Like many insurance and financial services companies, Nationwide Insurance canceled its two major incentive programs in 2010. For 2011, the two were combined, following a two-year qualification period. This meant that two levels of incentive attendees, one group that was used to locations like Paris and another group that was used to family fun in the sun, would somehow have to share an experience—a truly rewarding, different experience.

With that as his goal, Eldon Gale, director, meeting & event management, booked a resort and began to create a great program. But four weeks before the conference was to be announced, he got a call. Did the program have enough sizzle? Maybe a Caribbean cruise was in order!

After he recovered from the shock, Gale called Shari Wallack of Buy the Sea. “I said, ‘I need a quick response,’” he recalls. “The best thing Shari does is to understand what you are trying to accomplish. Cruise brokers have tremendous value because they understand the differences between cruise lines.”

Says Wallack, “There is a cruise product for everyone. Give us your budget and what you’ve done before and we’ll find your ship.” She gave Gale three ideas. "I picked one that was just coming onto the market, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas,” he says, then took a two-night cruise to get a feel for the experience his people would have. “The Oasis blew me away. It felt like a grand hotel in Vegas.”

READ MORE: What’s the difference between a luxury ship and a mass-market ship?

But Gale had two concerns about the ship’s astonishing size: With a capacity of 5,400 passengers and 2,165 crew, would it feel crowded? And would his group, at less than one-quarter of the total, even see each other? Would Nationwide lose the cohesive “conference” feeling?

The first concern was quickly erased during Gale’s planning visit a year later. “There are 6,000 people on board but you can go to areas of the ship and not see a lot of people. It is is so cleverly laid out, in seven ‘neighborhoods,’ and there is so much to do,” he says. "There's something for everyone and it really helps to control the masses."

The Branding Challenge
Resolving the other concern took some imagination. On their planning cruise, the meeting team noticed members of a family reunion wearing matching T-shirts. That got them thinking: How about a whole kit of branded, wearable items? And to really stand out, all the items would be “obnoxious orange.” First was the lanyard for each passenger's “sea pass,” which serves as both room key and shipboard credit card. The ID kit also contained bracelets, hats, watches (note: no clocks on ships!), and silk scarves that could be worn or tied onto a bag. “It turned out to be a huge success. Everywhere we went someone had a little bit of orange,” Gale says. Royal Caribbean offered branding ideas, too, such as customized menus, but Gale pushed to go beyond what had been done before. For his welcome reception, the ship hung huge Nationwide banners between lampposts. They were up only a short time, but to dramatic effect.

While large group private dinners were not possible, Nationwide did get its own floor in the dining room, and waiters wore custom Nationwide ties and lapel pins. But Nationwide didn’t stop there. A popular shipboard shop is the Cupcake Cupboard—and cupcakes are not part of the all-inclusive price. (In fact, they’re $2.50 a pop.) “We wanted our people to experience them, but we also wanted it to be clear that the purchase came from Nationwide,” he says. So they created individually numbered vouchers, each good for one cupcake. The meeting staff handed out vouchers to qualifiers, and the cupcakes were served with custom-branded cupcake “picks” on a Nationwide napkin.

Conference Unity…
In addition to the branding, Gale says, “our goal was to touch attendees once a day, then they could go disappear if they wanted to.” Day one was the registration reception, and during mornings at sea, they used the ship’s theater for general sessions, primarily for recognition.

At a private-island stop, the company set up a beverage station where attendees could gather. And at two other ports of call they worked with destination management companies to make sightseeing simple for guests. In Jamaica, a shuttle was waiting to take attendees to the main shopping area. In Mexico, the DMC negotiated with the taxi union, pre-paying and vetting drivers, who drove Nationwide-branded cars.

…and Differentiation
Top producers had an exclusive event the evening before departure. On board, all attendees had magnetic plates on their doors indicating their qualification level, with the highest-level qualifiers in suites. The type and frequency of room gifts varied by level as well, and in Jamaica, one group attended an exclusive lunch at The Ritz-Carlton, Rose Hall.

But for all levels, the cruise achieved its goal of delivering real “sizzle” after two years without an incentive program. “This was our highest-rated conference ever,” Gale says. “It was a magical experience—a fantastic week.”