When Caryn Taylor-Lucia, CMP, and Shelly Tsipori, CMP, of SEI bought out The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation and transformed it into a summer camp for the SEI Select Advisors Council, one attendee confessed, “I gave up a trip to Hawaii to come to Georgia.” She was happy with her choice — even when the luxury resort intentionally short-sheeted her bed on the final night.
The Select Advisors Council is an elite group — the top 10 percent of SEI's 1,400 registered advisers — that regularly gets incentive trip invitations. “They are well educated, well paid, and well traveled,” says Taylor-Lucia, director, events team. “These advisers have high expectations.” SEI provides investment and wealth advisory services to independent investment advisers, helping them to manage and grow their businesses.
This year, Taylor-Lucia and Tsipori, senior meeting and event planner, met that challenge with their usual creativity and attention to service, and got a boost from a property that so perfectly fit their needs they did a three-night buyout.
“It gave an exclusive feel for the client,” says Tsipori, lead planner for the annual Select Advisors Council. “Everyone was working for our group.” Attendees were impressed that SEI had so much clout it could “take over” a Ritz-Carlton. What SEI had, in fact, was great site selection, great timing, great, and two planners well accustomed to making puzzle pieces fit.
“If it works, there's nothing better,” says Taylor-Lucia of buying out a resort. “You feel like you own the place. But you really have to be sure your room block matches.” There's noclause, so if attendance is off, you're stuck with all the rooms.
SEI, based in Oaks, Pa., has a relationship with Ritz-Carlton, and when the hotel company's national sales rep got the specs for the 2006 program, she suggested The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation, in Greensboro, Ga. The fact that the meeting would be held during the Lodge's shoulder season made the buyout a real possibility, and when Taylor-Lucia and Tsipori did an initial site inspection, everything came together.
Helping things along was the fact that Taylor-Lucia had had the summer camp theme in her back pocket for years, waiting for the right location. As she and Tsipori toured the lakeside luxury property, they could almost smell the s'mores.
The Annual Meeting of the Select Advisors Council celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2007. For SEI, the gathering is a yearly opportunity to tell top performers what's new at the company, to thank them for their work, and to continue to build relationships while helping them to build their businesses.
“That's the big picture,” says Taylor-Lucia, adding that SEI chooses not to package each meeting with a “cutesy” theme. That's great news for her and Tsipori because they have free rein to create a spectacular final-night event, with a theme that suits the location rather than a particular corporate message.
In fact, with executives of the business unit changing regularly (part of an overall philosophy of fluid leadership at SEI), the thread of continuity in the Select Advisors Council program rests with the events team. “At this point, our history speaks for itself,” Taylor-Lucia says. “The execs come to us for advice. They trust us. If there's something on the risky side, we'll run it by them. But they're attendees as well so we want them to have the element of surprise and to experience the event as the attendees do.”
The three-night meeting follows a basic outline: breakfast meetings and a morning general session for attendees and a separate breakfast and activities offered for spouses/guests, followed by afternoon recreation (including two days of golf). An opening reception and dinner is held the first night, a dinearound the second night, and a major themed reception and dinner including awards on the final night.
And that final night is the most inspiring part for Tsipori and Taylor-Lucia, who take their themes to the extreme. Consider “SEI Camp WoesBeGone.”
Attendees (OK, campers) were roused from their rooms for the 6 p.m. reception when the resort played reveille and Ritz-Carlton staffers walked the halls banging on each door. As attendees headed to the resort entrance, they passed camp “counselors” with whistles, megaphones, and clipboards urging them onto school buses flagged with Camp WoesBeGone banners. Actors playing parents of campers were on hand as well (some crying with worry, others absentmindedly leaving offspring behind). The buses took campers on a route that ultimately led to the woods in back of the resort, where they found the reception set up. Snacks included such fare as “ants on a log” (celery spread with peanut butter and sprinkled with raisins), “gorp” (a mixture of raisins, chocolate chips, nuts, and shredded coconut), deviled eggs, and “bug juice” (vodka and fruit drink) stored in Igloo coolers. Other drinks were stocked in canoes.
Having received colored bandannas, attendees split into teams for “color wars,” various games including one of the night's biggest hits: the mini-marshmallow gun.
Tsipori and Taylor-Lucia made a weather call and brought the dinner inside to the ballroom. The menu included hamburgers, hot dogs, make-your-own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, potato salad, and other picnic fare. An actor played the “nerdy lead counselor” and served as emcee for the night. Following dinner, he led the campers back outside to the campground where bales of hay were set up along the lakeshore, s'mores were handed out, and attendees wrapped themselves in blankets (which they had received as room gifts the night before) to watch a surprise fireworks display.
But the night wasn't over yet. Another teaser campers received was a note written in invisible ink — and a special flashlight for reading it. The note invited them to the “camp counselors' canteen” — a disco, set up in the Ritz-Carlton lobby. (There's another cool thing about buying out a resort.)
And to keep them talking even after they all turned in for the night, Tsipori and Taylor-Lucia had Ritz-Carlton staff short-sheet the beds in all the rooms. “We took this theme to the nth degree,” Tsipori laughs, demonstrating that it's not just creativity that counts at these programs, but a willingness to take some risks. “We do take our chances, but we know [the execs and attendees],” Taylor-Lucia says.
Adds Tsipori, “Every year they say, ‘You've raised the bar.’ So we can't keep doing the same thing better. We have to try different things.”
It must be working, as the cream of the crop shows up year after year. Says Taylor-Lucia: “We pride ourselves on the fact that this is the meeting they make time for.”