KAY KERLIN, vice president — sales support for Milwaukee-based Fortis Health, patted herself on the back for having cannily chosen the politically neutral destinations of Monaco and Switzerland for the company's European incentive programs in May. And John Touchette, general director of meeting management for John Hancock Financial Services in Boston, breathed a sigh of relief when he was able to rebook a June China incentive to the Caribbean at the last minute.

While some overseas incentives have been undermined by global events such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, the war in Iraq, and anti-American sentiment, many insurance and financial services planners have been approaching overseas programs more conservatively since the shock of September 11. They know to anticipate potential unrest or security threats and are ready to move quickly when circumstances demand it.

Kerlin, for example, says Fortis Health chose Monaco and Switzerland for reward programs two years ago, largely based on their reputation for safety. “We always look at security,” she points out. She has ruled out certain destinations, such as Istanbul, Prague, and Greece, because she doesn't want to put incentive groups at risk.

Monaco, notes Kerlin, has “a humongous per capita income and a high level of tourism, so security is a high focus.” Crime is low there as well, as it is in Switzerland.

When the war in Iraq broke out, Fortis Health management debated whether to move forward with the incentive programs — the Summit Conference at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco for 90 managing general agents and regional sales directors, and the North Start Marketing Top Producers Conference at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in Interlaken, Switzerland, for 160 sales reps and district managers — and the neutral politics of both destinations weighed heavily in their decision to go ahead. “We don't expect the locals to be anti-American in either destination,” Kerlin says.

In letters to qualifiers explaining its position, the company noted how both Monaco and Switzerland had been reviewed carefully and deemed safe, gave people the option of staying home, and said if the world situation changed between the end of March and early May, the decisions would be reviewed. In addition, to assuage those with qualms about traveling overseas, Kerlin asked the incentive houses handling each trip to facilitate plans for emergency travel arrangements if needed, and that point was communicated to the qualifiers as well. As of press time in mid-April, only a few participants had declined to go.

Security Concerns

It was concerns about security that led top executives at Securian Financial Network to cancel the company's May 300-person Leaders Conference in Rome and a Chairman's Club meeting for 100 in Sardinia, Italy. In early March, after considering the pros and cons of meeting in Europe, “we finally agreed that the liability of having our top sales advisors and senior management in Europe during this time of uncertainty was not in the best interest of the company or the security of the individuals attending,” says Carol Rice, director of recognition and conference planning for the St. Paul, Minn., company.

The fact that spouses of qualifiers started opting out of the trip was another deciding factor. “Even this small thing would have changed the feel of the event,” Rice says.

Fortunately, Securian was able to shift its Leaders Conference to the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii in June. The destination management company Rice had been working with negotiated the hotel cancellation fees to everyone's satisfaction, and the few airline tickets that had been purchased were rewritten for Hawaii with no additional charges. The company decided not to reschedule the Chairman's Club meeting, since those participants were a subsection of the Leaders Conference.

Lack of qualifier interest also had a hand in the rescheduling of John Hancock Financial Services' Cabinet Meeting in June. The company had been planning to reward 150 top producers with a trip to Beijing and Hong Kong. But then reports about SARS started popping out, and the company's security department began raising questions about the wisdom of traveling to Asia.

Once the U.S. State Department banned nonessential travel to that part of the world and qualifiers started canceling, “it didn't make sense anymore,” says Touchette. At the rate participants were backing out, “we wouldn't have any people left to come to the meeting.” On April 3, his company decided to reschedule the program.

Touchette and his associates scrambled to find a Caribbean destination to substitute for Asia. “The challenge was to come up with something that would be exotic, easier to get to than Asia, and maybe not as long a flight,” Touchette says. “We did consider Hawaii but heard some concerns that Hawaii is a stopover for people going to Asia, so we were hesitant to put people on a plane to there as well.” Instead, the group will spend five days at the Four Seasons Nevis.

John Hancock's losses for canceling the Asia incentive were less painful than they could have been, Touchette says. He was able to cancel the hotel contract just days before harsher penalties would have kicked in, and he had not yet signed a contract with the destination management company. Because of the uncertainty just before the war, very few airline tickets had been purchased as well.

Despite this glitch, Touchette says the company's commitment to rewarding top performers with international incentive trips remains steady. He's already signed contracts for next year in Vienna and Athens.