As if coordinating an effective meeting or incentive weren't enough of a challenge, a war, a potential epidemic, terrorist alerts, and anti-American sentiment are now haunting the dreams of planners. The shock of September 11, 2001, already had many companies approaching overseas programs more conservatively. Anticipating potential problems has allowed many to continue with overseas programs despite a challenging global climate.
“Compared to the aftermath of 9/11, when … many businesses reacted by immediately canceling or indefinitely postponing meetings, events, and incentive travel programs, current world events are having a different effect,” Jeffery Reinberg, CEO and president of Maritz Travel Co., Fenton, Mo., told employees recently. Of 120 Maritz programs involving 30,000 participants in March, only four were canceled and four postponed. Similarly, only a few of USMotivation's clients postponed overseas programs or shifted them to domestic locations after the war started.
The relatively small number of events postponed or canceled in part reflects planners' predilection for “safer” destinations. “We've had a lot of Hawaii,” says a spokesperson for Atlanta-based USMotivation.
Those venturing outside the United States have various reasons for sticking to their plans. Milwaukee-based Fortis Health went forward with back-to-back European incentive trips — to Monaco and Switzerland — because senior management perceived them as safe destinations. Kay Kerlin, vice president of sales support, says safety was a major factor in the choices of these countries when the programs were designed two years ago, before September 11. Once war in Iraq started, Fortis executives sent a letter to participants in both programs explaining the decision and offering the option of not going. So far, only a handful has declined. Kerlin also asked the incentive houses arranging the trips to help with emergency travel arrangements in case it became necessary to get people home in a hurry.
At the Los Angeles — based Capital Group, an investment firm, the invasion of Iraq generated some talk about the wisdom of visiting London. “But no one has said they don't want to go,” says Audra T. Narikawa, meeting and event planner. And about a third of the 50 participants already live in the London area.
For some, SARS looms as a bigger threat. Boston-based John Hancock Financial Services had been planning to send 150 qualifiers to Beijing and Hong Kong in June, but when participants started canceling, “it didn't make sense anymore,” says John Touchette, general director of meeting management.The program was plugged into a Caribbean destination. Touchette was able to cancel the Asian hoteldays before harsher penalties would have kicked in, and he had not yet signed the destination management company contract.
Touchette isn't alone in waiting to sign. Many planners are reluctant to commit until the last possible minute. “People are still very interested and talking about travel,” says Becky Pierson, director of communications and marketing for Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing Group. “But if they have an opportunity to wait on a decision, they're taking advantage of that.”
Fear of commitment is one brewing trend; another is avoiding anything even remotely risky. Richard Kaback, vice president of travel services and incentives for Don Jagoda Associates, Melville, N.Y., says one client decided to forego a travel award program in favor of cash incentives, while another that normally takes groups to Europe and Africa opted for Hawaii this year.
“Clients are very much looking to us for guarantees of safety and nonvirulent conditions, and we can't possibly do that,” he says. “We have to remind them that safety is a concern domestically, as well as a global issue.”