It's October 1996, and the senior vice president of marketing for The Co-operators insurance company chats with a qualifier as they walk through the lobby of the Rimrock Resort in Banff, Canada. The two are on their way to a Western theme party after an afternoon tour of picturesque Lake Louise. . . .

If this sounds to you like a scene from a typical insurance company incentive program, you're right--sort of. What is not typical is the qualifier. Rather than the usual assortment of hyper-achieving insurance agents, the attendees at this incentive meeting are the cream of the company's non-management crop--claims representatives, underwriters, administrative assistants, accounts payable workers, and other support people who have earned a place at the company's annual Service Excellence Conference, in this case a three-night trip to the Canadian Rockies.

While other companies hem and haw over nonsales incentive programs, bemoaning the difficulties of a nonquantifiable selection process, The Co-operators has been quietly motivating its support staff with travel rewards for more than a decade.

Ontario Inspiration The Co-operators is headquartered in Guelph (pronounced gwelf), Ontario, a city of about

100,000, an hour southwest of Toronto. Since the 1940s, the company has grown from a Saskatchewan wheat farmers' insurance cooperative into the country's largest, wholly Canadian-owned, multi-line insurance company, with 31 member cooperatives (credit unions and similar organizations). Besides its 600 exclusive sales agents, the company employs about 5,000 people spread across the country, from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Of those 5,000 staffers, all except supervisors and managers--about 3,500 total--are eligible for the Service Excellence Conference once they have been with the company for two years.

"We believe that service excellence is key to our success," says Janice Kochan, manager of service quality. "If we have satisfied, loyal employees, we'll have more satisfied and loyal internal and external customers, which leads to profit and growth."

So who gets to go? That, of course, is the hard part. The conference is small--just 26 qualifiers (spouses are not invited), plus the president and CEO, three senior vice presidents, Kochan and conference coordinator Debbie Bowie, and an in-house video pro. The program was created to recognize "those people who go beyond the expectations of their service agreement and who go the extra mile," says Kochan. The challenge is measuring that mile.

The Process The Co-operators uses a peer nomination process, which begins in January each year when posters announcing the destination are tacked up on company bulletin boards. Nomination forms and explanatory brochures are handed out to every employee and The Co-operator, the company newspaper, breaks the story. For the first time this year, supervisors showed their staff a promotional video that previewed the upcoming conference and showed highlights of the past one.

Every employee is entitled to make nominations, but the process requires a lot more effort than simply jotting down a name on a slip of paper. The person submitting the nomination form must write out concrete examples of the nominee's actions in five areas: * outstanding service to internal and external clients,

* superior commitment to the organization and core values,

* effective teamwork in the day-to-day work environment,

* treating others with respect and integrity,

* serving as a leader and a role model.

The nominee's supervisor receives the form, reviews it to ensure the criteria is met, forwards it to an area Selection Committee, and sends out surveys to up to five of the nominee's internal clients. The clients are asked ten questions designed to help the final decision-makers. These surveys are easier to fill out. Clients indicate their level of agreement (on a scale of one to ten) with a series of statements, for example, "Treats others with respect," "Encourages and promotes teamwork," "Re- turns phone calls the same day." Clients also have an opportunity to write in comments. "Internal clients are observers, participants, and recipients of the service process," says Kochan, "and therefore their comments are valuable in the decision-making process."

The Selection Committees (there is one for each of the regions and business units) meet throughout April to pore over the nomination forms and pare down their lists. It's not easy. In the Guelph headquarters alone, 70 of the 500 employees eligible for the award earned a nomination. And the committees can't simply pick 26 standouts in absolute terms. Winners must be distributed geographically (with at least two coming from each of the company's six regions) as well as by department, with attendees representing all the divisions (personal lines, the life company, corporate offices, and so on).

"If we receive one concern about the program, the selection process may be it," Kochan says. "It comes in the form of a question. People ask, 'Are we sure that we're selecting and rewarding the right people?' In my experience, we are. Great service providers really stand out, and I believe that the people responsible for selecting make good decisions. It boils down to a belief in the ability of our people to be excellent."

Brad Scott, media producer for the company's in-house video department, earned a spot at a Service Excellence Conference a few years ago and later served on a Selection Committee. He is emphatic when he talks about complexity of the process. "It's tough," he says. "You don't know [the nominees] half the time. You have to hope people are being honest. And it can get political." But Scott is bullish on the selection system, despite the challenges. "Having said all that, it's still worth it," he says. "I don't think there's any other better way to do it."

Scott can't be sure exactly what made the Selection Committee choose him in 1992, but he has an idea. "The way I look at it, it was recognition for the job I've done every day that I've been with the company, not something I did that year." A 12-year company veteran, Scott says that with service, attitude is everything. "If people ask you to do something, you do it. You deliver when you say you're going to, and you're honest."

"They're Flabbergasted" In May, the Selection Committees' choices are announced. Kochan encourages local supervisors to recognize each of their nominees, whether or not he or she gets to go on the trip. While there's no set policy, nominees might get a lunch out, a small memento like a pen or a plaque, or perhaps a cake in their honor at an afternoon coffee break.

For the 26 winners, however, the fun has just begun. Lydia Dixon, graphic designer in The Co-operators Marketing and Communications Department, was selected for the 1996 conference in Banff.

"The highlight for me was the wonderful way we were treated," she says. "They spoil you rotten. We had beautiful lunches and dinners. And you're with other people who have been nominated, so you know they work hard, too. It's a time to celebrate."

Scott's reward program was three nights at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, and he's also attended other Service Excellence conferences as the company videographer. "For the people who are selected, the conference is a huge reward," he says. "It's often people who can't believe they've been chosen. They're flabbergasted. At the conference I attended in Montreal, there was a woman there from Bathurst, New Brunswick who had never been out of Bathurst. It was an incredible trip for her.

"And then when nominees get to the conference," Scott continues, "they walk into a room, and there's the president with his hand out--and he wants to sit down and talk."

Indeed, travel is only part of the reward, says Kochan. There are also token gifts, but what many people remember is the recognition they get from spending three days with senior staff.

"The highlight of the trip," Scott says, "is to get together with other people across the country who have the same attitude about the company and their jobs. It's also a great opportunity to sit down with the senior executives. I've always thought that our company was different. The senior management is extremely approachable. And on this trip, they encourage open and honest communication. They appreciate people who aren't afraid to tell them what they think--positive and negative, no holds barred."

In fact, the conference used to be more business-oriented. At its outset in the mid-1980s, the event was in Montreal, and during the three-day trip, senior executives spent much of their time brainstorming with attendees, discussing ways to improve the company and provide better service.

Today that's still an important element of the conference experience, but the meeting has evolved into something more since Kochan joined the marketing department in 1991.

Feedback Loop "I conduct research around quality and service," says Kochan, "and what we needed to do was to make the meeting more of a reward." There is now more time for socializing and more free time built into the program, and the event travels around the country.

This September the group meets at the Prince George Hotel in Halifax and next fall it will convene at the Four Seasons in Vancouver. The program still includes workshops where attendees share their ideas with senior executives, and others in which they get a financial update on the company from the president and CEO, information on company strategies presented by the senior vice presidents, and service excellence insights from a motivational or educational speaker, but there are recreational treats in the agenda, too.

This year, for example, attendees arrive in Halifax on a Wednesday afternoon, checking into the Crown Floor at the Prince George. After a welcome dinner complete with Highland dancers and Celtic harpists on the first evening, the group settles in for a business day on Thursday. Workshops run for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, before breaking for a bit of free time in the late afternoon to explore the historic port city, followed by a "Shiver Me Timbers" tour and dinner.

That event is sure to get conversation rolling as a bagpiper leads the group around town for an evening that will include a traditional fish-and-chips dinner and some of Halifax's famously festive entertainment.

On Friday, workshops finish up in the morning and the rest of the day is devoted to a tour of the villages along Nova Scotia's bold coast, a whale-watching trip, and a lobster dinner at picturesque Peggy's Cove.

Saturday is a free day, and the conference closes that evening--like any good incentive program--with the final-night gala.

What Goes Around, Comes Around "What we hope to get out of the program is a more motivated, happier staff who provide a role model for others," says Kochan, and while admitting those are tough goals to measure, she's confident the program has an impact. Not only does the conference receive enthusiastic support from senior management, but if staffers like Dixon, who attended the Banff conference, are any indicator, the program is impressing the kind of people the company wants to keep on its team.

"Service is not about simply doing the bare minimum," Dixon says, "but anticipating what your clients need or giving them extra options. It might mean staying later; it probably means more work. But it comes back to you in the end. I do it for myself and for my department no matter where I work, but here they recognize it and reward it. That's the kind of environment we have here."