The text message read, “Wow!”

But it could just as easily have read, “Whew!”

Having canceled the 500-person Penn Mutual Leaders' Conference, Leanne Acton was faced with finding a new site for the group — and fast. She'd jumped on a plane headed west from Philadelphia with Pat Beauchamp, vice president, corporate communications, and Kelly Whitney, their account executive from Maritz. But after seeing several properties that didn't work, Acton, CMM, assistant vice president, field recognition and event planning, returned home for a family obligation.

Meanwhile, Whitney took one last stab at finding a site. A brand-new property — Terranea — perched on a rocky peninsula just south of L.A. in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., was about to open. “We had brainstormed over dinner but really didn't come up with a strong plan,” Whitney recalls. “I didn't want my clients going home with nothing to show for the site visit. I e-mailed the Terranea Resort sales rep, Sue Winkelmann, very late that night and basically begged her to call me as soon as she woke up.”

Winkelmann made the call and soon was picking up Whitney and Beauchamp at Orange County International Airport to drive them to the resort, still weeks away from its grand opening. Beauchamp looked beyond the foggy coastline and the unfurnished rooms and saw that all the pieces fit. Hence her text message to Acton: “We found the WOW!”

First Hints of Trouble

In fact, Beauchamp and Acton were canceling two incentive programs, both scheduled for Cancun: the Penn Mutual Leaders' Conference and the 130-person National Sales Leadership Conference, whose attendees would have joined the larger conference at the close of their own event.

“We were really disappointed to have to cancel Cancun,” says Acton. “We thought we had a golden choice.” But that golden choice turned questionable for potential qualifiers when reports of violence related to the illegal drug trade surfaced early this year and then continued to increase.

Told that Penn Mutual was reconsidering its choice of Cancun, Whitney quickly got in touch with the national sales reps for the two resorts booked for the programs, the DMC, and the tourism boards. “We talked through all the security issues,” Whitney says, and even though there was no violence in Cancun, the hotels were willing to show what extra steps they would take to protect Penn Mutual's attendees. (Whitney was even able to do a little renegotiating on behalf of Penn Mutual.)

Beauchamp, meanwhile, had seen an advertorial in Best's Review — a magazine read by the field force — offering protection insurance in Cancun. Despite all the news, Acton recalls, “we thought, ‘Maybe we can educate people about where the violence is occurring. Maybe we can get through this.’”

At that point it was late April, and Acton and Beauchamp had just wrapped up the 2009 Penn Mutual Leaders' Conference. Then, as they prepared to head home, the swine flu outbreak hit.

The Family Factor

After the double whammy of negative news reports, they surveyed the field for their opinions about the programs, which were scheduled for March 2010. Some still wanted to go to Cancun while others said they would not go. Most compelling, however, was the significant number who said they would attend but would not bring their families. “Penn Mutual is all about work/life balance and a focus on family,” Acton says. “Our meetings are very family-oriented. So that was not OK.”

In fact, adds Beauchamp, “a large percentage of attendees have been coming for years — even decades. They've grown up with us. The family conference is a big thing. We're among the few companies that still feel it's important to thank spouses and families for supporting the producers. It's Penn Mutual's way of giving back.”

Beauchamp and Acton brought all the information they'd gathered to senior leadership. The decision was clear: The two Cancun programs would have to be relocated.

“I am so fortunate to work for Penn Mutual,” Acton says. “When this issue was discussed with management we of course talked budgets. There are fees associated with canceling a conference. However, I am pleased to say that management spent more time discussing the safety, comfort, and expectations of our qualifiers and their families than they did on the budget issue. Penn Mutual wanted to make the right decision — even if it impacted the bottom line.”

Making the Announcement

Acton and Beauchamp gave themselves a deadline of June 15 to have new sites in place for both meetings, because that was the date the company's three field advisory councils would hold their board meeting. “We did not want the destination to be a topic of discussion, we just wanted to announce a decision,” Acton explains. They took two members of the advisory council into their confidence to review the news before the board meeting. Then, armed with brochures, they explained the cancellation decisions and announced the new sites to the gathered council members.

Soon after, promotion packages were sent out to the field offices that included brochures, tent cards, a calendar, and e-postcards. There were also updates to the Penn Mutual Web site. “We had to pull together a complete promotion plan in less than a week,” Acton says. “The material is beautiful. Major kudos to our communications department for doing a fantastic job. The reactions [to Terranea] have been fabulous. ”

The resort's newness was a plus for the budget as well. Whitney was able to negotiate favorable rates at the untested property. Acton believes the risk of booking this brand-new resort is mitigated, however, by the fact that it is a member of Destination Hotels & Resorts, and will have experienced staff training and working alongside new staff. In addition, a program of similar size to Penn Mutual's is booked for September and should get some group-service kinks worked out before Penn Mutual's qualifiers arrive.

Meanwhile, the smaller meeting was relocated to the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, S.C. Because all field leaders attend, a less elaborate promotion program was necessary.

The Cost of Canceling

How big a bite the cancellation will take out of Penn Mutual's budget will not be clear until next year. Penn Mutual's contracts with the hotels included a standard Maritz clause, which states that no cancellation fees will be paid until after the meeting dates, in order that credit can be given for any rooms that are resold.

With occupancy so far down in Mexico, one of the resorts is even willing to give Penn Mutual credit if it can fill any distressed dates — not just the one-week buyout the company canceled. Considering the breadth of Maritz's client list, it's possible that the incentive company will find a fit.

Despite the site switch — and, in fact, a complete change in conference dates — qualification levels are on par with Penn Mutual's average. It appears that the quick action of the team saved the incentive contest. But Acton says credit for the success extends beyond the trio doing the negotiating and the site-search legwork: “There were a lot of people involved in the process.”

Adds Beauchamp, “It was the teamwork between Penn Mutual and Maritz as well as the teamwork of internal partners including our Web team, graphic design team, and communications people. It was not only finding the site, for which our partnership with Maritz was invaluable, it was also turning around the material and promotions and creating the excitement that motivates producers.”

In the end, Beauchamp adds, the decision to cancel was not difficult. “It was the right thing to do for our company and potential attendees, and we were able to build a strong case that made good business sense.”

Sidebar: Mexico: Getting Back to Great

Official warnings about travel to Mexico because of the H1N1 virus have been lifted. Cruise lines have returned to Mexican ports. And tourism officials are doing all they can to show meeting planners why Mexico belongs back on their short lists of meeting sites.

“We know that Mexico will come back as a premier destination,” says Leanne Acton, CMM, AVP, field recognition and event planning, who had to cancel two incentive programs headed for Cancun because of attendee uncertainty about the destination, even though the meetings weren't scheduled to take place until March 2010. “Our dilemma was that, to promote an incentive conference, we needed the ‘Wow’ factor to exist [a year prior to the meeting]. It is during the qualification period that we need to have people excited about the destination.”

“Mexico is going to have an uphill battle in gaining back attendees, but it's definitely one that it can win, and has been working hard to do so,” says Eli Gorin, CMP, president of boutique meeting management firm gMeetings Inc., in Aventura, Fla., who has long experience bringing groups to the country.

Mexican tourism officials have launched a Web site to keep planners and travelers updated. Visit www.mexico-update.com to get the very latest.