by a boat for underwater flying), as offered by Alaka'i Nalu at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. They're rappelling down 50-foot waterfalls in the Puohokamoa Valley, located on the Hana Highway.
"Hotels understand more and more you have to bring the local community and that environment into a standard brand experience," says IRF's Van Dyke, adding that the Grand Wailea has a cultural advisor for Native Hawaiian questions, from how to incorporate native rituals into a program to how a planner might phrase things in collateral materials.