My favorite journeys move forward from point "A" to some other letter. They rarely backtrack. In that regard, my incentive trips qualify as journeys-or perhaps, adventures. The two years I have attended the Informix Software incentive trip with my wife, Cindy, couldn't have been more different--or more memorable.
This year's program, held over four days in May at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua (last year's event was at the Hapuna Beach Resort on Oahu), brought 800 people to Maui from all over the world. Just getting them there and back was a monumental task. Three full-time people worked on travel arrangements for six weeks. In addition, San Jose, Calif.-based Peak Travel Group sent an on-site travel coordinator to work with guests who needed help with return flights.
But the first challenge began long before the guests arrived in Hawaii, according to planner Whitney Sweet, program manager for Ellen Michaels Presents (EMP), a San Jose, Calif.-based event planning and production company. "We had promoted this event to be held in the Bahamas, and then the location changed to Maui. Then the numbers jumped from 600 to 800 two months before it began. We had only eight weeks to get this together and go."
No one ever would have known.
Day One Despite media stories of delayed and canceled flights, our United nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Maui went smoothly from curbside check-in to baggage claim. We were greeted by a young man in island attire holding an Informix sign. He checked us off the list and gave us quick instructions about meeting other Informix attendees for the van ride to the hotel. We had rented a car, but as we left we saw a group of six people with that distinct, just-beginning-to-relax look strolling away from the baggage carousel with our greeter.
Lina Hamilton, the transportation manager, was in charge of making sure that arrivals of two or six or 20 were moved through the airport and to the hotel quickly and effortlessly. "He was responsible for the entire arrival manifest, for picking up every person," says Sweet. "If you miss them, where did they go? If they lost their luggage, you take care of it."
Hamilton's job continued on property. In our case, events were held at the Ritz-Carlton, but additional sleeping rooms were distributed between two other properties, Kapalua Villas Condominiums and the Kapalua Bay Hotel. Shuttles ran continuously among the three locations.
The first event was a cocktail reception around the pools in the evening. Two food and beverage managers and three banquet captains under the direction of banquet manager Barry Christian saw to it that the food was plentiful, the beverages flowed, and the tiki torches glowed throughout the evening. I never saw a line more than two deep at any food or drink station.
As an observer, I thought of all the things that could go wrong when planning for a guest list of 800 people. What happens if everyone gravitates to one food station and wipes it out in minutes? Did anyone remember to put fuel in all those tiki torches? Of course the goal is to avoid these things, but the true measure of service, I'm told, is how these problems are handled when they do occur.
Day Two The outdoor pavilion of the hotel sits at the end of a short walkway off a corridor that leads to the main lobby. At 19,200 square feet, the place is easily big enough to accommodate arena football and can seat 1,000 diners. Rod Stewart once played for an incentive group here that set up festival seating for 2,000.
Today, the pavilion was the setting for the welcome breakfast. There was nothing fancy about the breakfast buffet, but I couldn't help notice the scale. Each "round," as I learned the tables are called, sat at least 10 people. Waiters had to carry two pitchers of coffee to get around a table and be able to serve everyone at that table at the same time. If you saw a waiter pouring coffee at another table, you knew your refill request would have to wait until the next trip back from the coffee urn. He would never make it all the way to your table on one pitcher.
After breakfast, Informix employees attended a meeting, and their guests were free to do whatever they chose. We met again in the pavilion at lunch time for a build-your-own sandwich buffet and iced tea. The setup hadn't changed, just the food.
After that was broken down, a dance floor, lights, and sound system were erected for the evening's swing party and dinner. The entertainment and dancing area footprint consumed a considerable amount of floor space, but the expansion didn't encroach on the dining and cocktail areas in the least. The night's soiree featured a martini bar carved entirely from ice. Soft, colored lights beneath the ice radiated a visual warmth that contrasted sharply with the distinct temperature drop around the bar. Or maybe that was the martinis!
Day Three I had never really thought about how you can make one breakfast so different from another, but obviously the planners had. Today, it was eggs Benedict served in the indoor ballroom. Champagne flutes were filled for everyone, and President Jean-Yves Dexmier invited the group to toast themselves for all their hard work. Then, every single employee was called individually, by name, to come forward to receive an award.
Danette Campbell, EMP food and beverage manager, breathed a sigh of relief as the award winners shuffled out the ballroom door. For the moment, her job was done.
After breakfast, it was time to head outdoors. Most of the 800 guests had signed up for off-site activities, organized by Kimo Jenkins of Island Partners Hawaii, of Honolulu, a contractor for EMP. He had his challege as well. "This group was a little more complicated because you had people from all over the world, some without great English skills," he says. "We had to take extra care to make sure everyone understood where they were going and what they were doing."
My wife and I had chosen a sailing/snorkeling trip from a menu that included other tempting activities such as hiking and kayaking. Thanks to Cindy's early planning, we secured this sought-after activity before it filled up. Others weren't as lucky. "We couldn't accommodate everyone at every activity," says Sweet. "There are only so many boats on Maui. There are so many kayaks."
After cleaning up after our trip, it was time for dinner.
The evening's dine-around was in Lahaina, after cocktails in the hotel's outdoor ballroom. Past President's Clubs had had sign-up sheets listing restaurant names and availability at registration. This year, we were told only that the three restaurants had the same owner and that we would get colored beads during the cocktail hour. Each color represented a restaurant.
To handle the volume, the restaurants had divided cooking responsibilities. One restaurant did appetizers. Another prepared entrees; the third made the desserts. Guests were seated in one restaurant at a time, which staggered the serving and expedited the whole process. It went without a hitch.
Day Four This morning, we were treated to a casual, continental brakfast, perhaps because there weren't any meetings--thus no need for heavy fortification. Most of this free day was taken up with a Western-style barbecue and horseback riding at a working cattle ranch. Eight couples boarded our minibus for an hourlong ride to the location. I enjoyed the opportunity to do something in a relatively intimate setting, and credit Informix and EMP for not taking the easy road by limiting activities to those that could only accommodate larger groups.
President Dexmier had mentioned this evening's rain forest event in his opening speech at the awards ceremony. It was billed as bigger and more extravagant than anything we had experienced thus far.
And it lived up to its hype. The setup work began right after breakfast, and according to Sweet, it took an entire group of 20 the whole day to complete. That night a huge waterfall greeted guests as they entered the pavilion, which was adorned with parrots, toucans, and other tropical birds nested in a forest of bamboo and tropical plants. Brightly colored butterflies were strung on vines criss-crossing the ceiling. Even the stage was decorated with jungle flora and fauna of various descriptions. An inflatable ape sat atop one of the bars, while a life-size elephant had its own lair in a corner on the other side of the room.
"The crew finished setup just in time, and then went straight over to the ballroom, took a quick break, and began setting up the Club Informix," says Sweet. "They finished that in about three hours, and were ready just in time for the guests to come into the Club."
Club Informix, with a nightclub theme, had electronic darts, pool tables, foosball, a great sound system, and dancing under disco lights. Unlike a real nightclub, there was plenty of elbow room, enough bartenders to avoid any waiting, and, best of all, no one ever asked for money. The party lasted until well after midnight.