When Ernie Tsouros, FLMI, CMP stood on the stage at the Budapest State Opera House last June, amid tables of Chubb Life agents and home office executives rising to their feet to cheer him, he got choked up. The evening was, he says simply, "the highlight of my career."

That's saying something. Tsouros, Chubb's vice president, corporate meetings and travel, has been involved with Chubb incentive meetings for 39 years. He's hit the romantic, cultural, and adventurous capitals of the world, and done it by land, air, and sea.

So why was this particular final-night banquet so moving? A combination of factors: First, the grandeur and uniqueness of the setting was a complete surprise to the qualifiers. Second, Hungary's remarkable recent history made it all the more incredible that this group of North Americans would be dining and dancing on a stage that for so long had stood before only the Communist elite. Third, it represented the culmination of a daring destination choice on the part of Chubb. Finally, Tsouros may have received the accolades of attendees with thoughts of his upcoming retirement (only partial, of course) from a job that has been gratifying and challenging him for almost four decades.

Here's the scene: Chubb's 150 attendees, dressed for cocktails, enjoy a reception in the grand foyer of the Budapest State Opera House. After half an hour, they are led inside to the ornate, gold and crimson hall. They take their seats, to be entertained by opera singers, a string quartet, and a children's ballet performance. Then a man appears on stage to announce that dinner is served.

There is a murmur among the assembled guests. Dinner? Where? They haven't been told. As they rise, presuming they are to board coaches to another venue, a curtain opens on stage. There, rounds of eight are elegantly set, candelabra blazing.

Make it Different This is the kind of experience The Summit Club attendees have come to expect from Chubb's programs. So how does Tsouros outdo himself every year? First of all, he doesn't think of it that way. "It's a mistake to think, 'How do I top the previous program?'" he says. "Rather, you should make the next program so different that you can't compare the two."

So let's consider this nine-day Montreux/Orient Express/Budapest itinerary, pulled off last June with special touches to satisfy the most well-traveled qualifier. Most of the guests arrived at the airport in Geneva on a Tuesday morning. They were transported to the Montreux Palace Hotel, where they could count on their lakeview rooms being ready immediately. That's because Tsouros, who paid a premium to make sure each room faced Lake Geneva, also booked every room for the night before the guests' arrival.

"That's going the extra mile," he says. "It's the little things that make the difference between a great program and a regular program." More "little" things: When Chubb qualifiers get to their rooms, a Continental breakfast is waiting for them. And anyone who arrives a few days early for the program still gets airport transportation arranged and paid for by Chubb; likewise for anyone extending a trip by a few days.

After Wednesday's tour of the Swiss countryside, including lunch and wine-tasting at a vineyard, attendees were back at the hotel with enough time to freshen up for an evening dinner cruise on Lake Geneva. The entertainment was a New Orleans jazz band, the atmosphere was casual, and the weather cooperated.

The next day, attendee foursomes climbed into brand new Hyundai rental cars for a morning road rally. After stops at cheese factories and souvenir shops, the group met at a farm for a midday barbecue.

The second Swiss evening, a dine-around, again tactfully balanced attendees' own desires with Chubb's marketing goals. "We pre-selected seven or eight restaurants and permitted [attendees] to order off the menu. Then it was all billed to us. We had eight home-office staff and we put them with different qualifiers than they'd been with before," he says. "And there were a few couples who just wanted to be by themselves, and that's fine."

The next day attendees chose one of two tours or took the day at leisure. That night, a plated dinner in the 12th-century Castle of Oron finished up the Swiss portion of the trip.

Making History Chubb had chartered the entire Orient Express for the trip to Budapest. The overnight journey turned out to be even more special than they had planned. Apparently, the Orient Express hadn't been to Budapest for five years. "We turned out to be a media event," Tsouros says. "People came out and were taking pictures. When we arrived in Budapest, there was a huge crowd waiting for us, cheering. [The qualifiers] were blown away."

In Budapest, the group freshened up in their rooms at the five-star Kempinski Grand Hotel before choosing one of three afternoon tours. That evening, a welcome reception in the city's Museum of Fine Arts was followed by dinner in the world- famous Gundel's Restaurant.

The following day attendees got a tour of the city--and were quite a sight themselves, as it turned out. "Budapest is such a new destination for incentives that [tour-ism officials] actually had camera crews filming us. Now they're using [that foot-age] for promotions," Tsouros says. "Chubb was among the first U.S. insurance companies to do Budapest. For all of our qualifiers, this was a new experience. And that's getting harder and harder to do."

The final full day in Budapest was taken up with a Hungarian cowboy and horse show, followed by lunch with a Hungarian wedding theme and an afternoon set aside for shopping. The final night at the opera house served as the stunning finale to the nine-day program.

"The only way to justify these programs is that they help you win out there in the marketplace," Tsouros says. "We know for a fact that we have people qualifying who represent other companies. And it's not just because of the incentive trip, but that's part of the mix.

"If I get a person on one trip, I've got him."