One of the most extraordinary incentive trips held in this difficult year just took place in July. What made this event a standout wasn't the perfect setting (the Abbey Resort in Lake Geneva, Wis.), or the leisurely four-day agenda. This financial and insurance company's incentive program, planned by motivation firm ITA Group, was unique because it was one of the earliest incentive programs held since the pandemic brought group travel to a standstill in March.
The timing alone makes the event highly significant, coming at a period when the industry is starved for real-life examples of how incentive programs can be held safely and successfully. Only then can incentive planners begin to consider travel rewards possible again, according to information from Northstar's recent Interact International event. Following are details of how ITA was able to pull off this remarkable feat.
The sponsoring firm, a long-time client of ITA Group, always holds its annual incentive program at a family-friendly destination, with qualifiers allowed to bring children as well as spouses/partners. The group size typically is between 550-700 attendees; this year, the total number of participants was 444. According to Chris Herzberg, senior business development manager for ITA Group, the qualifiers were polled several times leading up to the event to determine their comfort level and their concerns about attending the program.
The majority of participants were eager to attend, he said, with the company's top management supporting their decisions. Winners who chose not to join the group (roughly 25 percent of the qualifiers for this program; typically, 5 percent don't take the trip) declined due to age or health issues, while two weeks before the program, another 90 people dropped out after their home states of Utah and New Mexico announced 14-day quarantine requirements for residents who visited Wisconsin.
The Abbey Resort was the original destination selected for the 2020 program; the fact that it was within driving distance for a large percentage of attendees was an added bonus and contributed to the program's viability, said Herzberg. Among the advantages of the property: It offered plenty of outdoor space for activities and as settings for meals. Also pluses were the facts that the property had remained open through the spring and its Walworth County location did not have a limit on the size of group gatherings.
Yet another positive was Lake Geneva itself: The four-day agenda purposefully gave the group loads of free time, so participants and their families were able to swim, fish and go boating in the large picturesque lake (some attendees brought their own vessels along), all in socially distanced safety. Attendees also could enjoy an airy ride aboard the steamboat that plies the waters.
When the pandemic hit, ITA took the following steps to ensure the program could be executed where and when it was originally scheduled:
- The company enlisted its own internal Covid-19 task force (shortly after this program, ITA Group announced its partnership with health-testing provider Eurofins);
- ITA Group conducted its own Covid-19 risk assessment of the resort and its propertywide protocols;
- ITA Group shared extensive recommendations and planned procedures, including agenda modifications, with the client;
- The motivation firm made adjustments to ensure the program would be in compliance with local and state guidelines, as well as the client's corporate guidelines; and
- ITA Group worked with the Abbey to develop an on-site game plan.
Key among the many Covid-prevention measures taken by the property pertained to housekeeping. Housekeepers, who were asked to be visible to guests during the event, were required to clean each room for an extra 60 minutes.
Food and beverage was another area where extra care was taken: Attendees were seated at family-only dining tables, which were spaced according to social-distance guidelines. Serving staff stood behind food stations at the buffets, protected by plexiglass shields. For the final-night dinner — the only meal function held indoors, due to inclement weather — the same seating arrangements were put in place and air purifiers were set up in the ballroom.
Strategically placed signage reminded participants of social-distancing protocols and hand-sanitizing stations were placed throughout the property. "The Abbey was a phenomenal hotel partner. They were on point the whole time," said Herzberg.
Despite the challenges, participants considered the event a winner. Post-event surveys revealed nearly all of attendees felt comfortable on site and found the advance communications related to Covid-19 were accurate, timely and useful, while an overwhelming majority of participants felt that proper safety measures were in place.
"I think making adjustments to the agenda, having a strong plan of action in place, having the experience with a Covid task force, being proactive and communicating to participants was key to creating an event where everyone felt safe and healthy," said Herzberg.