About six years ago, Nancy Brockman found herself in a predicament.

As leader of strategic events and incentives at GE Financial Assurance in Lynchburg, Va., Brockman had planned incentive trips for groups of insurance brokers to Morocco and Turkey in 1995 and to Indonesia and Thailand in 1990. The brokers had taken previous trips to China (in 1985) and Kenya (in 1980). Topping these destinations would be tough.

“Most of our brokerage agents are offered trips from other carriers,” Brockman explains. “We had to offer something exotic to differentiate ourselves from the other life insurance companies.”

Brockman decided to team up with Performance Enhancement Associates, a travel company in Waltham, Mass., that specializes in off-the-beaten-track incentive packages.“We started off asking, ‘Where in the world?’” says Colin Higgins, owner of Performance Enhancement.

“Where in the world?” led to South Africa, still a politically incorrect destination in the early 1990s. As time went on, however, more Americans began traveling there, and that was the break Brockman was hoping for. Over the next few years, she worked with Performance Enhancement to plan a South Africa trip that combined adventure and luxury.

“One of the primary attractions was the adventure aspect of the trip,” says Higgins.

“Our target audience, the principals of the top insurance brokerage companies, have been everywhere,” Brockman adds.

Culture, Adventure, History

For GE Financial Assurance, South Africa was the right combination of exotic and adventurous — and it was able to provide the high service levels demanded by U.S. incentive groups. Last April, Brockman's group of 275 insurance brokers started off in Cape Town for four days. While there, they visited vineyards, went hiking, took a city tour, and visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 25 years.

But the real adventure came at the next stop on the itinerary: the game lodges. With so many attendees, Brockman had to split them among 14 different camps — no easy feat. “To move this many people, we had to fan out to different airports, and even had to charter planes,” Higgins notes.

To make things more complicated, the month before the group's arrival, horrific floods washed away 25 rooms in one of the major game camps that Higgins and Brockman had booked. “We scrambled to find alternative accommodations and ended up having to go to five different game camps,” says Higgins.

Once the groups arrived at their camps, they were in for the adventure of their lives. Each day, they boarded open, tiered-seating Range Rovers and were driven through acres of bush country. Lions, elephants, leopards, and Cape buffalo were among the many types of wild game that came so close to the vehicles that the adventurers could reach out and touch them, says Higgins. Of course, everyone was told not to stick their arms outside the trucks. Many animals, even lions, would simply brush by the vehicles and continue on their way.

“Sure, there's nothing to stop that lion from jumping in and having lunch,” Higgins says. “But they are used to the vehicles and there is plenty of game to eat.”

The “camps” are really more like upscale chalet-style hotels with stucco walls and real bathrooms. All meals are gourmet, and the park rangers even serve snacks and drinks in-between meals. “It was not roughing it,” says Brockman.

“There is nothing like these camps in the U.S.,” Higgins adds. “Being out there with the animals is something that leaves you speechless.”

The April trip finished off in Sun City, a gaming and entertainment district whose centerpiece is the Palace of the Lost City hotel. “We wanted to get everyone back together so they could compare notes” on their experiences, says Brockman.

For the top qualifiers, however, this wasn't the end of the trip. They headed on to Pretoria, where they boarded the Rovos Rail luxury train to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. “It's the best rail experience out there today,” Higgins says. “Each room has a king-size bed and private bathroom, and the train has world-class dining.”

The smaller group took helicopter trips over Victoria Falls, and canoe trips down the Zambezi River, where they saw crocodiles, elephants, and hippopotamuses.

Brokers who went on the trip described the whole experience as “life-changing,” Brockman says. “Many of them are planning to take trips back.”

High Adventure in Idaho

Even if you don't jet off to South Africa, you can still think outside the box within the U.S. In fact, depending on the group, you can sometimes get way outside the box.

After researching many hotel programs, Rod Fox, CEO of re-insurance brokerage Benfield Greig Group PLC, chose Hidden Creek Ranch in Harrison, Idaho, as the site of a three-day strategy meeting for 25 executives last September. Hidden Creek Ranch offers several adventure-based programs for corporate and incentive groups that include a ropes course, cow-herding, hiking, mountain biking, and river fishing.

While it's a lot closer than Africa, Hidden Creek is still quite a trek — about a two-hour drive along windy roads from Washington's Spokane Airport. “There was a fair amount of risk in choosing Hidden Creek,” says Fox. “A lot of our people were coming from the East Coast and it's a long trip.”

Nonetheless, Hidden Creek was exactly what Fox wanted for his meeting — a remote and unique resort in a beautiful, spacious area. He also specifically wanted a property that offered a top-notch ropes course and a challenging environment. “I didn't want to go to a resort in Orlando that butted up against a parking lot,” says Fox. “I wanted to go where we could basically take over the whole place. There was one other small group there, but we were able to isolate ourselves for meals.”

Fox also added his own activities to those offered at Hidden Creek. For example, he brought along three ex-Navy SEALs to conduct intensive exercise routines — almost like boot camp. For example, the SEALs had the group doing push-ups in the lake and running up a nearby mountain. They also coached the team through the high-ropes course, a powerful teambuilding tool and strenuous activity.

Fox says his number-one goal was to provide a way for the group to bond. He also wanted the team to come away with better communication skills and the ability to work together more effectively. “It was successful,” he says. “This was shock therapy.”

Hidden Creek offers less-demanding programs as well: One of the most popular adventure programs with groups, says Iris Behr, the resort's owner, combines horseback riding with orienteering, a skill that teaches participants to read topographical maps. The ranch plans scavenger hunts where groups use their orienteering skills to find things on horseback.

The resort accommodates up to 48 guests in log cabins. Family-style dining takes place in the main lodge. Staff at Hidden Creek work with meeting planners and executives to tailor a company's experience to its needs and goals.

Choose Your Adventure

High-risk adventure travel attracts those who want to push themselves beyond their limits, says Jerry Mallett, president of The Adventure Travel Society in Salida, Colo., whereas “soft” adventure attracts a broader crowd looking for less physical risk. For incentive meetings, soft adventure is the way to go. Soft adventure activities — such as whitewater rafting, horseback riding, hiking, wildlife viewing, scuba diving, and mountain biking — are becoming increasing popular with groups, says Mallett.

For companies planning their first adventure trip, Mallett recommends staying in the U.S. Attendees will be closer to home, and there are fewer potential health risks involved when eating and drinking. Attendees also don't have to worry about getting preliminary vaccinations or catching unusual viruses.

Many travel companies specialize in adventure travel trips. One way to find them is by calling The Adventure Travel Society (719/530-0171) or visiting www.adventuretravel.com to check out its list of tour operators and contacts. Before selecting a company, however, Mallett recommends doing thorough research.

“Find out how long the operator has been in business, and ask what type of training the guides have,” he says. For example, if you are planning to take a group whitewater rafting, you should be sure the guides have proper training in swift-water rescues. Mallett also recommends taking a doctor along. If the group is large, you may consider bringing more than one.

Once you've selected your destination and activities, educate your attendees. Tell them what to bring and what to wear. Be sure they're aware of all potential risks, ask them to fill out a pre-conference medical questionnaire, and have them sign waivers.

Do a Day Trip

Although adventure travel is becoming much more mainstream, many meeting planners are still reluctant to plan a trip to a remote or exotic location. Others are hesitant to include a full week of adventure activities when attendees are more accustomed to sun and surf or golf.

To take your first adventurous steps, consider adding a one-day adventure into a traditional incentive program. Several tour operators around the country offer half-day and full-day trips. These outfitters will pick up attendees at your meeting resort and take them on a variety of outings, such as hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, or rock climbing. Check with The Adventure Travel Society (see sidebar, [previous page) to find outfitters near your meeting site.

Ascend Adventures is a tour operator in one of the country's most popular incentive destinations — Scottsdale, Ariz. — that has experience leading corporate groups of 6 to 60 on outdoor excursions. This spring, Ascend took a group of 20 meeting attendees from the Scottsdale Princess on a rock climbing trip up Camelback Mountain, says Jack Yarnold, a group leader at Ascend.

Yarnold, a veteran climber who holds a doctorate in Arizona geology, works closely with Ascend founder Dr. Brannon Reed. Ascend also employs expert canyoneers, mountain bikers, canoeists, backpackers, cavers, and skiers.

One of Ascend's most popular outings is canoeing on the Verde River just south of Bartlett Dam. This four- to six-hour trip can be done in summer or winter and participants routinely see herons and bald eagles. You can plan a catered gourmet lunch to keep the incentive-trip feel.

Ascend will also incorporate cookouts, music, contests, or motivational speakers into group outings. “We tailor each trip to the specific organization,” Yarnold says.

The Ascend team uses air-conditioned vehicles to transport participants, and has permits to some of the most spectacular canyons, rivers, and caves in Arizona. All Ascend guides are trained in CPR and first-aid and many have EMT certification. For more information, contact Ascend at (800) 227-2363 or see www.ascendadventures.com.