It All Looked so simple. Incentive planner Rich Wise had already completed his pre-con at the Sofitel Buenos Aires and had just flown into the group's first Argentina destination, Mendoza, for his pre-con at the Park Hyatt Mendoza. He planned to do the pre-con, spend the night in Mendoza, and then fly back to Buenos Aires the next morning to meet the group of 45 incentive winners, guests, and staff at the international airport at 8:10 a.m. There was plenty of time in the schedule to greet the winners and transfer them from the international airport to the domestic airport so they could make their two-hour flight at 12:40 p.m. to Mendoza.
It would be a busy night and morning, but completely manageable for this seasoned incentive planner, who has 17 years in the business and owns the San Diego-based, full-service incentive company Wise Incentives. That is, until a rep from his Mendoza destination management company, Huentata Servicios Turisticos, met him at the airport to accompany him to the Park Hyatt.
“I arrived around 4 in the afternoon,” says Wise, “and he immediately told me that there were rumors that Aerolineas Argentina Airlines — the domestic airline we had tickets on to go from Buenos Aires to Mendoza — was going to go on strike at midnight.”
So much for an easy trip.
Wise flew into action. “When you have less than 24 hours, you have to make a plan and stick with it,” he says. “I couldn't panic. There was no time for that! I had to be focused, look at the different options, and put something together immediately that would have the least impact on the program.”
The Right Connections
While Wise was moving into high gear, his client had developed some concerns of her own.
Tina Rifkin, general sales manager of San Diego soft rock radio station KYXY-FM (part of Infinity Broadcasting, now CBS Radio Inc.), was on the outgoing flight accompanying her winners: advertising clients and their guests. Also along were three of her top salespeople and their guests and a representative from Wise Incentives. “Our flight was late leaving San Diego, and once we got to Dallas, where we were supposed to make the connection to Buenos Aires, we were delayed several more hours because of weather,” she says. “It looked like there was a good chance we were going to miss our connection from Buenos Aires to Mendoza.”
While Rifkin knew about the possibility of missing the connection, she wasn't all that worried. “We've worked with Rich before, and we knew he would figure it out. Of course, I didn't know about the issue with the domestic strike at that point — I might have been a little more worried if I'd known that part of it!”
Wise, of course, didn't have time to worry. The original plan was for the group to arrive in Buenos Aires on July 8, and then fly directly to Mendoza, in the wine region, for four days and nights. On July 12, they would fly back to Buenos Aires for another four days and nights before departing from the Buenos Aires airport to return to the U.S. on July 16. An obvious choice was to switch the program around, but he rejected that idea immediately. “All the venues and trips were already planned, so if we reversed the program entirely, we would have had to reschedule everything, rather than just make a few changes,” he says.
So he got into a cab and “just started making phone calls,” he says. First he called the Sofitel Buenos Aires, where the group was scheduled to stay from July 12 through July 15, and arranged to house the entire group the night of their arrival, July 8. “I knew we had to overnight in Buenos Aires,” he says. “Damage control was the name of the game here, so the first thing to do was make sure we had someplace to stay when they arrived.”
Because Wise had early knowledge of the strike — before it was even officially announced — and because he already had contacts at the Sofitel, he was able to slip the group in before anyone else could claim the rooms.
The second priority was to figure out how to get to Mendoza. “Our first choice was to fly the next day using the other domestic carrier, LAN Airlines, but within 15 minutes, we knew we weren't going to be able to get onto any of their flights.”
At that point, the Buenos Aires, Argentina Travel Partners, stepped in. The company “was able to get us the last luxury coach left in Buenos Aires so we could drive to Mendoza.” Wise admits the plan was not ideal. “A 13-hour bus transfer is not the way you want to start a trip, but it was literally the only way to get them there — so we made the best of it.”
The Adventure Begins
With plans completed in the cab on the way to the Park Hyatt Mendoza, Wise did a whirlwind pre-con there, informing the hotel of the changes in the plans, and then headed back to the airport. “The strike was supposed to start at midnight that night,” he says, “and I still had to get back to Buenos Aires to meet the group.” He arrived at the airport at 7 p.m. and was lucky to get onto a flight just before midnight — the last flight out before the strike.
The next morning, Wise was at the airport to meet the arriving group and to tell Rifkin about the change in plans. “He had already taken care of everything by then,” she says, “and I had complete confidence in him because I've worked with him before. If he had been someone new, it could have been really bad.”
Rifkin says that the first night buffet served at the Sofitel was fabulous, and Wise gives a lot of credit to the hotel. “I had told them we wanted casual regional foods and a duo for music, but I let them do all the details,” he says. “By the time I spoke with them, I knew it would be too late for them to order any foods, so I just asked them to work with what they had.”
In the morning, the group set off on the bus trip, which, as Rifkin says bluntly, “was a nightmare.” But, she quickly adds, “It was so bad that it immediately turned into an urban legend kind of thing. It became part of the adventure and part of the bonding experience, and we all spoke of it for the rest of the trip, but in a fun way.”
She has nothing but praise for all that Wise did to make the bus ride as palatable as possible. “He brought a wonderful guide on the bus with us, who people just fell in love with. He brought food and drinks, and just when we thought we would kill ourselves, he pulled out movies for us to watch. The timing was fabulous, and I was so impressed that he had thought of that ahead of time.” Frequent breaks to get out and stretch were also key.
She also gives kudos to the winners, who accepted the changes admirably. “What could you do?” she asks. “Anyone who has traveled knows that there are things you just can't control and that you have to deal with it. The bus ride became a bonding experience in itself, and after that, everything was a 10.”
When the group arrived in Mendoza, the Park Hyatt staff had glasses of Malbec, a local Argentinian wine, waiting and a private check-in before the winners regrouped for a late welcome “Taste of Argentina” dinner.
After that, it was smooth sailing, and the program was able to get back on track. “Once we got there, there was minimal interruption to the program,” says Wise. “Part of that first day was supposed to be free time, so we didn't miss anything there, and we were able to move a scheduled cooking class to the last day.” All the group missed, in the end, was a half-day tour of Mendoza.
Both Wise and Rifkin agree that the group gained more than it lost. “The beginning and end of a program are crucial,” says Wise, “while the middle doesn't matter quite as much. If you can wow them at the beginning and the end, that's where the memories are. In this case, the bus ride created a camaraderie that we couldn't have planned. The catchphrase the whole rest of the trip was ‘the adventure to Mendoza,’ and it actually brought everyone closer together.”
Despite the strike, both Wise and his client agree that the trip was a success, both in terms of its goals of raising revenue and in attendee satisfaction. So much so that the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives awarded Wise its 2006 Crystal Award for “Most Outstanding Award Program — Four or More Nights, Under 200 Participants.”
Some of the other elements that garnered praise during the program include trekking and horseback riding through the Andes; a buyout of the hottest restaurant in Mendoza, the 1884 Francis Mallmann Restaurant; and learning to tango after being entertained by professional tango dancers at the tango club Bar Sur in Buenos Aires. During the final night extravaganza, the group was entertained with a video of the whole trip — including the infamous bus trip.