Then Ernie Tsouros, FLMI, CMP stood on the stage at the Budapest State Opera House last June, amid tables of Chubb Life agents and home office executives rising to their feet to cheer him, he got choked up. The evening was, he says simply, "the highlight of my career."
That's saying something. Tsouros, Chubb's vice president,and travel, has been involved with Chubb incentive meetings for 39 years. He's hit the romantic, cultural, and adventurous capitals of the world, and done it by land, air, and sea.
So why was this particular final-night banquet so moving? It was certainly a combination of factors. First, the grandeur and uniqueness of the setting was a complete surprise to the qualifiers. Second, Hungary's remarkable recent history made it all the more incredible that this group of North Americans--and their Hungarian destination management company contacts--would be dining and dancing on a stage that for so long had stood before only the Communist elite. Third, it represented the culmination of a daring destination choice on the part of Chubb. Finally, Tsouros may have received the accolades of attendees with thoughts of his upcoming retirement (only partial, of course) from a job that has been gratifying and challenging him for almost four decades.
Here's the scene: Chubb's 150 attendees, dressed for cocktails, enjoy a reception in the grand foyer of the Budapest State Opera House. After half an hour, they are led inside to the ornate, gold and crimson hall. They take their seats, to be entertained by opera singers, a string quartet, a children's ballet performance. Then a man appears on stage to announce that dinner is served.
There is a murmur among the assembled guests. Dinner? Where? They haven't been told. As they rise, presuming they are to board coaches to another venue, a curtain opens on stage. There, rounds of eight are elegantly set, candelabra blazing.
Make it Different This is the kind of experience The Summit Club attendees have come to expect from Chubb's programs. So how does Tsouros outdo himself every year? First of all, he doesn't think of it that way. "It's a mistake to think, 'How do I top the previous program?'" he says. "Rather, you should make the next program so different that you can't compare the two."
So let's consider this nine-day Montreux/Orient Express/Budapest itinerary, pulled off last June with special touches to satisfy the most well-traveled agent. Most of the qualifiers arrived at the airport in Geneva on a Tuesday morning. They were transported to the Montreux Palace Hotel, where they could count on their lakeview rooms being ready immediately. That's because Tsouros, who paid a premium to make sure each room faced Lake Geneva, also booked every room for the night before the guests' arrival.
"That's going the extra mile," he says. "It's the little things that make the difference between a great program and a regular program." More "little" things: When Chubb qualifiers get to their rooms, a Continental breakfast is waiting for them. And anyone who arrives a few days early for the program still gets airport transportation arranged and paid for by Chubb; likewise for anyone extending a trip by a few days.
These touches take money, but there are subtler ways Tsouros accommodates his qualifiers--ideas that come from years of international experience rather than from a bigger budget. "The first event is a reception followed by a buffet," he says. "We usually do a buffet because we don't want to overdo things the first night. Also, I resist taking people outside the hotel. They don't need additional logistics on the day of arrival."
When the group did start sightseeing, on the morning of the first full day of the trip, Tsouros had booked enough air-conditioned buses so that each was only about two-thirds full. "Usually you end up with one that's the smoking coach," he notes.
So, after Wednesday's tour of the Swiss countryside, including lunch and wine-tasting at a vineyard, attendees were back at the hotel with enough time to freshen up for an evening dinner cruise on Lake Geneva. The entertainment was a New Orleans jazz band, the atmosphere was casual, and the weather cooperated beautifully. "I would take the risk," Tsouros says. "We could have closed up the boat if it was pouring."
The next day was the highlight of the Swiss leg of the journey, according to Tsouros. Attendee foursomes climbed into brand new Hyundai rental cars for a morning road rally. After stops at cheese factories and souvenir shops, the group met at a farm for a midday barbecue. "I hadn't done a road rally in five or six years," Tsouros explains. "People loved it. We let them match up who they wanted to go with, but I assigned the home-office staff to certain cars. You don't just put the president anywhere."
The point is an important one, for while Tsouros is keen to impress everyone with the destination, he is ever-
conscious of the critical business role incentive meetings play. "The emphasis is on entertainment, but we're, too. We want to capitalize on the opportunities we have--for example, to put the president with the top agent and let them get to know each other. "I don't schedule any formal meetings, but to say there is no business conducted is misleading."
Making History The second Swiss evening, a dine-around, again tactfully balanced attendees' own desires with Chubb's marketing goals. "We pre-selected seven or eight restaurants and permitted [attendees] to order off the menu. Then it was all billed to us. We had eight home-office staff and we put them with different qualifiers than they'd been with before," he says. "And there were a few couples who just wanted to be by themselves, and that's fine."
The next day attendees chose one of two tours or took the day at leisure. That night, a plated dinner in the 12th-century Castle of Oron finished up the Swiss portion of the trip.
On Saturday, Tsouros and John Wolf, Chubb's corporate meetings and travel officer, found themselves in the midst of a meeting planner's nightmare. While excitement continued to build among the qualifiers for their evening journey on the fabled Orient Express--Chubb had chartered the entire train--Tsouros and Wolf got word that the train was hung up on its way from Venice, encountering wild thunderstorms. "We were supposed to board at four in the afternoon," Tsouros says. "We discussed our alternatives. If it didn't arrive that day, it would arrive the next day. So we immediately went to get accommodations for that night. It was the high season in Montreux, but we came up with rooms for everyone. I was sweating it out." By midday, it seemed that the train would be late, but it would arrive, so Tsouros never told the attendees. Instead, they stretched out the drive to the station and, in fact, the train made up some time on the way.
Soon the relief Tsouros and Wolf felt was supplanted by surprise that the overnight journey was going to be even more special than they had planned. Apparently, the Orient Express hadn't been to Budapest for five years. "We turned out to be a media event," Tsouros says. "People came out and were taking pictures. When we arrived in Budapest, there was a huge crowd waiting for us, cheering. [The qualifiers] were blown away."
In Budapest, the group freshened up in their rooms at the five-star Kempinski Grand Hotel before choosing one of three afternoon tours. That evening, a welcome reception in the city's Museum of Fine Arts was followed by dinner in the world famous Gundel's Restaurant.
The following day attendees got a tour of the city--and were quite a sight themselves, as it turned out. "Budapest is such a new destination for incentives that [tour-ism officials] actually had camera crews filming us. Now they're using [that foot-age] for promotions," Tsouros says. "Chubb was among the first U.S. insurance companies to do Budapest. For all of our qualifiers, this was a new experience. And that's getting harder and harder to do."
That evening, a Budapest dine-around offered more marketing opportunities for the home-office staff. Says John Wolf, "With this size group, there is great opportunity for relationship building. Everybody had the chance to sit with the president or the chairman."
The final full day in Budapest was taken up with a Hungarian cowboy and horse show, followed by lunch with a Hungarian wedding theme, and an afternoon set aside for shopping. Then, the final night at the opera house served as the stunning finale to the nine-day program.
"The only way to justify these programs is that they help you win out there in the marketplace," Tsouros says. "We know for a fact that we have people qualifying who represent other companies. And it's not just because of the incentive trip, but that's part of the mix. You build up such great credibility.
"If I get a person on one trip, I've got him."