The Top Incentive Travel Destinations of 2013

Singapore is one of many destinations drawing in groups

As incentive travel programs continue to make their slow but steady comeback, more organizations are realizing the value and importance of incentive travel and crafting programs that meet the specific needs — and wants — of their participants. “I think we’ve moved beyond the rhetoric of the past few years and, as events and incentive planners, we’ve become more focused on having programs that deliver more value overall, ” says Dahlton A. Bennington, senior meeting planner for Coral Gables, FL-based A-Plus Meetings & Incentives.

While many organizations traveled closer to home, our annual Incentive “Travel IQ Survey” for 2013 (see page 26) and the Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) “Spring 2013 Pulse” survey show that more companies are open to international incentive travel programs — and are heading to some unexpected, non-traditional locales in the process. “Many clients still want to go abroad, and it’s those unique experiences that you can have that are still key,” says Aoife Delaney, director of global sales for Ovation Global DMC, based in Dublin. Susan Adams, director of special initiatives for New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, says, “There is greater interest in international programs than there has been in some time.”

Jim Ruszala, senior director of marketing for Maritz Travel Company, says more companies are realizing that long-haul destinations are not a deterrent in motivating incentive winners. “I think it’s an assumption among many people that the longer the distance you travel, the more the motivation value gets diluted but that’s not the case,” Ruszala says. He cites Maritz Travel’s April 2013 whitepaper, “Making Destination Choice Go the Distance,” which found that as long as the destination aligns well with attendees’ preferences and perceptions, and appeals to them, longer travel times will not devalue the overall experience. Here’s a closer look at the top incentive travel destinations for 2013:

Sunshine States of Mind 
If there was a common thread shared among the majority of this year’s top destinations, it would be this: temperate climes. Nearly all of the top five domestic destinations boast more sunny days than dreary ones, and that milder weather, coupled with unique attractions and activities, made each one a standout for incentive programs. In the IRF’s “Spring 2013 Pulse Survey,” 42 percent of 241 incentive travel buyers and suppliers, chose North America as their destination for incentive travel programs. 

Florida Is Still Tops
The top domestic destination, according to Incentive’s “Travel IQ Survey” was Florida, which also received a record number of 23.4 million visitors in the second quarter of this year. The Sunshine State boasts a variety of attractive incentive destinations, including Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, the Florida Keys, Tampa, and Miami. 

St. Petersburg and Clearwater are popular with incentive groups that want a quintessential beach experience, says Suzanne Scully, director of meetings and conventions for Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. “When most people are looking for incentives, the first thing they think of when they think of Florida is the beach. Here, we have the best of both worlds — amazing beaches and amazing cultural activities and downtown nightlife.” 

Fort Lauderdale is another draw for many incentive groups. “The Greater Fort Lauderdale area and properties enjoy a casually upscale vibe with a positive renewing energy that enables incentive award earners to feel relaxed, rewarded, motivated, and appreciated for their accomplishments,” says Christine Roberts-Tascione, CMP, vice president of convention and group sales for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

Headed to Hawaii
Overall, tourism to Hawaii continues to grow, and that includes travel related to incentives. In July 2013, the islands saw a 33.4 percent increase in the number of incentive travelers (8,668 visitors) compared to last July. Incentive’s 2013 “Travel IQ Survey” shows that Hawaii came in second for domestic incentive travel destinations, with 34.1 percent of responses.

“We’ve handled some very large incentives in Hawaii recently,” says Tony Wagner, vice president, CWT Meetings & Events, Americas. “It’s always top of mind for people and there is always a high amount of interest, significant extensions, and a high response rate.”

Adams adds: “Hawaii really is a bucket-list destination for many participants.” Genny Castleberry, the director of meetings and incentive travel for Irving, TX-based Spear One, lists Hawaii, especially Oahu and Hawaii, the Big Island, as one of her firm’s top five domestic incentive destinations for 2013.

The variety of experiences to be had in Hawaii, combined with its unique cultural identity, make it an ideal incentive destination. At the Sheraton Kauai Resort, a 260-person incentive group recently spent eight days participating in an oceanfront luau as well as surf and boogie-board lessons on world-famous Poipu Beach.

Coupled with the variety of properties to be found, it’s no wonder why so many incentive planners and organizations head to its shores. One of the newest properties is Hyatt’s first Andaz-branded resort, the Andaz Maui, in the space formerly occupied by the Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort; it opened in September. 

California’s Gold
Coming in third in our “Travel IQ Survey” for the most popular domestic incentive travel destination of 2013 was the Golden State of California, with 32.3 percent of the vote. Nearly every planner whom we spoke to mentioned California as one of the top spots to bring incentive groups this year, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to San Diego and Palm Springs, and everything in between.

Both Castleberry and Bennington listed Napa Valley and San Francisco as two of their most popular domestic incentive travel destinations for 2013. “These two places are always attractive for upscale, foodie groups,” explains Bennington. Ruszala echoes their sentiments: “San Francisco is a great area that accommodates a wide range of groups.”

Culinary offerings are especially popular in San Francisco. At The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, for example, incentive groups can book exclusive Inside the Kitchen Culinary Tours with Emmy-winning host and local Bay Area expert Liam Mayclem, who takes groups on behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s iconic dining spots, followed by four-course dinners at the hotel’s Parallel 37 restaurant. 

In nearby Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, culinary- and wine-focused itineraries are very popular with incentive groups says Myrna Orphan, partner of Atlanta-based DMC Grapes on the Vine Events, which specializes in both wine destinations. “A trip to Napa or Sonoma is a very unique trip that most people have not experienced yet,” she explains. Some activities, Orphan notes, include bike/wine tasting tours, a ride onboard the Napa Valley Train, cooking school classes, blind tastings of wine, dine-arounds, and teambuilding activities that focus on blending wines together.

In Southern California, sunny locales, from coastal beach cities to desert retreats, continue to attract incentive groups. Wagner says he had a number of incentive groups head to Palm Springs in the past year. 
Closer to the Pacific, coastal cities like Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Dana Point, Santa Monica, and San Diego also draw groups that want the ability to combine water-based activities like stand-up paddle board lessons or outrigger canoe lessons with outstanding accommodations. The port city of Long Beach is an especially popular starting point for cruising incentive groups.

Lots in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe
The fourth most popular domestic destination, according to this year’s “Travel IQ Survey,” was Nevada, home to the glittering Las Vegas Strip, as well as the serene retreat city of Lake Tahoe, which is also shared by California. 

“Las Vegas is getting more popular again because of the more adventurous things that you can do there and can be woven into itineraries,” says Wagner. 

Amy Allen, director of marketing for Caesars Entertainment and a Las Vegas native, believes that the reason why Vegas is such an incentive standout is its unique variety of customized, one-of-a-kind experiences, from back-of-house tours to celebrity chef demonstrations. “We really know how to create a variety of unique and unexpected experiences for incentive groups — with everything from scavenger hunts along the Strip to hiking out at beautiful Red Rock Canyon,” she adds. “That abundance of opportunities like these is part of what makes Las Vegas so uniquely enjoyable.” 

Another part of what makes Las Vegas such an attractive incentive spot is a constant state of evolution and reinvention. Later this year, expect to see the debut of a brand-new $550-million, 300,000-square-foot outdoor retail, dining, and entertainment district in the very center of the Las Vegas Strip — The LINQ . It will also feature its own 550-foot high observation wheel, the High Roller, with 28 cabins that can hold up to 40 people each. The High Roller is nine feet taller than the Singapore Flyer, currently the world’s largest Ferris wheel. The LINQ will connect two Caesars Entertainment properties — The Quad Resort & Casino (formerly the Imperial Palace) and the Flamingo Las Vegas — and directly faces Caesars Palace. In early 2014, the $185-million renovation of Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon will reveal the new Gansevoort Las Vegas, which will also house chef and TV personality Giada De Laurentiis’ very first restaurant. In late April of this year, Caesars Palace debuted the new 181-room Nobu Hotel, a boutique property within Caesars Palace itself, that sits next to the world’s largest Nobu Restaurant & Lounge.

This past year, MGM Resorts International will have invested $350 million in its Las Vegas properties. Some of those investments included a $40-million Spa Tower remodel at Bellagio which was completed in December 2012; the opening of Hakkasan Las Vegas Restaurant and Nightclub at MGM Grand; a $160-million remodel of the Grand Tower’s 3,570 guest rooms and 642 suites at the MGM Grand; the debut of Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil at Mandalay Bay in June; and a renovation of floors 35-39 of Mandalay Bay into the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas in January. In spring 2014, the all-suite Delano Las Vegas will transform THEhotel at Mandalay Bay into a 1,100-suite hotel-within-a-hotel. The Mirage will also welcome a new restaurant from famed chef Masaharu Morimoto, Morimoto Las Vegas, in spring 2014. ARIA has also opened new restaurants within the past year, including FIVE50 Pizza Bar by James Beard award-winning chef Shawn McClain, and Tetsu, chef Masa Takayama’s first teppan restaurant.

MGM Resorts International is also in the middle of constructing a new 20,000-seat arena in partnership with AEG that will be located near its New York-New York and Monte Carlo properties. The front facades of both resorts will be transformed into an outdoor plaza with new food, retail, and entertainment outlets. 

Just across the street from Mandalay Bay Resort, there will also be a massive 500-foot observation wheel, SkyVue, which is expected to open in mid-2015.  

Arizona’s Allure
The fifth most popular domestic locale in the “Travel IQ Survey” is Arizona. Scottsdale, Phoenix, and Tucson were noted for their “excellent golf, central time zone, and guaranteed dry weather” by Bennington.
Scottsdale, in particular, was a popular place for incentive groups thanks to its good weather and extensive tourism infrastructure, which includes world-class accommodations, attractions, a lively food and drink scene, and top-rated golf courses. 

This fall, the Camelback Golf Club’s new Ambiante course, formerly known as the Indian Bend Course, will debut after a complete revamp, and the SunRidge Canyon Golf Club recently upgraded its practice facility with a new 1,600-square-foot performance center, home of the Jim McLean Golf School. 

New attractions in Scottsdale include the Butterfly Wonderland, a one-of-a-kind butterfly museum that is part of the 35-acre Odysea in the Desert entertainment complex, which will welcome a new Odysea Maze attraction in November. The largest aquarium in the Southwest, as well as a “Taste of the World” culinary showcase of 14 to 16 different restaurants, is also expected to open there in the near future. The historic Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which is celebrating its 25th year in 2013, is also undergoing a $25-million 
renovation of its meeting spaces, dining and retail 
venues, spa, and exteriors. 
Caribbean Cool
Not surprisingly, the Caribbean was the most popular international destination for incentive programs in Incentive’s “Travel IQ Survey” with 47 percent of responses, owing to its proximity to the U.S., as well as its sun, sand, and unique experiences. The IRF “Spring Pulse Survey” also found that the Caribbean was the top regional destination for incentive travel destination programs, with 32 percent of responses. 

“The Caribbean is still a great experience because it’s not the U.S. but you can get some really unique experiences, good airlift, and great tourism infrastructure,” explains Wagner.

Where in the Caribbean are incentive groups going? Popular islands like Aruba, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Turks & Caicos 
continue to attract incentive groups. 

At only barely 20 miles long and six miles across at its widest point, Aruba may be on the small side for a Caribbean island, but what the island lacks in size, it more than makes up for in terms of what it offers, says Hal Davis, North America sales manager for the Aruba Convention Bureau. “Everything is close by,” Davis explains. “You don’t have to take very long to get anywhere. And you have plenty of time to just enjoy this beautiful island.” Bennington echoes Davis’ sentiments, saying, “Aruba is always popular thanks to its great weather, exceptional beaches, and good nightlife.”

Regarding Puerto Rico, Bennington says one of its biggest advantages is its status as a U.S. territory. “The great thing about Puerto Rico is being able to stay in the U.S. but also being in the Caribbean,” she says. “It has great history and excellent active leisure activities in and near the rainforest.” Teri Knebel, director of sales and marketing for Wichita, KS-based Incentive Management, says she was thoroughly impressed with what she discovered in Puerto Rico during the 2012 Successful Meetings University Caribbean & Islands event. “Combined with strong air connections, the ability to remain within the U.S., a new highway for quicker access to the major resorts, first-class tour and transfer operators, a colonial city, and a hopping nightlife, you have the island destination for successful meetings and incentives,” she says.
One destination mentioned my multiple planners was the Dominican Republic. Adams and Wagner are both seeing a lot of interest. “We are seeing the Dominican Republic begin to take its place as a reliable destination with an infrastructure solid enough to support the demands of an incentive program,” says Adams. Bennington says, “The Dominican Republic has become the go-to destination for all-inclusive resorts outside of Mexico. Flights are expensive, but everything else is reasonable.”

All-inclusive properties throughout the Caribbean are especially popular with incentive groups. “All-inclusiveness is important,” says Ruszala. “There are some strong developments with all-inclusives. From a participant standpoint, everything is covered. It speaks well to them. There’s flexibility in terms of being able to come up with something that is all-inclusive.”

In the Dominican Republic, all-inclusive properties, especially those in Punta Cana, remain extremely popular with incentive groups. Properties like mega all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, which has 1,787 guest rooms, and those from all-inclusive specialists like RIU Hotels & Resorts, which has seven properties in the Dominican Republic alone, have nearly everything that incentive groups are looking for — and often, more.   

On St. Maarten, for example, the all-inclusive Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino caters often to large groups, with more than 16,000 square feet of function space and a variety of on-site attractions and activities including two pools, four tennis courts, water sports, five restaurants and bars, a casino, and a nightclub. 
In Aruba, the beachfront Riu Palace Aruba Hotel has a 3,648-square-foot conference center, a casino, free Wi-Fi in the lobby and rooms, and 24-hour all-inclusive food and beverage. 

Mexico’s Magic
Mexico was the second-most popular international incentive destination according to the results of this year’s “2013 Travel IQ” survey and for a variety of reasons: its close proximity, its exceptional values, and 
its reputation for excellent hospitality.

“All-inclusive properties in Mexico have been a hit this year,” says Castleberry. Bennington concurs, saying, “Despite some negative perceptions, Mexico, especially Cancun and the Riviera Maya, are top destinations for its value because of the low costs, convenient flights, and great all-inclusives.”

Many of Mexico’s popular all-inclusive resorts are found throughout Cancun and the Riviera Maya, including properties from RIU Hotels & Resorts and the soon-to-open 1,264-room Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, scheduled to debut in December. Beyond this popular Caribbean region, destinations such as Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos, both on Mexico’s Pacific coast, also attract many groups.

“Mexico’s close proximity to the U.S., yet completely different culture makes it a great draw for incentive groups,” says John Volponi, general manager of 96-room Capella Pedregal, a luxury property in Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. “There’s a real sense of hospitality in the core of people’s being here, and that really comes across. The government is actively encouraging more meetings and incentives groups as well.” Volponi says he has seen an “upswing” in incentive programs at his property in particular.

Recently, an 86-person incentive program from a Southern California-based mortgage company traveled to Capella Pedregal and the experience, says Lisa Foster, program manager for Progressive Resort Solutions, LLC, was “amazing.” Her group engaged in a variety of activities, including ziplining, ATV and horseback riding tours, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and tequila tastings. “You don’t feel unsafe whatsoever in Cabo San Lucas,” adds Foster. “Prices in Mexico are still very reasonable compared to other places and getting here is very easy.”

Europe Entices
Western Europe was the third most popular international destination in the 2013 “Travel IQ Survey.” In the IRF’s “Spring 2013 Pulse Survey,” Europe (31 percent) was the second-most popular international region chosen for incentive travel programs, just 1 percent behind the Caribbean.

In 2013 and going into 2014, Europe will continue to be an extremely popular incentive destination for groups, whether they head to Spain, Italy, France, the U.K., and Switzerland, or to places like Portugal, Monaco, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and the Netherlands. 

The variety of experiences afforded in Europe — historical, cultural, luxurious, adventurous, epicurean — make the region a perennial favorite among incentive groups. “In Paris, we’ve had groups shop in a local market with a French chef, and they even prepared their lunch, side-by-side, in his kitchen,” says Adams.

In Monaco, U.S. based furniture manufacturer, The HON Company, held an evening cocktail reception in the grand foyer of the Casino de Monte-Carlo, which celebrated its 150th birthday this year. 

Lisbon, Portugal, one of the closest European destinations to the U.S., is another popular location for incentives thanks to its rich culture, cutting-edge facilities, and excellent airlift from the U.S.

Another destination that impressed incentive groups from both Maritz Travel and CWT Meetings & Events was Prague, in the Czech Republic. “Call this organic demand, but Maritz has seen a slight uptick for Prague,” says Ruszala. CWT’s Wagner observed the same. “Prague was a popular destination for us this year,” he says. “Many of the itineraries that we did there included a river cruise component. I think groups are looking at Prague because more groups are starting to go back overseas, and they want to go to places that they may not have been to before. A place like Prague has that allure and there’s a great amount of lift to get there. With the euro as it is now, too, there’s some good value for the dollar. It’s about having a unique experience where people can get to easily and also keep on budget.”

Bermuda Beckons
The fourth most popular international incentive destination in the “Travel IQ Survey” was the island of Bermuda with 13.4 percent of votes. Its central location in the middle of the Atlantic, just two hours away from Charlotte, SC, means that it enjoys sunny weather year-round, without the humidity. Says Wagner, “There’s a renewed interest in going back there, and many of the Fairmont properties there have been renovated.”

Canada’s Charms
Rounding out the top five international destinations in this year’s “Travel IQ Survey” was Canada. Here, destinations that combine the best of nature with contemporary charms were popular with incentive groups. 

“We have something for everyone here in the province of Alberta,” says Brian Slot, CMP, director of meetings, conventions, and incentive travel for Travel Alberta. From the cities of Calgary and Edmonton to the national parks of Banff and Jasper, Slot says that no matter what time of year groups travel to Alberta, they are guaranteed to have a unique experience. “You can go dog sledding in the winter and horseback riding in the summer, with real dogsledders and cowboys. It’s very authentic.”

In Vancouver, Dave Gazley, vice president of meeting and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, says that the variety of activities in his city are also a major draw. “We have that combination of urban activities — we’re a cosmopolitan, world-class city of 2.5 million — and Mother Nature is our backdrop,” says Gazley. “We’re surrounded by mountains, water, and forests. If you’re a golfer, skier, and a sailor, you can do all those sports in just one day. There aren’t too many cities where you can do that.”

New Horizons in Asia
One international region that continues to grow in popularity among incentive groups is Asia, where destinations like China, Hong Kong, Korea, Macau, and Singapore are attracting incentive programs that seek out unique cultural experiences. 

“We worked with a lot of incentive groups in Asia, especially in China and Korea this year,” says Delaney. “For our clients, it’s all about the local experience. It stems back to people wanting authentic experiences that are rich in culture, history, technology, and food.”

“The Pacific Rim is pretty strong for us, especially destinations like Hong Kong or even Macau” says Ruszala. “There’s such a rich history and legacy there and it’s a unique melting pot. There’s also so much development going on there in terms of hotels and other tourism infrastructures. There are some real bargains and opportunities out there.”

Macau is one melting pot that is showing the world that it is much more than a gaming destination, says Corinne Janssen, director of sales, associations, for the Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, which just opened last fall, and is the largest Sheraton in the world. “This modern city is emerging as one of Asia’s most exciting entertainment centers and vacation destinations with a growing selection of gourmet cuisine, high-end shopping, and a selection of popular live shows and entertainment,” Janssen says.

“What makes Macau extremely unique is its fusion of East and West cultures — combining Chinese and Portuguese influences,” says Paul Poon, head of the business tourism and events division for the Macau Government Tourist Office. “It also offers a great variety of intriguing historical sites built from the 16th to 18th centuries, as well as several Michelin-rated restaurants and award-winning spas, and the longest-running Grand Prix race in the world.”

Similarly, Singapore, a former British colony, has emerged as an incentive favorite. Adams says, “Singapore is increasingly interesting to us and offers a destination with a distinct and different culture from our own, but also with terrific infrastructure and security.” Serene Tan, regional director of the Americas for the Singapore Tourism Board, adds, “From modern lifestyles to cultural heritage, buzzing city life to serenity in nature, the destination’s offerings are easily customizable to meet the needs of a wide array of interests.” This December, Singapore will welcome the Sofitel So Singapore, which will have 16 suites and 134 rooms.

Central and South America Scintillate
According to the IRF’s “Spring 2013 Pulse Survey,” Central (18 percent) and South America (16 percent) took the third and fourth spots when it came to the top international regions for incentive travel programs.

“We are increasingly interested in South and Central America for incentive programs,” says Adams. “Panama is evolving with the recent arrival of several renowned hotel brands, strong investment in infrastructure, and accessibility by air that is constantly improving,” she adds. Adams says that Argentina, with Buenos Aires and Bariloche, also has “strong appeal” and, when combined with Uruguay, is a very special itinerary for groups looking for a trip that’s “off the beaten track.”

Adams and a few other planners also cited Brazil as a South American country that will become increasingly popular with incentive groups, thanks to next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Peru, thanks to Machu Picchu and Iguazú Falls, was also a top pick for incentive travel programs.

Aside from Panama, Brazil, and Peru, many planners also said that the popularity of Costa Rica as an incentive destination remains strong. Its emphasis on eco-tourism and adventure travel, coupled with luxury resorts and untouched rainforests, make it a very popular destination for incentive groups. 

Bucket-List Destinations
In an effort to really up the “wow” factor in an incentive travel program, many planners said that heading to appealing destinations like New Zealand and South Africa were also popular this year. 

“New Zealand is on the bucket list of many Americans,” says Gregg Anderson, general manager of Western markets for Tourism New Zealand. “It’s a very accessible country that’s only the size of Colorado, but you can see a lot and do a lot and probably cover a lot more there than you would be able to in other countries when you are there for an incentive.”

Anderson says that among New Zealand’s greatest draws are its diverse landscapes, cuisine, and manaakitanga, Maori for “hospitality.”

“What’s great about New Zealand is that when it’s winter here it’s summer there,” says Ruszala. “It’s a place that not many people have been to before and the sightseeing and recreational activities are very strong out there. You can go to Auckland and Queenstown and have two very different experiences. Because it’s a place that people may not necessarily go to on their own, having that shared experience in a group setting holds tremendous value.”

Going forward, expect to see three brand-new convention center facilities in Auckland, Queenstown, and Christchurch, as well as more cruising options than ever before.

Just as New Zealand is a desired vacation spot for many, a South African safari can be a lifelong dream trip for travelers, which increases its motivational value tremendously, says Ruszala. “Safaris are very unique, and there’s a thirst among incentive travel participants to experience new and different destinations like South Africa.” At CWT Meetings & Events, Wagner says that he had at least two or three programs to South Africa booked for the upcoming year already.