You've probably heard of back-to-back meetings, where a company brings two groups to a destination, one right on the heels of another. Auto-Owners Insurance Company took that concept to the extreme last fall when it held an astounding 20 back-to-back programs at the Princess Hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Auto-Owners has motivated its top agents with deluxe, eight-night incentive travel programs since 1969. About five years ago, the Lansing, MI-based company realized that it was losing some potential achievers because many young couples with families simply couldn't afford to be away for nine days.

As a result, the company initiated a dual program. It kept its traditional travel incentive (in 1997, ten days in Thailand) and added shorter, four-night trips as well. "The short programs have attracted a whole new segment of the agency population," says President John W. Fisher.

The Bermuda trips began September 14 and ran straight through until November 1. There were 20 back-to-back groups of 90 to 190 people each, with groups overlapping on arrival and departure days. Five more back-to-back programs were added in January of 1998 to accommodate the demand.

Besides the marathon timeframe, what made these incentive programs different--and manageable--was that they had characteristics of both group and individual programs. There were no meetings, no speeches, and no requisite team-building activities. A welcoming cocktail reception/buffet dinner and a farewell dinner were the only social events. A buffet breakfast was served at the hotel every morning--and that was the only group meal. Each qualifier and his or her spouse were given $200 in travelers checks ($400 total) to spend on meals, sightseeing activities, and shopping.

Location, Location, Location How did this program, which was initially estimated at 1,400 people, leap to an astonishing 2,800 (2,000 more than the company's 1996 trip to Opryland and 1,000 more than the first short trip in 1994 to the Bahamas)? One reason: a strong year for the insurance industry. The other: Bermuda.

"Bermuda offers a lot of things our people enjoy: great shopping, good restaurants, and interesting sightseeing and activities," says Fisher. Interestingly, 97 percent of the atten-dees were first-timers.

Though Bermuda is a short hop from the Northeast, Auto-Owners operates primarily in the Midwest and the Southeast. "It took six hours and one or two connections for many of our people to get to Bermuda," says Viktor Weyand of Viktor Weyand Travel Service Inc., Traverse City, MI, who planned the program. "We worked hard to find the best connecting schedules. But we believed the appeal of the destination overcame this inconvenience, and the attendance numbers proved us right."

In addition, the Princess in Hamilton was a good fit. "We like five-star hotels that are set up to handle groups and that understand the mentality of incentives," says Fisher. Auto-Owners had good experiences with Princess Hotels in two previous programs. They chose the in-town Princess rather than its somewhat grander and more remote sister property, the Southhampton Princess, precisely because of the Hamilton location. Participants could stroll into town for dining, shopping, and nightlife. They also had full access to all of the facilities at the Southhampton property, including an 18-hole, par-3 golf course.

How It Works Pulling off an incentive of this size is no small feat. About five years out, Weyand and Fisher hone in on potential destinations. After narrowing down the sites, Weyand investigates the feasibility of airlift and hotel choices. Next, he puts together a speculative program and a flight profile. Two to three years out, he and Fisher do initial site inspections, usually at two or three locations.

About two years before the program date, Auto-Owners makes the final site selection decision. Weyand first contracts with the hotels, and then with the airlines. Though he can't commit to names and numbers of participants until much later, his policy with the airlines is to keep them continuously updated with names as qualifiers register. "We may not have 100 names at once, but the airlines understand that they are real names. They know that we're not sitting on a bunch of seats that we'll dump back on them at the last minute."

Similarly, he doesn't overestimate volume when negotiating with hotels: He contracts with the hotel 24 months before the program, but with the understanding that the number of participants could rise. For Bermuda, he initially committed to 1,400 and later adjusted upwards. "We're always conservative in our initial estimate," he says. "We learned our lesson not to overbook 20 years ago."

Weyand has an employee working full-time to monitor all of the planning details. Her computer is online daily with Auto-Owners' computer to exchange information. By two months out, all 12 people in Weyand's office are working on the program, including the preparation of a detailed operations manual.

Weyand, who has been planning Auto- Owners programs for the past 17 years, stays on site for all of the Auto-Owners programs; in 1997, he was away from home for about three months, first in Bermuda and then in Thailand. His staff is such a fixture at the Auto-Owners programs that attendees often perceive them as part of the company. "We refer to ourselves as Auto-Owners' travel staff," he says.

Throughout the program, Weyand's office continues to monitor everything. For example, "an arrival/departure list that may have been accurate three weeks ago changes," says Weyand. "Last-minute changes come in by e-mail, and the office assembles new documents daily."

If there's a snag, there are contingency plans. "John and I make every 'what if' plan we can think of," says Weyand. What if there's a hurricane in Bermuda? What if an attendee gets sick? The solutions are in place. "We don't stumble around if an emergency happens," he says.

In the end, says Fisher, the best way to handle a program the size of the Bermuda incentive is "one person at a time." This philosophy has proven a winner for Auto-Owners.

"We're more than twice as large as other companies that were our size in the 1960s," Fisher comments, "and we know that incentive travel is an important reason why we've grown this big."