Rarely does an incentive trip turn into a national news event. And if it does, it’s probably for all the wrong reasons.

That was exactly the case with Securian Financial Group’s biannual national sales convention in May. Ironically, Securian’s trip, held May 4 to 7 at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., began “flawlessly,” according to Koleen Roach, director, recognition and conference planning for the St. Paul, Minn.–based company. That all changed May 6, when two attendees—Brandon Day, 28, and his guest, Gina Allen, 24—took an aerial tram tour of the San Jacinto Mountains. The pair failed to return with the rest of the group, and spent the next three days hopelessly lost in the mountains.

What Went Wrong?

"It was not one of my most brilliant moments,” Day concedes, as he recalls the sequence of events that led to the near-catastrophe. He takes full responsibility for the fact that he and Allen got lost—but he also can’t help feeling that he and the other attendees were slightly unprepared for what awaited them once they stepped off that tram.

The aerial tram climbs to Mountain Station—at an elevation of more than 8,500 feet—where passengers can visit Mount San Jacinto State Park Visitor Center, a restaurant, and a gift shop while enjoying spectacular views of the desert below. Visitors can also access hiking trails. “It’s the No. 1 tour in the valley, but it’s also potentially dangerous. Hikers get lost up there at least once a month,” says Bob Carey, president of PRA Destination Management, Palm Springs, which was not involved in the conference.

Roach had used an outside tour company, West Coast Transportation and Events, to provide all the ground transportation for the meeting as well as for the group activities for that Saturday afternoon. During the bus trip from the JW Marriott to the tram ride, Day says the West Coast tour guide gave them some information about the wildlife up in the mountains. “But we had no idea about the extent of the paths, or the potential danger in walking those mountain trails,” he recalls. “We were supposed to be going someplace with a view—not for a hike.”

Stephen Tabberer, financial controller for West Coast Transportation, contradicts this part of Day’s account. “They were told more than enough times that this was not a hiking tour,” he says. “This guide was in no way a hiking guide. It was not that kind of trip.”

When the 43 attendees arrived at Mountain Station, “everyone went in their own direction,” Day recalls. He and Allen took a few pictures and then started walking down a trail.

“We were the first ones out on the trail, and we were pretty much instantly alone,” he recalls. In retrospect, it’s amazing how easy it was to get so lost, Day says. “We walked along the trail, and about 70 yards down we saw a lookout point a little bit off the trail. We walked over there and heard a waterfall in the distance and walked to it. We took a few pictures, turned to go back, and took a wrong turn somewhere.

“It was like one of those Chinese finger traps—the more you try to get out of it, the more you get stuck. That’s how it was up on the trails. We went to the top of the mountain at 2 p.m., hit the trails around 2:45 p.m., and by 3:30 p.m., we knew that we were in trouble. It didn’t feel like we were that far off—that’s why it was so baffling.”

Mistakes Made

About the time Day and Allen started to panic, the other 41 attendees were congregating at Mountain Station, waiting for the return tram ride.

It was here that the communication breakdown began. According to Roach, the guide was aware that the two were missing—but figured that Day and Allen were simply running late and would catch other transportation back. The other attendees were eager to get back to the hotel to get ready for the final-night dinner and did not want to wait any longer. The tour guide did note that the pair had not returned with the group, but left that message with a supervisor who didn’t see it until the following Monday morning—almost two days later.

This was clearly a breakdown in protocol, say representatives from destination management companies. According to PRA’s Carey, “You count the number of individuals, count them again, and if you’re short, you notify the people operating the tram, and then the operations manager for the program, who in turn should notify the client.”

Barb Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for Access Destination Services, which has an office in Palm Springs, says the guide could have done several things at that point. “She could have remained at the tram in order to locate the people who were missing while sending back the others. Or she could have reported the information to the bus company immediately, who could have relayed it to the meeting planner.”

Tabberer says this is a case of Monday morning quarterbacking. “There was really no protocol for this,” he says. “It’s not that kind of excursion. There’s no risk to life or limb. It’s 20 minutes up the mountain and 20 minutes down. In between, there’s a kind of walk at the top of a mountain. In my view, it’s exactly like taking people to an art museum.”

Roach was never told that the group had returned from the tour without Day and Allen. “And it gets even more bizarre,” she says. Because the final dinner did not have assigned seating, no one noticed the two were missing that night. The next morning, at the end of the meeting, the hotel staff incorrectly recorded that Day and Allen had checked out, even though their belongings were still in their room, says Roach.

It wasn’t until Monday morning, when Allen’s sister became concerned that she had not shown up for work, that a missing person’s report was filed. A full search-and-rescue operation was up and running by that afternoon.

Close Call

Up on the mountain, Day and Allen’s situation became increasingly precarious. They spent the next two days wandering, with no food, little water, and hardly any sleep. On the third day, they slipped into Tahquitz Canyon, from which it is almost impossible to hike out.

Then, in another odd twist, they happened upon the abandoned camp of John Donovan, a hiker who had disappeared in the mountains a year previously. Using matches from Donovan’s backpack, Day built a fire that eventually drew the attention of rescuers. They were pulled out of the mountains on Tuesday morning, May 9—three days after they first got lost.

[On June 4, searchers, acting on the fact that Day and Allen had come across Donovan’s camp, found his remains in the Tahquitz Canyon area.]

Lessons Learned

Although he is still upset about the chain of circumstances that left him stranded, Day praised the way that Securian sprang into action once Roach and company officials realized what had happened. “They coordinated with the sheriff’s office, the search-and-rescue people, and contacted our parents and flew them out to Palm Springs,” he says. “Once they understood what had happened, Securian, from the CEO on down, put a lot of energy into the rescue.”

For Securian, the experience has been “a wake-up call,” Roach admits. “You can’t always trust that the people you hire and work with are going to do their jobs.”

She also says that Securian is making a major change to its operating procedures. From now on, a Securian home office executive, equipped with a walkie-talkie or cell phone, will participate in every excursion, making sure that all attendees are accounted for throughout the activity.

Roach’s advice for fellow planners? “Even though you have safeguards in place and do the best of planning, things happen,” she says. “Question everything, even if you think you don’t have a question to ask.”

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