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Can corporate planners create travel reward programs for repeat incentive winners, who have wined, dined and traveled around the world?

Photographing icebergs from expedition ship
Photographing icebergs from expedition ship
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Yes! say the organizers of sales incentives whom we interviewed for this story. Their incentive travel programs solved the "been there, done that" syndrome, but often came with challenges, which generated creative solutions that they incorporated into the incentive trips.

Antarctica cruise

The remoteness of Antarctica and the Arctic make them brag-worthy destinations. "We bought World Discoverer II, which carried 300 guests, and rebuilt it to carry only 132," says Kevin Regan, corporate and incentive sales director, Silversea Cruises.

The five-star ship, now called the Silver Explorer, was originally named Prince Albert II. Besides luxury suites, Silversea added a state-of-the-art theatre and multiple screens with surround sound for meetings.

The response, from passengers on Silversea Cruises first incentive charter to Antarctica? "They were absolutely blown away," says Regan. Comments from the 18- to 60-year-old incentive winners ranged from 'It never stopped being fascinating,' to 'Deep blue icebergs, spotting whales, seals—it was nonstop.'

Heli hiking

Groups don't have to go far for bragging rights. Morag Donald, owner, Incentive Insight, organized an incentive for 35 "not particularly adventurous" participants, for a previous company. "After a meeting at Jasper Park Lodge, we took over Caribou Lodge in B.C., for two days of heli-hiking."

Helicopter picks up hikers. British Columbia.
Helicopter picks up hikers. British Columbia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Participants huddled in a circle as the helicopter descended next to them, its whirling blades flapping their jackets. After boarding, the helicopter transported the incentive group over snowy mountain peaks to alpine meadows for guided hiking in small groups, based on their abilities and interests. "The helicopters then brought them to a picnic lunch, with champagne, china and crystal, on a glacier," says Donald. "They loved it."

Arctic cruises

Silver Explorer Antarctic charters, ranging from 11 to 17 nights, cost US $115,000 to $120,000 per day. "The charter rate includes all food, wine, top-of-the-shelf spirits in in-suite beverage cabinets and poured freely throughout the voyage, gratuities, port charges, taxes, guided shore excursions, lectures by Antarctic experts and cocktail parties," says Regan. "We've arranged champagne and caviar for corporate groups to enjoy on Zodiacs, while observing penguins ashore," he adds, noting that itineraries must be cleared by Antarctic authorities.

For travel reward programs with smaller budgets, shorter seven-day Arctic charters, at US $65,000 to $75,000 per night, are attracting incentive bookings, according to Regan. For 132 passengers, the all-inclusive rate works out to US $3,447 to $3,977 per participant.

Shark feeding. Bora Bora.
Shark feeding. Bora Bora.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Adding extreme components to traditional incentives is an inexpensive way to provide bragging rights. Angie Pfeifer, assistant vice-president, corporate meetings, incentive and travel, Investors Group, arranged snorkelling with sharks in Bora Bora for 30 people.

"The sharks were reef sharks, not great whites. We divided the incentive group into three boats. Those who were apprehensive didn't go in, but many changed their minds when they saw the others having fun. It was absolutely amazing and exactly what a sales incentive is all about—something they wouldn't have done on their own."

Helicopter trips

Heather Douglas, buyer and programme designer, Maritz Canada, also made traditional corporate incentives experiential.

"In Switzerland, we flew participants, by helicopter, to a snow bar on a glacier for a cocktail party. We flew another incentive group around the Matterhorn in a chartered plane. On another corporate incentive trip, we took over a Caribbean resort and chartered three America's Cup yachts, with crew, for an America's Cup sailing school."

Sport incentives

Combining travel rewards with an existing extreme sports event saves costs because the infrastructure is in place. "Targa Newfoundland is the ultimate motorsport adventure," says Judy Sparkes-Giannou, president of Maxxim Vacations, and co-owner of the event producer, Newfoundland Motorsports, with her husband, Scott.

"We can work with incentive houses to incorporate groups of up to 30 with the 170 competitors," she says. During Targa, two-person teams race on 2,200 kilometres of closed, scenic Newfoundland public roads over seven days in September.

Corporate team building event

For incentives, the Giannous recommend the Touring Division. "It's more about precision driving than speed. All you need is a driver's license and basic safety gear, like helmets," says Sparkes-Giannou.

"Incentive groups join the Targa School for two days, watch the Sunday demo day and join the race on the first day. Targa competitors drive about 20 per cent over the speed limit, following Route Book directions. Penalties for being too quick, missing instructions and being late force drivers and navigators to work as teams."

St. John's Newfoundland hotels

Depending on incentive organizer requests, Newfoundland Motorsports can put corporate logo decals on cars and embroidered badges on Targa one-piece race suits. "Because Maxxim Vacations arranges accommodations for race crews and 2,500 Targa volunteers, we can book corporate groups in the same St. John's hotels as the competitors, to build camaraderie," says Judy Sparkes-Giannou.

"On request, the incentive group can join the Targa Newfoundland opening reception in St. John's City Hall, the welcome dinner at The Keg on the waterfront, the pub crawl on George Street and the black tie gala awards dinner," she adds. "For corporate groups that can't arrange a September incentive, we can simulate the event on closed roads on Bell Island, 10 minutes from downtown St. John's."

Corporate travel incentive winners, who do join the Targa car races in September, are overwhelmed by Newfoundland hospitality. "As teams drive through small communities, schoolchildren line the road, cheering them on. We print 'hero' cards (postcards of cars, with specs, photos and information about the crew) for incentive groups. Crew members autograph the cards for kids, who collect them," explains Sparkes-Giannou.

When the 750-person entourage of Targa competitors and support staff reach Gooseberry Cove, population 125, it's a special event, with a Newfoundland "turkey tea" in the church hall. (A Newfoundland tradition, a turkey tea is a lunch of cold cuts, potato salads and homemade desserts, made by ladies from the church.)

Camel ride to oasis in desert
Camel ride to oasis in desert
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Nile River cruise

Arranging extreme incentives in less expensive destinations decreases costs, says Azza Singer, president, MCI&E International. "In Egypt, you get rooms for $150 to $200 that would cost $200 to $300 elsewhere. Egypt has five-star hotels and all the best chains."

Singer arranged a four-night Egypt incentive conference for 130 international doctors and spouses. "We chartered a Nile cruise ship, between Luxor and Aswan, for meetings on the ship and excursions along the Nile," she explains.

"I arranged for the incentive conference participants to ride feluccas [traditional wooden sailboats] to the desert, where they rode 130 camels in a caravan, for a half-hour, to a small oasis with palm trees. As the sun set, we built bonfires. There were no other lights," says Singer.

"The group sat in the sand and on rugs at little tables. Bedouins entertained them with traditional music and dances, roasted a lamb in front of them and served the meal. Camels surrounded the circle of guests and bonfires. It was a beautiful tranquil night. We let the fires go down so everyone could see the stars. Using torches for light, the conference group rode camels back to the feluccas for a 20-minute ride back to their hotel overlooking the Nile."

Climb Mt Kilimanjaro

While most extreme incentives don't require special training, others do. Firdosh Bulsara, general manager, MyEscapades.ca, brings corporate groups to Tanzania for seven-day climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro, followed by three days of R&R (in Stone Town, Zanzibar, or on safari). "Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,361 feet high," says Bulsara. "The elevation of Kilimanjaro, the lack of oxygen at a certain level and the final gruelling 16-hour day created camaraderie in the incentive group, as individuals helped each other reach the summit."

Group in African safari vehicle
Group in African safari vehicle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

To ensure adequate fitness, Bulsara starts working with corporate groups six months prior to incentive trips. "For one of our upcoming climbs, in September, a volunteer from the Canadian Armed Forces is providing training, gradually, over 12 weeks." He also selects the most appropriate of the five routes up Kilimanjaro. "Marangu Route is the simplest," he says.

"For each climber, we hire two porters and sometimes three, if needed, to help support them right to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. We also provide everything climbers need for the trek, including tents, bedding, climbing gear, boots, walking sticks and cooks to prepare meals at campsites."

Bulsara's first corporate group, a sales team, struggled on the final day, but all 18 made it to the top of Kilimanjaro. "During our second incentive group of six, last October, one gentleman, who had completed the entire exercise plan, and was the person most likely to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, couldn't get past 12,500 feet because of the altitude."

Feedback from both corporate groups was "absolutely amazing," according to Bulsara. "They sent us letters of commendations." The price of the travel reward? "With airfare, including the safari or Zanzibar trip, it costs roughly $5,500 Cdn," says Bulsara. "That's no more expensive than going to a Sandals resort."

Trans Siberian Railway tours

For remote destinations, trip length can present challenges to incentive planners. The corporate department of Canadian Gateway arranges special events and pre- and post-conference trips in Russia and The Russian Far East for Canadian mining and oil companies.

"The Trans-Siberian Railway is the most popular train in Russia, but the trip between Moscow and Vladivostok, on the Pacific Coast, is very long, eight days each way," says Yury Manukhov, director, business development. "Sometimes, instead of returning to Moscow, we fly them back to Canada via South Korea.

"We arrange for other corporate groups to get the flavour of the train up to Irkutsk," says Manukhov. Located near the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a cultural centre with traditional houses, decorated with "Siberian Baroque" wooden carvings. "They then board the Trans-Mongolian line to Beijing, stopping to visit Mongolia along the way. The Trans-Siberian Railway luxury class is 4+ stars, with a restaurant car and two people per cabin."

Machu Picchu trips

"Emerging destinations get participants to say, 'Wow! I would never have thought of that,'" says Heather Douglas. "Years ago, we brought two different corporate groups to Peru, Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu. The incentive trips were hugely successful.

"Nowadays, I would consider Oman an emerging destination. I just returned from a FAM trip to Oman. It's the real Arabia. It's safe. It's high quality. Oman is an exciting destination. It's not for everybody, because it's far and requires a higher rewards travel budget. But for a 'been-everywhere, done-everything' incentive group, Oman would be of interest."

Corporate medical insurance

Corporate liability is another issue that should be considered with extreme incentives. "There's always that fine balance that you're trying to strike between putting travel reward winners in danger or perceived danger," says Douglas.

"Prince Albert II has a medical facility on board, staffed with a doctor and nurse on 24-hour call, when at sea," says Kevin Regan at Silversea Cruises. Charter clients, as well as organizers of extreme corporate incentives, need to ensure adequate emergency evacuation insurance and international health insurance coverage for accidents and sickness.

Orphanage cribs in China
Orphanage cribs in China
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

International volunteer work

Giving rather than taking is an extreme idea for incentives. "I had a financial group of Canadians and Americans, 35 to 65 years old, that had travelled the world and seen many wonderful things," says Lynda Obront, director of sales North America, Tour East Group.

"They wanted a guilt-free pay-back experience in China. We bought supplies, and arranged for them to go into an orphanage in the Beijing outskirts to clean, paint and fix up things like wobbly cribs."

Both sides were touched by the experience, according to Obront. "The incentive group stayed for a full day. They really didn't want to leave. The women were crying, overwhelmed with emotion." Besides getting supplies, Obront's challenge was finding a charity willing to accept hands-on help, rather than financial donations.

Despite the challenges, organizing extreme incentive trips can be rewarding, both personally and financially. "I've had business from this Egyptian incentive for five years," says Azza Singer. "A lot of them requested extensions. Other clients came back individually. And I arranged their conferences for four years in a row!"

More corporate travel incentives