GLOBAL UNCERTAINTY may have some incentive planners waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the need to get agents fired up means international destinations are still important. “Obviously we look at the safety issues,” says Lynn Averill, director of travel and conferences for National Life in Montpelier, Vt. “But at the same time I think all planners — and all companies — are faced with holding our incentive programs in destinations that are going to make our producers want to sell more of our products. We have to go someplace exciting.”

The challenge of relatively long incentive planning cycles with a volatile global climate is one with which many insurance and financial services meeting professionals are grappling. For example, a survey of incentive travel planners conducted in September by ICP's sister magazine Corporate Meetings & Incentives found that 73 percent were planning offshore programs in 2004. Asked the same question after October's terrorist attack in Bali, that number had shrunk to 37 percent.

Choosing Safe Destinations

One way incentive planners are addressing uncertainty is by choosing the destination carefully. Most of those we spoke with consider certain international destinations to be safe and others not. And that is what's driving their decisions.

“In April 2002, we went to Bermuda with 750 producers and guests, and to Grand Cayman with about the same attendance,” Averill says. “That was almost a record number for us. We're very family-friendly and many attendees brought their children to these programs. I think that says a lot for the safety of the destinations.” National Life's 2004 incentive programs include a Caribbean cruise, the Atlantis resort in Paradise Island, Bahamas, and Ireland.

“We're seeing a great deal more interest in Canada, Mexico, and Central America,” reports Mary Rigby, vice president of travel services for EGR International Inc., an incentive and meeting management firm based in New York City.

Christine Woidi, manager of meetings and incentives for BMO Nesbitt Burns, a financial services firm based in Toronto, Ontario, has a program in Bermuda in late April. “As long as the area is safe, we're going,” she says.

What about other international locales? Like National Life, Rigby has programs coming up in Ireland, as well as in Australia. She points out that after 9/11, planners had terrorism in mind and chose destinations perceived to be safe.

On the other hand, the perception of safety can change on a dime. “If there's an international travel incident anywhere in the world, our participants are not going to want to go on their [international] trip,” says Richard A. Kaback, vice president, travel services and incentives, at Don Jagoda Associates Inc., in Melville, N.Y. “One client asked me, ‘What if there's another incident in Bali?’ even though their trip was to the Mediterranean.”

Getting There Can Be Tricky

Then there's the airline situation. “Accessibility is even more important these days,” says Brett Barrowman, director of conference and travel management for American Fidelity Assurance Co. in Oklahoma City. “Not to be derogatory — it's just the way business is now — but if the airlines don't even know for sure what their routes will be a year or more out, how could we? If you commit to doing something a year down the road and something happens that makes you unable to deliver, you end up with a bunch of angry attendees.”

And in wartime, some of the commercial air fleet typically gets pressed into military service, leaving fewer planes to serve the routes that are still there.