WHEN IT COMES TO INCENTIVE TRAVEL PROGRAMS, it's all about the trip. It's the opportunity to take an African safari, or to cruise the Greek Isles, that drives salespeople and dealers to make their targets. The destination is what sells — and what drives people to sell.

The last thing an incentive organizer wants to do is to change the location of a trip once it has been announced and the promotional campaign has begun. But the recent political instability and threat of terrorism have forced many companies, including three of last year's Crystal Award winners, to do just that. The Society of Incentive & Travel Executives' Crystal is the highest award given to the planners of incentive programs — and this is the first time that so many entries were based on plans that had gone astray.

“We're not in the business of relocating venues,” says award winner Mary MacGregor, vice president-travel solutions with Minneapolis-based MotivAction LLC, who had to relocate a program for client John Deere. “Typically you build an entire campaign and communications program and theme around that particular reward destination, and then you just go with it.”

Not this time.

From the Aegean to the Baltic

To motivate its network of 1,100 dealers across the United States, John Deere's Agricultural Division has a long history of offering exotic trips. So, for a program designed to encourage more equipment sales and use of John Deere Credit financing, the company rolled out a program called The Ultimate Odyssey in October 2000 for a one-year period. The trip, a Greek Isles cruise, was scheduled for summer 2002 — until September 11.

“The client was concerned that there be a perceived comfort level with regard to the destination that they were traveling to,” says MacGregor. It was six months from the date of the trip when Deere started looking for an alternate destination.

Luckily, the size of the group — 2,250 participants — offered some advantages. To accommodate such a large number, the company had booked nine back-to-back charters on the Radisson Diamond. So they approached Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, which agreed to use the same ship but to re-route it to the Baltic Sea.

“The ship was extremely willing to work with us,” says MacGregor. “There are nuances to different ports, like port charges, and you know you're going to be doing different tours and activities, but we were able to manage the change within the budget that John Deere had committed to originally.”

The itinerary for the re-christened seven-day Baltic Splendor cruise (beginning in Stockholm, Sweden, then on to Helsinki, Finland, for shopping and sightseeing, followed by two days in St. Petersburg, Russia) was just as exciting for these well-traveled winners — and the magnificent ship itself was still the attraction. So, according to MacGregor, the company achieved the same goal of providing “that trip-of-a-lifetime experience.”

Laguna Riviera

For another Crystal Award winner, the impetus to cancel a cruise on the Italian Riviera were the more recent (then impending) hostilities with Iraq. Unlike John Deere, this insurance company's time frame wasn't a luxurious six months — but a tight six weeks.

When Richard Lowy, executive producer/creative director, PGI, Vancouver, Canada, got the phone call, the client had located a new property in California — The Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach — for the group of 400, and wanted to meet the next morning to put together a program. On his way to the property, Lowy put together a pitch for a program that would show off the best of Laguna Beach.

How did they pull off the change from Italy to California and still keep the excitement among qualifiers? According to Lowy, it wasn't difficult because people wanted to stay closer to home. “They didn't feel that comfortable traveling at that time, so they were OK with the idea that the program wasn't going to Italy. They have families, and they were concerned.”

The client wanted to retain some of the highlights of the Italian Riviera program, which created “all sorts of challenges for us,” says Lowy. “For instance, they wanted fireworks on the opening night, like they had planned — but the city of Laguna Beach won't allow fireworks.” His solution was a trio of biplanes performing aerial acrobatics to Frank Sinatra's rendition of “Come Fly With Me.”

Other highlights of the program included a re-creation of Laguna Beach's Festival of the Arts at a welcome reception on the hotel's back lawn, where local artists displayed and discussed their works in a spectacular setting overlooking the Pacific. PGI also organized an off-site reception and dinner at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. For the final evening gala, Lowy hired jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall, a favorite of the client company's president.

The entire event came in under budget at about $185,000, even after having lost money on deposits. On the final night, the planners got a standing ovation for the program “and everybody was commenting that it was one of their best programs ever,” Lowy says.

Australian Safari

It's not just American incentive travel planners who have found themselves suddenly shifting gears. For the past five years, Minolta Business Equipment has worked with Incentive Consultants, Sydney, Australia, to put together travel programs to motivate its dealers in that country with the highest sales. Previous Minolta reward trips had been to Bali, Singapore, Mauritius, and Spain.

The Lions Share program offered qualifying dealers the opportunity to take part in a safari to southern Africa, scheduled for January 2003. The trip would start in South Africa, with the highlights being a photo safari to Chobe Game Park in Botswana and then a visit to one of the natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Then, about eight weeks before the trip was scheduled to take place, the Australian federal government issued a travel warning advising against all but the most essential travel to Zimbabwe because of political unrest there.

“I made the decision to move the trip after extensive discussion with Richard Dawes [managing director of The Incentive Consultants],” says Graeme Fisher, director and general manager, Minolta Business Equipment Australia Pty Ltd. Fortunately, Dawes had been organizing trips to Africa for years and knew his way around. And fortunately, says Fischer, “there was no need to communicate it to the participants as they had never been advised of any details of the game parks or specific areas we were to visit. So there were no surprises.”

“We had to actually fly back to South Africa,” Dawes recalls of the weeks ahead. “I rented a car and drove up the east coast looking for a suitable game park. We visited something in the order of nine game parks, and for various reasons rejected all of them — the size, or not enough game, or the facilities weren't good enough, or it was too expensive.”

After discussing the problems with his contacts at Rovos Air and Rail, from which he was already chartering a luxury train for part of the trip, Dawes decided to hire one of Rovos' aircraft to eliminate the Zimbabwe problem by flying over it. The revised itinerary gave the 42 participants the opportunity to view big game and water game at Cresta Mowana Safari Lodge in Botswana and in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

Dawes was able to keep one of the highlights of the trip: 24 hours of pampered luxury aboard Rovos Rail and a gala dinner in the 1920s vintage dining car. “It's probably the best train in the world,” he says.

He also had to keep the entire adventure within the original budget. “We weren't in the position to say, ‘Sorry we have to make a change, it's going to cost an extra $2,000 a head.’”

There were no penalties for The Incentive Consultants or Minolta as a result of the change of venue. The only potential liability might have been the hotel in Zimbabwe, but the planners were covered because the cancellation was because of a government travel warning, which was permissible under the contract.

Although the trip was slightly different from what had been originally planned, the net result was an impressive 25 percent gain in sales during the qualifying period. And a Crystal Award to Minolta and The Incentive Consultants for their efforts.