SEVENTY-FIVE CONSULTANTS from Creative Memories got to see life through the eyes of a child from La Cruz de Quelitan, Mexico, as part of their incentive program last year. Their lives will never be quite the same.
It all began when Lucy Eisele, manager of travel events and meetings for the St. Cloud, Minn. — based direct-selling company that offers scrapbooking supplies and photo accessories, was traveling outside Puerto Vallarta looking for a location for a community project during the company's upcoming incentive trip there.
“We were in Jeeps going over the mountains and stopped in a tiny village for a rest-room break. But the public rest room was not open, so we asked if we could use the school's,” she recalls. “We were watching the children play, and it struck us: ‘This is the place.’ It was so rundown. There were 33 children in one classroom. And the community kept losing its teachers. At recess, they were all playing soccer with one blue ball and no nets. I said, ‘This is it.’”
While they were watching the kids, the sheriff was on a hill watching the strangers. He came down to learn what they were doing there. Eisele'stold him what Creative Memories proposed to do and he lit up. The whole town eventually embraced the company's offer.
“It was a meant-to-be kind of thing,” Eisele says.
About midway through the incentive campaign that would culminate with the March 2003 trip, Cheryl Lightle, Creative Memories president, sent a letter to those expected to qualify for the incentive and said, “We will take a full day for this project.” The consultants not only liked the idea, but so many were turned on by the incentive that the company increased the number of participants from 50 to 75 (plus spouses).
“We went back a few times to make sure that everything was on track,” Eisele says. “It was a major undertaking getting everything up there. We painted the inside and outside of one schoolhouse. Another, the kindergarten, was so filthy that we worked on that, too. We hired a plumber to fix the bathrooms. We painted murals on the outside. We repainted the playground, re-netted everything, and even bought a TV/VCR and stocked it with educational videotapes. We landscaped everything. We did a lot of clearing out.”
The company provided each child with a disposable camera and a scrapbook, and a Creative Memories employee of Mexican descent set up tables and guided the students through their first scrapbooking experience.
It wasn't all work, of course; a mariachi band played as the consultants arrived, four to a Jeep. “We made it festive,” Eisele says. “It wasn't, ‘You won this trip, now go to work.’”
Studies have found that interest in environmental and social causes ebbs and flows with the economy. So it's no surprise that now that the economy is rebounding, companies are again expressing interest in programs such as the one done by Creative Memories.
The recent IMEX Show (the Worldwide Exhibition for Incentive Travel, Meetings, and Events), for example, sponsored a Corporate Responsibility Centre “to give a platform to companies that promote and help organize both socially responsible and environmentally responsible meetings and incentive travel programs,” says Carina Bloom, IMEX marketing and operations director. “It gave visitors and exhibitors a chance to meet with experts and gain ideas and tips in creating such programs.”
Consultants who offer socially responsible events are finding their services in much greater demand. Louise Hall Reider, president of Bellevue, Wash. — based Louise Hall Reider & Company, says that the “jaded approach” of incentives that stick to wining and dining amenities is being toppled by companies and employees “wanting to give something of a lasting nature to a new generation.”
There is a fine line, however, between pushing what Reider believes personally and what her clients want. “Sometimes it's hard, as a third party devoted to encouraging companies, because we want to go where that company is driving and make it appropriate,” she says. “Sometimes they're gung-ho; sometimes they can't be bothered.”
One of the easiest ways to give back can be by inviting local artists and craftsmen to exhibit and sell their work during a company's welcome reception/cocktail hour. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, Reider buys native dolls and uses them as event invitations or as room gifts after an event. She adds a card saying that the employee's company has helped the local arts. When Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited rewarded its general managers with a USVI trip, Reider hired a local artist to make custom menus and then announced a $1,000 donation to the Charlotte Amalie High School Hotel & Restaurant Scholarship Program in conjunction with the USVI Hotel & Tourism Association.
Building a Future
Meeting Strategies Worldwide in Portland, Ore., encourages all its clients to take on what it calls “a legacy project” when they visit a city. One supported a Habitat for Humanity home-building project. Another built a playhouse for a school. An upcoming group hopes to restore an old farm.
“It depends on the client, what their mission is, and if they already have a charity they can tie in,” says Amy Spatrisano, a principal with Meeting Strategies Worldwide. “We also encourage the hotels we use to do some kind of donation program for leftover food or other products. It's like that old camping adage. We were always taught that when you go into nature, you leave it better than when you got there.”
Sometimes, consultants need to do a great deal of advance prep work to make sure a company's community service day — or half day — gives the impression of greater strides.
“When they come in, you want them to feel they did most of the work,” says Judi Nagelberg, president of Island Meetings & Incentives in St. Thomas, USVI. “So some of the money goes to getting it ready.” Of course, a day of blood, sweat, and tears by itself is no fun, so Nagelberg encourages her clients to budget for musical entertainment to keep spirits up, and plenty of food and drink to keep energy high. It is, after all, an incentive experience.
“It's very rewarding work,” she says. “I wish more companies would do it.”
Another idea that is catching on is the use of community service projects to replace traditionalevents.
“Rather than a typical meeting, a company might have some specific objectives it wants to meet,” says Ira Almeas, president of Impact Incentives & Meetings Inc., East Hanover, N.J. “Besides content, there might be a need for better communications. So we might do an activity that gets people to work together as a team but also gives back.”
Almeas' company has an entire division, Impact4Good, that is devoted to socially responsible and environmentally friendly incentive meetings. As one example, meeting planners — as well as Marriott managers and executives — attending its annual Travel Partners Conference in 2003 in Hawaii spent a day improving a transitional housing facility in the town of Waianae on the Waianae coast of Oahu. Attendees still received first-class treatment as guests of the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa — but they also were given the opportunity to enrich the lives of the less fortunate.
“People could still play golf and do spa stuff, but as an event, it was community service,” Almeas says. “It went over well. What also happened in Hawaii, which we didn't ask participants to do, was that we collected money. They passed the hat and collected a few thousand dollars. It was contagious.”
Another project organized by Marriott involved nesting sea turtles on the shores of Marco Island, Fla.
“At 6 one morning, the whole group walked the beach looking for nests,” says Diane Kaufman, the Atlanta-based director of intermediary sales strategy for Marriott International. We found a fresh nest, and we saw the tracks. It wasn't hammering things, but it was still emotional. And we shared with them, ‘You, too, can do this at your meetings.’ The message was, ‘When you have your conference, do a similar event.’ When you're on the beach at 6 a.m. with one of your clients, looking for sea turtle nests, you have a chance to talk at a different level.”