GE Financial Assurance A Fairy Tale in Prague Imagine bringing your top performers to one of the most beautiful symphony halls in Europe, where they're treated to a private concert by a world-class orchestra. People were so moved, "they were in tears afterward," says Barry Wolpa, vice president, field promotions and communications, GE Financial Assurance in San Rafael, Calif. He describes Prague, the site of his company's Leading Producers Conference in April 2000, as a magical city full of spires and towers. With the help of destination management company AIMS International, Wolpa took over two of the city's most spectacular historic venues for his group: the art nouveau Municipal House concert hall and 16th-century Prague Castle.
Qualification Period: One year
Challenges: Wolpa canceled his original plan to hold this conference in Vienna due to political unrest--that left him less than three months to come up with a new itinerary. He worked with his Vienna, AIMS International, to find another location and also with his Vienna hotel, The InterContinental, to find rooms in another city. It all came together in Prague. The group size--260 qualifiers and home office staff, plus guests, for a total of 520 people--presented challenges. "With a group that big, you can create grandeur," he says, "but it's harder to create intimacy."
Results: Wolpa is expecting at least 50 more qualifiers for next year's Leading Producers Conference. "The fact that numbers are up is a direct result of our Prague trip," he says.
Itinerary Friday, April 14, 2000 * Check-in at the Hotel InterContinental
* Welcome reception in the ballroom, transformed with murals and stage sets into a Czechoslovakian village, with entertainment by a teen singing group in local costumes
Saturday, April 15 * Business meetings until noon
* Afternoon on own, with optional tours
* The President's Gala dinner, awards presentation, and dance party at 16th-century Prague Castle. Attendees are transported by limousines and classic cars to the black-tie event. Dinner is reminiscent of Cinderella's ball, in a fairy-tale room lit with about 50,000 electric candles on carved gilt chandeliers. "People felt like royalty," says Wolpa. "They came up and said, 'We're so glad we chose this career. We're so glad to work for this company.' "
Sunday, April 16 * Morning Prague City tour
* Lunch at U Fleku, one of Prague's oldest breweries
* Theme evening at a venue outside the city set up like a medieval village, complete with fire-eaters and other performers. Attendees don tunics and hats; platters of food are served family-style. There is an elaborate fireworks display after dinner.
Monday, April 17 * Morning business meetings
* Afternoon on own; optional tours
* Evening dine-around; small groups sample typical Czech food ("better than anyone expected," says Wolpa), in restaurants throughout the city.
Tuesday, April 18 * Day on own; optional tours
* An exclusive musical evening and farewell dinner at Prague Municipal House, a turn-of-the-century hall that houses one of the finest organs in Europe. As the group enters, an organist plays Bach. The 70-piece Prague Symphonic Orchestra, accompanied by a soprano, performs the work of Czech composers Dvorak and Smetana. Dinner and jazz follow in the building's art-nouveau reception rooms.
Wednesday, April 19 * Breakfast and checkout. At breakfast, each attendee is given an envelope of photos taken during the trip.
Manulife Financial Northern California Retreat "We didn't know California could be like this," was a popular refrain from qualifiers during Manulife Financial's Pinnacle Program, held in June in Carmel Valley. The 30 top producers for the Waterloo, Ontario-based company and their guests from across Canada took over a luxe retreat called Bernardus Lodge, where they were pampered like crazy. Each guest room, for example, had French doors that led to a verandah with scenic views, a fireplace, huge tubs and showers, and Fretta linens. "The lodge has a European, old-world feel," says Patricia Kerr, CMP, senior conference consultant, "and is known for its food,wine, and spa. It's surrounded by mountains and lush greenery but is 10 minutes from the sea." The program included a variety of organized tours and leisure activities such as shopping and spa treatments. The standout event: a gala evening at The Beach and Tennis Club at Pebble Beach--the weekend before the U.S. Open.
Qualification Period: Two years
Challenges: Due to a site cancellation, Kerr had only three months to plan this program. She was told about Bernardus Lodge--just opened in August 1999--during a phone call with San Francisco-based DMC Pacific Agenda, a supplier she had used in the past. One of her challenges was communicating new information to attendees in a very short time frame, and convincing them that this was going to be a special itinerary. She sent the first announcements via e-mail to get the word out as soon as possible. This was followed up by personalized postcards and promotional packages, which were double wine boxes with a bottle of wine from Bernardus' winery on one side and destination information on the other.
Results: "The comments were really positive," says Kerr. "People told us that rarely, if ever, have they been entertained so lavishly and cordially." She notes that the level of exclusivity that was achieved in Carmel will be a goal for the next program in 2002.
Itinerary Tuesday, June 6, 2000 * Check-in at Bernardus Lodge
* Outdoor reception/dinner at Lodge
Wednesday, June 7 * Morning business session and lunch
* Choice of afternoon activities, including golf at Carmel Valley Ranch or Poppy Hills, a Monterey winery tour, spa treatments, and hiking at Point Lobos. "People raved about the hiking, and said the scenery was gorgeous," says Kerr.
* Western theme party and dinner at nearby Holman Ranch, built in 1928 as a gentleman's country retreat and converted to a guest ranch and hideaway for Hollywood celebrities in the 1940s. The group is welcomed by Sour Dough Slim playing the accordion, entertained by a guitarist during dinner, and coaxed into line-dancing by a country band.
Thursday, June 8 * A day of activities, including a tour of Hearst Castle, horseback riding, spa treatments, and golf at two renowned local courses: the Links At Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill Golf Course
* Guests enjoy a six-course wine-tasting dinner and recognition ceremony at Bernardus Lodge. "It blew people away with some of the best cuisine they'd ever experienced," says Kerr.
Friday, June 9 * Morning meetings and lunch
* Afternoon on own; a shuttle bus runs continuously between the Lodge and Carmel-by-the-Sea both today and Saturday.
* The highlight of the meeting is a black-tie dinner at the exclusive Beach and Tennis Club at Pebble Beach. Windows on three sides overlook the Pacific Ocean and the golf course's famous 17th hole.
Saturday, June 10 * Day on own
* A farewell reception is held at Casa-nova restaurant, and a dine-around follows at several local restaurants.
Sunday, June 11 * Checkout
London Pacific Life & Annuity Lights, Cameras, Action in Cannes What better way to experience the essence of Cannes than to make an award-winning movie? The film-festival buzz was on when 146 top-producing agents and financial planners traveled to this glamorous site on the French Riviera in April 1999 for London Pacific Life & Annuity's 10th Anniversary Incentive Program. They became part of the elite by creating videos that were subsequently shown and judged at a private film festival.
This was a pivotal program for Sacramento, Calif.-based London Pacific: Sales were in a two-year slump, and the company needed to inspire a turnaround. Charlotte Stott, senior vice president and national sales manager, turned to USMotivation, an Atlanta-based performance improvement company, to help design and implement the itinerary. "The film festival gave us the springboard," says Stott, "and all the other elements were in place, too: glamour, gambling, extraordinary food and wine, shopping, beaches, and beautiful scenery."
Qualification Period: 15 months
Challenges: "With almost 300 people, the group was twice the size we usually have with an itinerary of this type," says Michael Hadlow, president and CEO of USMotivation. "The challenge was to maintain intimacy and the ease of an incentive experience for attendees." The solution was to assign a local guide to small groups of qualifiers who stayed with them throughout the program.
Results: Cannes drew 33 percent more qualifiers than the previous year, including 60 first-timers. Insurance sales rose 23 percent during the qualifying period. And the program won a first-place Crystal Award from the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives.
Itinerary Monday, April 26, 1999 * Check-in at the Hotel Carlton
* Welcome reception at the hotel
Tuesday, April 27 * Morning business meeting
* Tours of Monaco and Eze. "People are still talking about Eze, a medieval village sitting up on a hill," says Stott.
* Farmhouse Evening at La Ferme St. Michel in Villefranche, where meats are roasted on spits, and singers, accordion players, and mimes entertain
Wednesday, April 28 * Day of filming. Before the trip, 10 teams of 30 people each have been assigned a classic film associated with France so they can rent the movie and get a feel for it. In Cannes, each team is given a video camera, a clacker, and clothing props. They go "on location" with a home-office guide and a local guide to the kind of place where the original movie was filmed. They write, develop, star in, and videotape their films. When they finish, the footage is edited by a team of professionals and submitted to the awards competition.
* Lunch and dinner on own, with cash allowances
Thursday, April 29 * Gala breakfast meeting and awards presentations
* Lunch and a tour of the medieval village of St. Paul de Vence
* Evening Village Festival at a medieval village called Mougins. "Fabulous," says Stott. "We had cocktails in the village square, with entertainment weaving through as the sun set over the distant ocean." Attendees split into three groups for dinner, each dining at one of the village's three restaurants.
Friday, April 30 * Day on own
* Evening extravaganza at the Palais des Festivale, and festival-themed dinner at the Hotel Carlton. It is so close to the real Cannes Film Festival that, in addition to fake paparazzi, a crowd of real fans gathers to see what all the excitement is about. A red carpet leads to the screening room, where winners are announced Oscar-style, with much fanfare. There's an orchestra, live entertainment, and a viewing of two more videos: a Cannes retrospective and a promo of the 2001 program in Bali, Indonesia. "Everyone felt like a movie star," says Stott.
Saturday, May 1 * Breakfast and checkout
Lutheran Brotherhood Alone in the Sistine Chapel Lutheran Brotherhood attendees said it was the trip of a lifetime. Some 600 of them traveled to Italy for the Minneapolis-based company's Top Club and President's Club Sales Conferences. The program began in Florence for Top Club qualifiers and guests, who joined President's Club qualifiers and guests in Rome later. Because this was a first-time visit to Italy for most, Tom Joyal, assistant vice president, meetings and events, shortened the business meetings and expanded the sightseeing. He credits destination management company ITC with making the itinerary possible.
Qualification Period: One year
Challenges: "When you're moving 600 people, it's not so easy to take an itinerary out of the box," Joyal says. In addition, he had booked Rome four years out, before the Pope made Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001 a holy jubilee. This attracted lots of extra traffic to the Papal city during an otherwise quiet time. Joyal relied on his DMC to keep the itinerary on track.
Results: Comments were so overwhelmingly positive that Joyal is looking at another European capital as an incentive destination sooner than he would have otherwise.
Itinerary Thursday, March 30, 2000 * Top Club qualifiers check in at the Grand and Excelsior hotels, Florence
* Welcome dinner at the Excelsior
Friday, March 31 * Morning city tour; lunch on own
* Optional afternoon visit to the Uffizi Gallery, with its renowned collection of Italian Renaissance art
* Reception and dinner at Castello Verrazzano, amid Tuscany's hills of vineyards and cypress trees
Saturday, April 1 * Sightseeing tour to the medieval renaissance town of San Gimignano and a tour of the cathedral in Siena
* Lunch at La Badia Monastery, Orvieto, known for its wine and olive oil
* Onward to the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome; welcome dinner with the President's Club qualifiers and guests
Sunday, April 2 * Ancient Rome tour, highlighted by a visit to the Forum; free afternoon
* Awards banquet, Cavalieri Hilton
Monday, April 3 * Free morning
* Private tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. Attendees have the chapel to themselves and their guides, who are allowed to provide commentary in the normally talk-free zone. "The feeling they got, knowing they were getting this exclusive experience, was amazing," says Joyal.
* Dine-around in Rome
Tuesday, April 4 * Tours of the Catacombs and St. Paul's Outside the Walls, one of Rome's four major basilicas
* Free afternoon
* Farewell banquet: Glories of Rome theme party at the hotel. Everyone dresses in togas, and the CEO and his wife sweep into the room on a horse-drawn chariot and sedan chair.
Wednesday, April 5 * Breakfast and checkout
CUNA Mutual Group Finding the Real New York New York was an unconventional destination for Madison, Wis.-based CUNA Mutual Group, which usually brings its top producers to resorts. "A lot of people weren't initially excited about this destination, but the program blew them away," says Stephen Clark, CMP, assistant vice president, conference and travel services.
Clark wanted the group to get a taste of the real New York, so instead of planning group tours for the 180 attendees, he worked with production company and DMC Empire Force Events to create unusual choices for activities--from a Harlem gospel service to cycling in Central Park.
Qualification Period: One year
Challenges: Food and beverage expenses were about 30 percent more than Clark expected, and the method of operating was very short-term. "Ninety percent of the details for this program are usually wrapped up four months out, but for New York I was dealing with final changes five days before the program. I learned that this is standard operating procedure for the DMC. They knew how to pull it off."
Results: "People came away with a much more positive image of New York," Clark says, "and felt we raised the bar from previous years." The feedback, he says, is building enthusiasm for next year's meeting.
Itinerary Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30, 2000 * Check-in at the Waldorf-Astoria
* Optional excursions: theater matinees, or a trip to Harlem, with a gospel service, and lunch at Sylvia's, famous for soul food and celebrity sightings
* Lavish millennium-themed extravaganza, produced by Empire Force Events, that counts down the music of the 20th century. "It was an incredible party," Clark says, "and got the meeting started on a high. It was much more effective than a quiet reception, and will change how I do my opening night event from this point forward."
Monday, May 1 * Opening business sessions
* Lunch at American Park at The Battery restaurant, looking out at the Statue of Liberty
* Dine-around at popular New York restaurants, including Remi, Campagna, and the Hudson River Club
Tuesday, May 2 * Morning business meetings
* Optional activities: Circle Line Ferry to Ellis Island; backstage at Radio City Music Hall and lunch at the Carnegie Deli; shopping in downtown's historic Orchard Street and lunch at Katz's Deli; walking tour of Wall Street and lunch at Delmonico's; or Central Park bicycle tour
* Buffet dinner at the hotel and an evening at the theater to see "Annie, Get Your Gun"
Wednesday, May 3 * Morning Awards programs
* Repeat of optional tours with lunch
* Black-tie dinner dance at the Waldorf's Starlight Roof. Tables are lit from below; white roses and gold accents complement the art-deco space.
Thursday, May 4 * Checkout and departures