In the new century, incentive planners will head off the beaten path to explore exotic cultures and distant lands. We've collected postcards from a few of the world's newest incentive locales.

The Insider's Beijing Insurance companies are all about managing risk. The same goes for their meeting departments; however, many meeting directors find the biggest risks can bring the biggest rewards. Such was the case when New York-based MetLife chose Beijing as the site for its Chairman's Council last September.

"This was definitely MetLife's most ambitious and most successful incentive trip ever," says Bob Pizzute, director of conference planning and events services. Pizzute and his team brought 400 qualifiers, spouses, and home office execs to Beijing for an experience combining the superior service of an incentive trip with immersion in the culture, history, and lifestyle of a country half a world away.

"Our chairman decided to bring together for the first time all the leaders in sales and management from across the whole MetLife enterprise at one incentive meeting," Pizzute explains, "so he wanted to go to an exotic location - somewhere they could afford to go on their own, but probably wouldn't. Beijing fit the focus."

But they didn't just "visit" like most tourists. Take the Forbidden City, so-called because it was off limits to ordinary citizens for some 500 years, while it was home to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The monumental walled compound, comprising 800 buildings, didn't open to the public until 1949. MetLife's qualifiers spent an entire evening there - beginning with a reception in the courtyard of the Imperial Ancestral Temple followed by a plated dinner in the main temple area. MetLife was the first corporation ever to do a private event within the temple area, which dates from 1420 and was one of the most important venues for the Chinese emperors. It was just what the chairman ordered. "I don't care how much money you have, you're not having dinner in the Forbidden City," says Pizzute.

During the reception, more than 100 artists and performers charmed the guests. In between courses during dinner, attendees enjoyed performances that might have entertained emperors centuries before - dancers, acrobats, and 30 young monks demonstrating martial arts expertise. Next came a shortened version of Puccini's opera Turandot, a tale of the Forbidden City.

"There was harmony between the service, food, and performances," says Marko Podkubovsek, president of Networld, who MetLife hired as artistic executive producer for the trip. In addition to being entertained, Podkubovsek points out, "people gained a respect for 4,000 years of Chinese culture."

Behind the scenes, Pizzute gained a respect for Kingsway Incentives, the destination management company that helped him pull everything together. "Kingsway was tremendous," he says. "They delivered all they promised." That means everything from negotiating fees at historic sites to bringing in generator trucks to power the lights for the final night to converting buses to rest rooms for use at many of the venues. "We could not overlook even the smallest detail," Pizzute emphasizes, such as assuming clean rest rooms would be available everywhere: They weren't.

"We experienced everything the attendee would experience," he says of his planning trips to China. "My philosophy is: Don't plan anything you don't do yourself." Perhaps the most unusual opportunity for winners of this unusual trip was the hutong tour. Hutong are the tiny streets packed with houses and families - the real neighborhoods of Beijing. The hutong tour brought attendees in small groups, along with an interpreter/guide, to have lunch with Chinese families in their homes. "Knowing our people, we didn't know whether or not they would enjoy it," Pizzute says. "But it turned out to be one of the more fascinating tours we offered. They got to meet real residents, who spoke no English, and see their lifestyle. We got excellent response on that."

And on all other aspects of the trip: "Everything was rated a five on a scale of one to five," Pizzute says. "We blew them away." And when Pizzute says "we," he means the team of Met Life planners, Kingsway personnel, and Networld. "Partnership is the word to use," he says. "Our teams worked together tremendously."

Networld's Podkubovsek has particular praise for the China World Hotel (managed by Shangri-La): "I've been doing incentives for 30 years, and this was the best hotel team performance I have ever seen," he says. "They just motivated everybody." The hotel created an opening-night Streets of Beijing theme party and the ballroom was transformed into a "marketplace" for a spouse program, with displays of high-quality products typical of Beijing - and a shipping agent to take care of getting purchases back to the U.S.

Even the Beijing government responded. MetLife's chairman met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin; the mayor of Beijing delivered a welcome address during a business session; and the U.S. Ambassador to China greeted the group as well.

"This was the most ambitious, the most difficult, the most dramatic, and the most successful incentive trip I've ever been involved in," Podkubovsek says.

Pizzute's pride in the event is equally evident. "It was a great feeling of accomplishment to pull off such a difficult task and to hide that from the participants," he says. "It also grayed my hair a little faster. It was incredible." - Alison Hall

Motivate for Me, Argentina Buenos Aires, founded in 1580, has a South American soul and a European flair. Those who have visited describe it as an elegant, sophisticated capital city with excellent restaurants, beautiful old buildings, fabulous leather bargains, and a well-dressed, friendly population of Latin Americans, Europeans, and Asians. The city's wide boulevards lined with mansions resemble the streets of Paris, and most people do speak some English.

During a recent incentive program put on by a major U.S. financial services company, attendees enjoyed activities that gave them a taste of the Argentinean culture and its varied landscape.

Events included a reception at the Palermo Hippodrome racetrack, where participants had cocktails alongside the track while watching private, no-betting horse races, then moved inside for dinner. On another night, they enjoyed a tango show followed by a dine-around. The final evening, at a banquet hall in Buenos Aires called the San Miguel Palace, left participants singing tunes from Evita. In between courses at dinner, actors performed scenes from the musical.

* Location: Southern South America

* Climate: Mostly temperate in the city of Buenos Aires

* Local Spin: A day trip to the mighty Iguazu Falls, a one-hour-and-45-minute plane ride from Buenos Aires

* Cultural Alert: While the city is relatively safe, beware of petty crime, particularly pickpockets and purse-snatchers

* More Info: www.cityofbuenosaires.com - Regina Baraban

Ancient Peru: Llamas on Every Corner About 300,000 people live in Cuzco, Peru, an ancient Incan capital. The city sits at 11,000 feet and is surrounded by a ring of snow-capped mountains. Locals in traditional dress sell alpaca products and silver in markets that line the cobblestone streets, and there are llamas on every corner.

But attendees don't have to sacrifice comfort and service to explore this ancient outpost. The 122-room Hotel Monasterio (an Orient-Express hotel), built as a Spanish monastery in the 16th century, has four cloisters that surround a courtyard, in addition to a new guest wing. Incentive guests check in at La Capilla de San Antonio Abad chapel, a spectacular baroque building adjoining the hotel; the chapel also has meeting facilities. With their room keys, attendees are given cups of mate de coca tea (offered 24/7 in the lobby), which is said to help relieve symptoms of high-altitude sickness. Joanna Boyen, sales and marketing coordinator at the hotel, suggests relaxing on the first day to get used to the altitude. With Cuzco as a base, incentive groups typically visit the nearby Sacred Valley of the Incas, filled with quaint villages, ruins, and centuries-old temples; and take day trips or overnights to the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.

Orient-Express also manages the only hotel within Machu Picchu, the 32-room Sanctuary Lodge, which re-opens in April after a major renovation.

* Location: Western South America

* Climate: In Cuzco, the rainy season is November to March and the dry season is April to October; temperatures year-round range from 51 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.

* Local Spin: Take a 10-minute walk from the Monasterio to see the ruins of a once-mighty Incan fortress, with spectacular city views.

* Cultural Alert: Tourist areas like Cuzco and Machu Picchu are safe, but townspeople may not speak English.

* More Info: www.cuscoperu.com; www.orient-expresshotels.com - Regina Baraban

Arabian Nights Dubai is a place where the Arabian desert meets the sea - and an ultra-modern hospitality infrastructure exists in tandem with an ancient culture. "If I had my insurance hat on, I'd say Dubai is a perfect incentive destination," notes Kelly Stratton, formerly director of meeting and event services for Nationwide Insurance. In her current job as director, meeting and event services, for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, Stratton has made two recent site visits to Dubai in preparation for a 3,000-attendee conference. "It's exotic but contemporary, clean, safe, and has magnificent hotels. There are lots of activities, from world-class golf to shopping for bargains in an age-old souk devoted to gold jewelry."

One of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai requires visitors to have a visa sponsored by a local entity such as a hotel or corporation. DMCs such as UTc (United Touring Company, www.unitedtouring.com) can help with details.

* Location: The Southern Arabian Gulf, a seven-hour flight from London. nClimate: Subtropical and dry

* Local Spin: Moonlit Arabian barbecues in the desert, complete with traditional entertainment

* Cultural Alert: Alcohol served only in hotels; shorts and revealing clothing are not appropriate in the city.

* More Info: www.dubaitourism.com - Regina Baraban

Havana's Street Music Cuba may be a little way off as an incentive destination for U.S. insurers, but global companies such as Grupo Allianz in Austria and Grupo Axa Suguros in Spain recently brought groups there, says Regino Cruz, incentive director, Cuba Convention Bureau. The appeal? "It's a big island, with good beaches and cultural sightseeing," says Jim Skiba, director, World Incentive Nexus in San Francisco, who did a site inspection of Cuba in 1999. "Havana has the tropical, island feeling of Key West. People are friendly, many understand English, and there is music and dancing everywhere in clubs around town."

High-end hotels in Havana are on par with five-star properties anywhere, notes Skiba - although he warns that there is ongoing construction throughout the city. He recommends working with an international hotel chain to secure visas and good ground operators. Another way to see Cuba is by ship: Ontario, Canada-based Cuba Cruise Corp. began five-day cruises between Nassau and Havana in November.

* Location: Western Caribbean; currently, U.S.-based groups must enter through other countries such as Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas.

* Climate: Subtropical

* Local spin: An evening at Tropicana Cabaret in Havana for an open-air show of more than 200 dancers; Cuban cigars optional

* Cultural Alert: Expect locals to be puzzled about when the U.S. will open its relationship with Cuba.

* More Info: www.buroconv.cubaweb.cu; www.cubacruising - Regina Baraban

Soneva Fushi: Your Own Private Island Give high performers their own private island at the Soneva Fushi Resort in the Maldives, a place so exclusive that it won't reveal the names of celebrities who visit regularly. Incentive groups of up to 120 people can take over the hotel, which consists of a series of ocean-view villas tucked into the foliage a few steps from white-sand beaches. Guest rooms have bathrooms that open onto private gardens, and modern amenities that are hidden away in coconut-wood desks, rattan armoires, or hyacinth baskets. The mood is "Robinson Crusoe," with an open-air lobby/bar whose roof is made of thatch and coconut fronds and a dining room whose floor is sand. Other dining options for groups include seaside barbecues, picnics on nearby deserted islands, and lantern-lit dinners on a private beach. There's a full complement of water sports and a year-old spa with treatments including sunset partner massages on the beach.

* Location: Kunfunadhoo Island, Baa Atoll in the Republic of Maldives, Indian Ocean, a 25-minute float plane ride from Male International Airport

* Local Spin: Night fishing for yellow tuna, wahoo, and jackfish on a traditional Maldivian boat called a dhoni

* Cultural Alert: The resort is located on an uninhabited island - there is no indigenous culture.

* More Info: www.soneva-pavilion.com - Regina Baraban

Punta Cana Spruce-Up Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic has long been a popular European incentive destination. Now this resort area of 14 luxury all-inclusive hotels, stretching 20 miles on what's said to be the longest white-sand beach in the Caribbean, is upgrading its infrastructure to attract large U.S. incentive groups. The architecture here incorporates natural jungle features: It isn't unusual to see a coconut tree piercing the roof of a villa.

Spain-based Sol Melia Hotels operates three of the toniest resorts in Punta Cana: the 522-room Melia Caribe; the 522-room Melia Tropi-cal; and the 500-room Paridisus Punta Cana, which just underwent a major renovation that added 96 guest rooms and a spa. Meeting space is plentiful, including the new 12,000-square-foot convention center at Melia Caribe. Golfers won't suffer: Among the world-class courses are Cocotal Golf and Country Club, the Robert Trent Jones II- designed Cabo Real, and the Jack Nicklaus-designed El Dorado.

There are two airports: Punta Cana International Airport (20 minutes from the resort area) and the new La Romana International Airport (a one-hour drive).

* Location: Punta Cana is at the Dominican Republic's eastern tip

* Local Spin: Sample indigenous cuisine such as deep-sea grouper or the national dish, sancocho, a spicy stew of seven different meats, followed by a locally made Davidoff cigar.

* Cultural Alert: Expect to see the signs of poverty outside resort areas.

* More Info: www.domrep-hotels.com.do; www.dominicana.com.do - Regina Baraban