For the 107 meeting planners invited to New Orleans for the 13th annual GEP Summit June 28–July 1, the event was a chance to connect with destination management company representatives and executives from their host, Global Events Partners, and its parent company, Krisam Group; meet and learn from their peers; and see the work that New Orleans has done to reemerge after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

GEP is a 13-year-old network of 65 destination management companies working in 92 destinations worldwide, and this was the second time its annual client-partner event has been held in The Big Easy. The first was just five weeks before the landmark storm. “We wanted to come back and see the rebuilding of the city,” said Chris White, chairman and CEO of GEP and Krisam Group, during the opening evening at the host property InterContinental New Orleans. In the experienced hands of BBC Destination Management, led by Bonnie Boyd, attendees did just that, tuning in to the food, music, and spirit of the city, and perhaps experiencing the effect that Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, described to the group: “When people come here, their molecules rearrange a little bit,” he said. “It’s what travel is all about, to feel something different. It’s a city about authenticity. It’s gritty, it’s real.”

Today’s New Orleans also tells an inspirational story. The charismatic mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, talked to Summit attendees about efforts to get New Orleans back on its feet, but not just a return to the status quo. Hurricane Katrina, he said, was a wake-up call for the city and an opportunity. After a crisis, most people’s initial reaction is, Landrieu said, “put it back to the way it was.” But instead, he said, the city asked, “How do we rebuild to be the city that we always wanted to become?” and it’s directing resources toward a total makeover of healthcare and educational systems, and infrastructure.

Summit attendees also found inspiration in the work of portrait photographer Robert X. Fogarty, whose Dear World project began as “photographic love notes” to New Orleans and has expanded well beyond. Fogarty asks his subjects to share one meaningful message by writing it on their skin, typically their arms or hands, in bold black marker. The images are striking and personal, and GEP attendees had an opportunity to have their portraits taken on the second evening of the Summit. The photos were collected in a powerful montage that was displayed on the final evening.

Partners of the Year
In addition to one-on-one planner-DMC appointments, an important Summit tradition is for GEP to recognize its U.S. Partner of the Year and its International Partner of the Year, based on customer satisfaction, creativity, execution, and other factors. Typically, one DMC is named in each category, with just a few exceptions in which two share have shared the honor. However, this was the first year in which GEP celebrated two U.S. and two international DMCs.

Here are the honorees:

Where Do You Want to Go Next?
Among the breakouts at the GEP Summit was a lively discussion of ideas for incentive destinations that allow planners to create a “wow” factor rather than just executing a trip that participants could have designed on their own. “So many companies have lost site of what an incentive really is,” said Brooke Sommers, CMP, CMM, owner, strategic consultant, Strategic Conferences and Events, Westminster, Colo. Lots of ideas bubbled up from the free-wheeling conversation:

  • Planners raved about opportunities in Mexico, including the secluded Punta Mita area north of Puerto Vallarta, but agreed that the perceptions around safety and health issues can create an uphill battle. Some participants said they don’t bother fighting for it while other shared strategies they’ve used to get their clients’ buy-in. One planner brought a security expert with her to meetings to answer the client’s questions. Several noted that they start the conversation about Mexico with a map that shows the great distance between trouble spots and incentive destinations. And another collected clippings of celebrity sightings in Cabo San Lucas and used them in a “if it’s good for them, it’ll be good for us” campaign.
  • While clients tend to want “the big three” cities in Italy—Rome, Florence, and Venice—several attendees pointed to lesser known Italian destinations that can work for incentives, including Sardinia, Sorrento, and Puglia. Of the latter, said one participant, “My boss is very hot on it. There aren’t hotels with the name recognition, but good four- and five-star properties.
  • “Panama is booming,” said one planner, pointing to a variety of top-notch properties now available not far from the canal and the beaches.
  • Panama’s neighbor to the north, Costa Rica, also got a lot of interest. While the Guanacaste area in the northwestern part of the country was what most of the conversation revolved around, one attendee noted that more budget-conscious incentive planners should consider the Playa Herradura area.
  • African safaris are a life-changing experience, noted several attendees, and great for the been-there, done-that group. However, they’re best for small incentives of 40 to 50 people, with a significant per-person budget of at least $7,000, but more typically $9,000 or $10,000.

International Updates
Many of the GEP partners had an opportunity to talk briefly about what’s new in their destinations. Here’s a small sampling from the 92 markets that GEP covers.

Ifigenia Tsitouri, vice president, sales and marketing, with Horizon Travel in Greece—site of the 2013 GEP Summit—brought news of the new Variety Voyager 223-foot yacht available for charters, and suggested the Zappeion Megaron, a historical building in the heart of Athens, as an exciting group venue.

It’s not too soon to be thinking about incentive programs in conjunction with the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, said Ola Kastensson, managing director of St. Petersburg, Russia–based DMC Russkie Prostori, who also noted that the Four Seasons property opening in St. Petersburg later this year is expected to be one of the best hotels in the country.

In Costa Rica, there’s a new airport in the Guanacaste region, which, noted Judith Ulate, director MICE, TAM Travel Corp., improves access to one of the country’s top incentive regions.

In Japan, incentive groups can now consider the Palace Hotel Tokyo, which opened in May across from the Imperial Palace, and the new oceanfront Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa, located at the Kise Country Club, said Shinichiro Sakai, general manager, Kintetsu International.

In Singapore, Manuel Ferrer, regional director of Pacific World Asia, suggests exciting event venues such as Gardens by the Bay, Alkaff Mansion, or the new River Safari river-themed wildlife park opening later this year.

In Belgium, look to historical Gent for an inspiring incentive itinerary, suggests, Brigitte Boone, CMP, CMM, managing director, @dmire Meetings Incentives Conference Events.

Stefan Herzl, president, Panorama Tours & Travel, Austria, noted that Ritz-Carlton opened in Vienna this month and a new Kempinski property is soon to follow.