As companies move forward, travel incentives are rebounding to meet pent-up demand. However, these are complicated times. Planners are faced with myriad challenges and a kind of Catch-22 situation. According to the Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) 2023 Trends report, companies have increased expectations to deliver incentive trips that are more exciting, exclusive and memorable than ever before—while at the same time there is a compression in hotel inventory, hotel and DMC staff reductions and increased costs. “This year, incentive, recognition and reward programs will be expected to have broader reach and deeper impact,” says IRF president Stephanie Harris. “Program owners are charged with motivating a changing workforce while dealing with major disruptions, including inflation, uncertainty, ongoing supply chain issues and limited inventory.”
Within this context, there’s a renewed emphasis on creating unique and memorable experiences. For example, the IRF report cites private access to normally crowded venues, exclusive guides with inside stories and meals in unexpected places as having higher perceived value for attendees.
Industry experts agree that supplier services and relationships are key to creating one-of-a kind programs. Incentive industry icon Pearl Markarian, founder, Landmark Incentive Marketing, cites “the sustainability and service level of the hotel” as one of the most important ingredients in achieving an unforgettable incentive program. She also gives a shout-out to the sometimes overlooked impact of local guides.
Kevin Devanney, president of Incentive Travel Solutions, says that one-of-a-kind incentives are back in a big way, and that creating “wow” experiences is not just about throwing money at the destination. “Really, it comes down to the industry partners.”
Read on to learn about aurora viewing in Alaska, feeding wild dolphins in Australia, sunrise ocean cleansing in O’ahu, private group fashion shows in France, hiking by ancient petroglyphs in the U.S. Virgin Islands, seeing wild polar bears in Canada and much more.
Australia is one of the world’s most compelling incentive destinations. “Where else in the world can you snorkel in the world’s largest coral reef, get up close to a kangaroo or connect with the world’s oldest living culture?” asks Robin Mack, Tourism Australia executive general manager of commercial & business events Australia. From golden beaches to outback landscapes to global cities, Australia offers a wide diversity of destination choices. “Add to this Australia’s world-class facilities, expertise in event delivery and our people, with fresh perspectives shaped by our unique way of life, and it’s easy to see why we believe there’s no place like Australia for business events,” says Mack
Australia’s gateway cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are popular incentive destinations offering premium accommodations, world-class dining and unique venues. Plus, adds Mack, “only in Sydney can groups sail on one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, taking in views of the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Then there’s Melbourne, which is known for its cultural scene and being the home of world-renowned events such as the Australian Open and the Formula 1 Rolex Australia Grand Prix, both of which offer incredible hospitality packages for groups. Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city, features extensive tropical green space and is close to breathtaking natural wonders such as Moreton Island, where groups can snorkel, feed wild dolphins and discover shipwrecks beneath the sea.”
Beyond Australia’s cities, Mack points to leading incentive destinations such as Port Douglas and Uluru. From Port Douglas, groups have easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Uluru is the spiritual heart of Australia, where unique activities include strolling through Bruce Munro’s immersive art installation, Field of Light.
Australia has undergone an unprecedented level of infrastructure development, with over 100 new or renovated hotels since the global pandemic began, says Mack. Among the luxury highlights are the 349-room glass-encased Crown Towers in Sydney; the multimillion dollar refurbishment of Silky Oaks Lodge in Tropical North Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest; the striking Langham Gold Coast; IHG’s voco Melbourne Central featuring an impressive vertical garden that helps cool the building; and several new hotels in Adelaide including the luxury five-star Sofitel Adelaide and Eos by SkyCity. New properties in the pipeline include The Ritz-Carlton, Melbourne scheduled to open this month (March); the W Sydney in the Darling Harbour precinct due to open October 2023; and the highly anticipated $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf development in Brisbane, with the opening of the Star Grand Hotel in late 2023.
Business Events Australia has a wide range of resources to help planners curate the many incentive options, says Mack, such as case studies, program itineraries, an idea-packed incentive publication, Australia Next and free marketing assets in the Business Events Australia toolkit. There’s also a dedicated team member located in North America, Mary Ann McDonald (firstname.lastname@example.org) to personally connect planners with Australian resources for further assistance.
Just taking in the breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife and rich cultural heritage of Alaska is inspirational and unique. For these reasons it’s a popular incentive cruise destination. Alaska also offers group experiences that are different from anywhere else, says Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) president and CEO Sarah Leonard. Among them, she recommends overnighting on top of a glacier in tents or yurts; fly-out day trips to remote, high-end wilderness lodges or with a tour guide for a day of guided exploration in Alaska’s wilderness; and bear viewing and fishing in southwestern Alaska communities like Kodiak.
Cruising the Inside Passage in the state’s southeast region is “a popular, one-stop shop for large incentive groups,” notes Leonard. She also cites Anchorage as a great basecamp for incentive programs. “Anchorage has plenty of hotel accommodations and resort-style hotels, and serves as a gateway for experiencing the outdoors.” For small, high-end groups, Leonard recommends fishing lodges across the state, fronting rivers, lakes or ocean. “These lodges can be found in communities throughout southcentral Alaska, like Homer and Seldovia,” she says.
New experiences for incentive groups include Alaska’s first Nordic Spa on the grounds of Alyeska Resort just south of Anchorage, a 50,000-sf outdoor sanctuary with hot and cold pools set within the stunning Chugach Mountains. Near Fairbanks, the Borealis Basecamp has added eight new “cube” accommodations on the eastern part of its property in addition to its existing, clear-ceiling igloos. “The cubes are more spacious, offer even more privacy and feature a full wall of ‘Arctic glass’ on their northeast side for optimal aurora viewing,” says Leonard. She also notes that Sophie Station Suites in downtown Fairbanks has added a new VIP Summit Suite to its all-suite accommodations.
With regard to the cruise market, says Leonard, there are a number of exciting updates for Alaska’s summer 2023 cruise season and beyond. “New vessels include Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, Silverseas’ Silver Whisper and Holland America Line’s Volendam. Hanseatic Nature, Seabourn Pursuit and Seabourn Venture are visiting Alaska on limited voyages out of Nome and/or Utqiagvik.” As well, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth is spending summer 2023 in Alaska; UnCruise Adventures has announced Alaska’s first-ever, small ship winter sports cruise set to sail February 2024 for a 7-night Winter Sports & Northern Lights Adventures; and Holland America Line and Princess Cruises fleets are back offering hundreds of Alaska cruise itineraries each season.
The Alaska Travel Industry Association can help meeting planners connect with instate resources for extraordinary incentive experiences, says Leonard. “ATIA can assist planners by connecting them with specific DMOs, tour providers and travel planners in Alaska who specialize in incentive travel, and by providing helpful resources and inspiration for trip planning.”
An evergreen incentive destination, France is all about the French art de vivre, says Gael Wehner, USA head of business tourism, Atout France. That means “the French way of life and way of seeing the world, the art of taking your time and enjoying quality food and wine, the art of conversation and attention to details, and the art of casual sophistication,” says Wehner. Among the country’s enduring attractions, Wehner cites France as one of the oldest countries in the world, “with prestigious buildings and monuments that have been preserved throughout the centuries, and as a world leader in the luxury goods market, while continuing to showcase ancestral know-how with innovative designs.” Then there’s France’s high-quality infrastructure, “with modern buildings, ease of access, and more than 18,000 hotels, including over 300 five-star properties and 31 hotels with “Palace” distinction.”
Unique incentive activities are endless in the always-popular global city of Paris, says Wehner—from a private group fashion show to following the footsteps of Arsene Lupin with a mystery challenge and from a hands-on jewelry workshop to an exclusive dinner in Versailles with the staff elegantly dressed in period costume. Among Frances’s other top incentive travel destinations, Wehner cites the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera) with important cities such as Nice and Cannes, and the Provence region with France’s oldest city, the historic port of Marseille. In Marseille, just a few of the many immersive local activities include a sunset dinner cruise in Calanques National Park, a breathtaking coastal area of cliffs and turquoise waters, and a natural soap making workshop. For wine tasting activities, Wehner suggests Bordeaux and the Lerins Islands (Iles de Lerins) near Cannes, “where 21 Cistercian monks are continuing the monastic tradition and live modestly while undertaking the production of wine and spirits.”
Recent luxury hotel openings in France include the SO/ Paris, and the Anantara Plaza Nice Hotel. In the Paris pipeline, the Maison Delano Paris and the Hotel Le Grand Mazarin are due to open this year. This spring, the highly anticipated Carlton Cannes, a Regent Hotel, is scheduled open its doors after a 2-year redevelopment. In other new developments, “despite the challenges that we have faced since 2020, the French government continues to make tourism a priority with the ‘Destination France’ plan,” says Wehner. “This plan has a budget of $1.9 billion euros and intends to set an actual road map for the development and transformation of the tourism sector over the next 10 years.”
The France Convention Bureau “takes great pride in recommending the best venues, hotels, DMCs and any other professional contacts planners may need for a successful event,” adds Wehner. “And in 2023, we are organizing the France Learning Expedition, a series of educational tours in various cities of France, to discover new incentive activities and to get a better understanding of what makes France such a unique destination.”
The Hawaiian island of O’ahu boasts the best of urban excitement and tropical nature on one unique island, says Noelani Schilling-Wheeler, executive director, O’ahu Visitors Bureau. “Once the seat of the Hawaiian Kingdom, O’ahu is rooted in Hawaiian history and heritage, with the core values of aloha and malama (give back, take care)” says Schilling-Wheeler. “Dating back to the various Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean and Filipino migrations to Hawai’i, O’ahu has grown into a diverse metropolitan hub where culture, cuisine and the aloha spirit intertwine. O’ahu, known as ‘Hawai’i’s Gathering Place,’ embodies an energy that attendees feel the moment their plane touches down in Honolulu.”
Groups on O’ahu (and across Hawai’i) are encouraged to include authentic Hawaiian cultural practices by native Hawaiian practitioners in their programs, says Schilling-Wheeler, “bringing not only a sense of place to the incentive experience but also an opportunity to be enriched by wisdoms of the Hawaiian community.” Whether it is an opening session conducted by a native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, a sunrise ocean cleansing with mo‘olelo (storytelling), or other hands-on local experiences, many unique cultural practices can be included in event programming. For corporate social responsibility (CSR), activities, “consider one of the O’ahu experiences in the Malama Hawai‘i campaign, a regenerative voluntourism program,” recommends Schilling-Wheeler. “This initiative offers attendees meaningful, profound ways to engage in authentic cultural experiences that connect with community.” Activities include working in a kalo lo’i (taro patch), repairing ancient loko ea (fishponds), tree reforestation and beach cleanups.
Opportunities for memorable events at museums and historic institutions are endless, says Schilling-Wheeler. “Attendees can dine at Iolani Palace, the only official royal residence in the United States; mix and mingle amid Hawaiian artifacts at the Bishop Museum and experience Pearl Harbor at a private event at the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum or the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum. Other options include a private 5K trail run or scavenger hunt at Kualoa Ranch, known as one of Hollywood’s favorite locations, and discovering the many famous surfing sites on O’ahu, the birthplace of surfing. And planners may be surprised at the level of chef-driven culinary experiences and range of restaurants offered by an island destination such as O’ahu.” Among new hotels are the Twin Fin, opened last year. The Wayfinder Waikiki and Wo Fat Hotel are both due to open this year.
“The O’ahu Visitors Bureau and the Meet Hawaii team are always ready to collaborate with meeting planners on designing and recommending creative experiences to fit the interest and needs of a group,” says Schilling-Wheeler. “We are also a resource to connect planners with the hospitality industry, experience curators, cultural practitioners, Malama Hawai’i recommendations, and other local experts.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix offer pristine beaches, turquoise waters, storied history and luxury resorts, plus easy access from North America and across the globe—a perfect recipe for unforgettable incentives.
The Island of St. Thomas, says Alani Henneman-Todman, assistant commissioner, U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, offers unique cultural experiences. She recommends a visit to the St. Thomas Synagogue, a national historic landmark. It’s one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere and a symbol of the strong Jewish heritage in the Caribbean, she says. Another don’t-miss activity in St. Thomas is climbing the “99 Steps” staircase located in the heart of town. “The 99 Steps gives a glimpse into the island’s rich colonial history, and is lined with colorful buildings, vibrant street art, and quaint shops and restaurants, making the ascent a fun and scenic experience.”
A short boat ride from St. Thomas, the island of St. John is two-thirds national park and superbly suited for group adventure activities in pristine nature. The Underwater Trail at Trunk Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, is a not-to-be missed snorkeling experience in the vibrant underwater world of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Henneman-Todman also suggests group hikes of Reef Bay Trail, suitable for all levels, with breathtaking scenic views and passing by ancient petroglyphs created by the indigenous Taino people over a thousand years ago.
St. Croix, the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, offers an experience like no other at Point Udal, the easternmost point of the United States (by travel, not longitude) and home to a sundial known as the Millennium Monument, marking the azimuth of the first U.S. sunrise of 2000.” Henneman-Toman also gives a shout-out to Buck Island, a small uninhabited island on the northeastern coast, named a national monument in 1961. The island and surrounding coral reefs are a protected marine garden and home to one of three U.S. underwater trails.
New on the luxury resort scene, the Westin Beach Resort and Spa at Frenchman’s Reef is reopening this year after a $425 million makeover, and with an adjoining Morningstar Buoy House Beach Resort, an Autograph Collection. “They are the latest additions to big hotel names on the island, including The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, reopened after a design overhaul,” says Henneman-Toman. On St. Croix, “Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino reopened in 2022 as the one adults-only, all-inclusive resort on the island. In other hotel news, the renowned Buccaneer Beach & Golf Resort on St. Croix has joined Wyndham’s Trademark Collection by Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.
travelalaska.com/Plan-your-Trip/Planning-Tools/Meeting-Event-Planners; businessevents.australia.com/en; france.fr/en; meethawaii.com; visitusvi.com/meetings-and-group