When it comes to "once in a lifetime" rewards, diving with sharks -- without a cage -- in a crystalline lagoon or hot-air ballooning over herds of zebra and gazelle certainly qualify. But relatively few incentive programs can truly sport that label. Genuine bucket-list-worthy trips pique the imagination and inspire participants like little else.
By any measure, the seven dream spots profiled on the following pages provide the ultimate reward. Fiji, with its out-this-world adventures; Peru's mystical and majestic Machu Picchu; Porto, one of Europe's prized wine regions; cutting-edge Tokyo, host of the 2020 Olympic Summer Games; Queensland, Australia's stunning beaches and incomparable Great Barrier Reef; Northern Ireland, setting for Game of Thrones and top-notch golf courses; and Tanzania, the seat of the world's largest wildlife migration.
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
Ancient, authentic, amazing
Stepping into the 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in the Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru is one of the most extraordinary experiences groups can have in South America. Combined with Peru's rich culture, incredible history and luxury rail excursions, the prospects of a trip here is a powerful motivator in anyone's book.
Most incentive itineraries begin and end in the city of Cusco and its Sacred Valley. Among the highlights are visits with the Urubamba communities -- the Pumahuanca, Yucay and Mara tribes, which share their ancient yet enduring way of life and culture. Winners also can enjoy a dinner inside the cloisters of a colonial convent or an al fresco group picnic in the Sacred Valley.
From Cusco, groups can ride in style to Machu Picchu aboard the opulent Belmond Hiram Bingham for a 3.5-mile scenic rail journey, followed by the climb up to the storied Inca citadel via an ages-old stone trail. Arrange a private guided tour of the various temples, squares and royal tombs in the sacred heights that once served as a center of worship, an astronomic observatory and the private retreat of the Inca ruler Pachacutec. Another rail experience is in store aboard the Andean Explorer, the continent's first 16-carriage luxury sleeper train, which transports participants back to Cusco through Peru's lofty plains.
Incentive properties in Cusco include the 203-room Palacio del Inka, 153-room JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, 126-room Belmond Hotel Monasterio and 55-room Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. In the Sacred Valley is the 128-room Tambo del Inka Resort & Spa. Near Machu Picchu are the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, an ecolodge with 83 whitewashed adobe casitas in the region's cloud forest, and the 31-room Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel on Machu Picchu's grounds.
CONTACT:Peru Tourism Bureau
Swim with the (real) sharks
Combining spectacular tropical beaches and loads of adventure activities (think shark-cage diving without the cage), Fiji is an exotic South Pacific gem.
On Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island, treat participants to a colorful expedition aboard the Sigatoka River Safari, a high-speed jet boat accommodating groups of up to 12 on a jaunt winding through the hills of Navosa Province and past the sand dunes of the famed Coral Coast. Also on the itinerary are stops at remote villages in the heart of the island, where winners receive warm welcomes from residents and partake in the ritual preparation and drinking of Kava juice, said to unwind the mind, body and soul. Participants also can soak in the hot springs at the foot of the Sabeto Mountains, where immersing in therapeutic mud pools brings relaxation and rejuvenation to a religious level.
For another day of fun in the sun, organize a trip to Cloud 9, a private paradise whose centerpiece is a unique floating bar and restaurant surrounded by all manner of water sports taking place in heavenly turquoise water.
Include a visit to Beqa Island, which spans 12 acres of tropical rainforest, streams, beaches and reefs. The bravest in the group can swim with sharks in the Beqa Lagoon with the help of local guides who keep the ferocious predators at a safe distance.
Among incentive-level properties is the 271-room InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa in Natadola; on Beqa Island is the 25-suite Beqa Lagoon Resort, and the Royal Davui offers 16 luxury bures (wood and straw huts) tucked among the trees on a private island southwest of Beqa.
Urban delight, island adventure
For exotic experiences, a laid-back lifestyle and access to one of our planet's most spectacular natural wonders, head Down Under.
Begin your group's adventure in the chic, cosmopolitan city of Sydney. After a morning stroll to get oriented, enjoy a guided visit of Taronga Zoo to cuddle with kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and kookaburras. Don't miss climbing to the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to bask in stunning views of the city and waterway below. Before the night's over, head to the iconic Sydney Opera House for a behind-the-curtain tour and private performance.
For a tropical beach experience, fly the group to Hamilton Island on the amazing Great Barrier Reef just off the coast of Queensland. The island is covered in lush bushland and fringed by rainbow-hued coral reefs. Leave time to explore the terrain, but also organize reef adventures like group snorkeling alongside schools of tropical fish. Participants can then swap their snorkels for diving helmets and head to the ocean floor for incomparable deep-sea views.
In Sydney, upscale properties include the 563-room Shangri-La Hotel Sydney, 531-room Four Seasons Hotel Sydney and 155-room Park Hyatt Sydney. Among incentive-level resorts on Hamilton Island are the 380-room Hamilton Island Resort, 277-room Daydream Island Resort and the luxurious Qualia Resort with 60 oceanfront pavilions. The 40-room Silky Oaks Lodge, Mossman, offers dreamy respite in the heart of Queensland's rainforest.
CONTACT:Business Events Australia
Where the wild things are
For an adventure that brings winners up-close and personal with the "circle of life," Tanzania hits the spot.
Serengeti National Park is one of the most celebrated wildlife reserves in the world, offering views of lions, elephants, giraffes, gazelles, eland and much more. Perhaps the most spectacular experience to be had here is to witness the annual wildebeest migration, the largest mass movement of land mammals on the planet, as more than a million creatures journey north, then south, after the biannual rains (generally April-May).
North Tanzania also is home of the Ngorongoro Crater, the centerpiece of a protected World Heritage Site whose rim offers superb views of herds of zebras, black rhinos, lions and giant tusked elephants. Besides all-terrain vehicle safaris to the crater, the Olduvai Gorge and surrounding attractions, participants can hike through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Among top incentive properties are the 77-room Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, 73-room Serengeti Sopa Lodge, 66-room Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge and 25-room Kirawira Serena Camp. The unique Ngorongoro Crater Lodge has three intimate camps with a total of 30 suites perched on stilts.
CONTACT:Tanzania Tourist Board
A bucket-list must for Game of Thrones enthusiasts, golf connoisseurs and history buffs alike, Northern Ireland is one of the United Kingdom's most beautiful but lesser-known incentive gems.
GoT fans can learn to wield their sword like a Stark and venture to iconic landscapes from the hit HBO series. Whether participants want to play like Wildings or feast like the Lannisters, the magic of Westeros can be arranged through a number of companies that specialize in the genre; Discover Northern Ireland lists them on its website.
Groups also can take a boat ride across the mouth of Strangford Lough (aka the Narrow Sea), the very waters where Brienne of Tarth brought Jaime Lannister ashore in a canoe on her way to Kings Landing (and also where St. Patrick first came ashore to Ireland in the 5th century). Along the way, groups will pass the iconic filming locations of the infamous Red Wedding, Bolton's Dreadfort Castle and Tully's viking funeral, among others.
Beyond GoT highlights, the country has a wealth of adventures to delight top performers. Among them is exploring the newly reopened Hillsborough Castle, official residence of the British royal family in Northern Ireland; groups can take private tours of the stately castle and its lovely gardens, and afterward enjoy afternoon tea.
In Belfast, winners can grab a pint at Kelly's Cellars, the city's oldest pub, or do a pub crawl in the Cathedral Quarter. One of the outstanding newer venues is Titanic Belfast, a huge museum dedicated to the ill-fated ship that was built there.
This part of the world also is renowned for its top golf courses. Two must-play options are Royal County Down and the Royal Portrush Golf Club.
Among incentive properties in Belfast are the 300-room Grand Central Hotel, 272-room Europa Hotel and 62-room Merchant Hotel. Outside the city are several high-end country-estate properties, including the 180-room Slieve Donard, 120-room Lough Erne Golf Resort and 98-room Culloden Estate & Spa.
CONTACT:Meet in Ireland and Discover Northern Ireland
Sipping amid history
The history of port wine runs deep through this charming city in northern Portugal, making it the ultimate bucket-list destination for dedicated oenophiles.
Small and medium-sized groups can begin their explorations on a private river cruise through the Douro Wine Region. Depart from Vila Nova de Gaia and sail through the heart of Porto, glass of wine in hand. Gaze at the vineyards towering above both sides of the riverbank, stopping along the way for estate tours and tastings. Those who prefer to journey via land can enjoy private tours through the best-kept wine cellars in the area or on a classic train excursion through the Douro Valley.
Porto itself is endlessly fascinating and one of the oldest cities in Europe, with roots (and extant ruins) going back to circa 300 BC. Historic sites include the Palacio da Bolsa, an official National Monument built on the ruins of the Saint Francis Convent, and the soaring Clérigos Tower, where climbing up 240 steps is rewarded by an awe-inspiring view of the city and distant Douro Valley.
Time the program for the fall harvest season, when groups can get hands-on experience gathering grapes and feet-on fun crushing them to help make "the nectar of the gods."
Top incentive hotels include the 265-room Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa and 82-room Yeatman, with its wine cellar of 27,000-plus bottles.
CONTACT:Visit Porto and the North
Let the games begin
By any measure, Tokyo is one of the world's great capitals, but the city will burnish its status even further when it hosts the Summer Olympic Games, July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, a full 56 years after it last welcomed the event. And that serves up a stellar opportunity for incentive planners.
The Games will make use of as many existing competition venues as possible, all of which will be well worth visiting. These include the Nippon Budokkan for judo, the Baji Koen Park for equestrian events and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium for handball. Tokyo National Stadium, where the highly anticipated opening and closing ceremonies will be staged, is being completely transformed into a new arena.
There will be plenty of opportunities to view Olympic activities, with 165 events for men and 156 for women, along with 18 mixed or open competitions. Five new sports will debut at these Games: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing. Tickets can be purchased from authorized ticket retailers (listed here) or firms that specialize in upscale sporting-event packages for groups; among the latter is Roadtrips.
The city's charms extend well beyond its stadiums: Top achievers can dine on local delicacies at the Toyosu Market, shop in style in the Ginza, take in the temples of Asakusa or wander the high-end streets of Shibuya, a major commercial and business center. Landmarks include the ancient Buddhist Senso-ji Temple and the Imperial Palace Gardens, stippled with castle ruins from the Edo dynasty (1603-1868).
Among Tokyo's many incentive-caliber properties are the 836-room Hotel New Otani Tokyo, built to accommodate international visitors to the 1964 Summer Games; the 164-room Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hill in the heart of the Olympic Village; and the 84-room Aman Tokyo, perched on a hillside high above the city.
CONTACT:Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau and Japan National Tourism Organization