When Aid Association for Lutherans announced its 2000 President's Cabinet in Costa Rica, the destination attracted 100 more qualifiers than usual, and a record 50 percent booked post-trip excursions in the area. When Delta Life & Annuity announced a fishing trip on the Green River in Utah as an incentive, one agent sold $1 million worth of policies in order to qualify himself and his two sons.

Adventure travel may not be in the mainstream of insurance incentives yet, but it's on the way. "Put your best producers in a deck chair and it will drive them crazy," claims Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society in Salida, Colo. "On the other hand, imagine the personal satisfaction of fighting a 90-pound king salmon off the coast of Alaska or kayaking the Grand Canyon. These are life-changing experiences." (He may not be exaggerating, even about the salmon: 40 percent of respondents to our last agent survey listed "deep-sea fishing" as one of their top-four incentive activities.)

The Big Picture According to the Travel Industry Association of America 1997 Adventure Travel Report, half of all U.S. adults (98 million people) took an adventure vacation trip between 1992 and 1997. Another 28 million said that they were likely to do so in the next five years.

Of course, adventure travel can mean many things. The Adventure Travel Society defines it as outdoor activities that are highly participatory in a natural setting. "This catch-all varies from picking apples to climbing Everest," says Mallett. The TIAA report distinguished soft adventure (camping, biking, easy hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, off-road wilderness touring, photo safaris, and the like), from hard adventure (such as white-water rafting or kayaking, hot-air ballooning, rock climbing, off-road biking, and sky diving). A third type could be considered "upscale" adventure travel--nomenclature that seems to fit the bill for insurance conferences that reward producers with out-of-the-ordinary destinations and active outdoor recreation yet still provide five-star pampering.

Organizing an adventure incentive trip has its challenges. One limiting factor is group size. Properties in less-traveled destinations are likely to have fewer guest rooms than those in more developed areas. And outdoor adventures centered around activities like fishing, rafting, or horseback riding are often regulated by federal agencies such as the National Park Service, National Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, which usually cap numbers at 30 people. "Outside of the U.S., it's more wide open, but most of the tour operators are not going to take groups of more than 25 to 30 anyway," says Mallett. (That's because outdoor adventure activities are often tied in to sustainable or ecotourism efforts that strive to protect the local environment and culture.) Solutions for planners include creating waves of back-to-back trips, or a first-qualify, first-served option to choose the adventure incentive or a more conventional trip.

For AAL's Sally Klapper-Randa, the challenges started when she fell in love with Costa Rica.

AAL: Out on a Limb in Central America As director of field recognition and corporate travel for AAL, based in Appleton, Wis., Sally Klapper-Randa started thinking about sites for her 2000 President's Cabinet back in 1997. She knew that the destination needed to be something different. "Our conferences have always been in nice places, but our long-term people were telling us that they were tired of doing the same things in the same destinations," she says.

Just about that time she was invited to participate in a site inspection in Costa Rica. "I went, fell in love with the country, and became convinced that the airlift and the infrastructure were in place to support our conference," she says.

Then she had to convince a skeptical upper management. A previous AAL trip to London during local bombings had spooked them about going out of the country. But Klapper-Randa did extensive research, gathered safety data, met with AAL's security consultant, and put together an informational package that included a write-up on the tours and activities she had experienced during the site inspection.

Ultimately, upper management not only accepted the destination, but made it part of the conference theme, "Partners in Professionalism." In his welcome message, General Agent and Director of Agencies James Krueger urged participants to "reflect on the Tico spirit as well as the AAL spirit and the power and potential of partnerships." (Costa Ricans refer to themselves as Ticos.)

AAL's district representatives responded so enthusiastically to Costa Rica that Klapper-Randa had to shave about 50 of the record-breaking 299 qualifiers from the conference, which she did by offering added perks to other, more family-oriented regional conferences. Even then, the numbers were so large that she designed the eight-day program for two waves. Group 1 stayed at Los Sue+/-os Marriott Beach & Golf Resort from March 2 to 5, then both groups spent the core meeting together at the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel in San Jose from March 5 to 9. The San Jose segment was the heart of the conference, dedicated to business sessions, recognition programs, and networking. Afterward, Group 2 checked in to Los Sue+/-os Marriott from March 9 to 12. Even with the split, the group was too large for the San Jose hotel; overflow accommodations were arranged at a neighboring property.

"When those numbers started coming in, I got pretty nervous," Klapper-Randa recalls. "I knew I had to be success- ful or upper management might never let us go out of the country again."

She's breathing easy now. "We could see how motivated and excited people were," she says. "We're just starting to get post-conference surveys back. They look very positive."

Planning Challenges "It's smart to plan for the worst when you go to an unusual international locale," Klapper-Randa advises. "We talked extensively with our risk management people, our security consultant, and our medical specialist, and did a lot more destination research than we usually do."

The destination also meant more work for Klapper-Randa's staff, particularly Field Conference Managers Kerri Degner and Lynn Schwandt. Shipping was a special challenge, with 260 boxes of materials and no overnight delivery service to rely on. Despite a test-run shipment that sailed through customs, all of the real meeting materials got stuck at the Costa Rica airport. Only after the intervention of the Marriott's convention services manager and payment of several thousand dollars (currently in dispute) did AAL get the boxes.

Then there was the language barrier. The planners relied on help from senior-level hotel staff and the destination management company (Swiss Travel) staff when they needed help communicating with non-English-speaking hotel employees. AAL's senior producer and director hired a translator to work with the Spanish-speaking audiovisual crew.

Klapper-Randa touts the extra help given by the hotels and the DMC as critical to making a destination like Costa Rica work. Swiss Travel kept a hospitality desk open throughout the conference and helped the planners do things that they ordinarily take care of on their own, like purchasing gifts from local artisans and hiring a local photographer.

To alleviate safety concerns, a doctor from AAL's home office medical staff traveled with the group. He obtained a letter enabling him to practice limited medicine in Costa Rica, made arrangements for emergency airlift if needed, and accompanied the attendees who went white- water rafting. "He had a lot of requests, but nothing related to the destination," says Klapper-Randa.

AAL doesn't usually offer recreational activities during the core conference (there are optional weekend tours that attendees pay for themselves), but the company wanted to give qualifiers a chance to experience the natural beauty of this unfamiliar country. So, a day of recreational programs in San Jose included, in addition to white-water rafting, sightseeing from an aerial tram over a rain forest and visits to Poas Volcano National Park and the artisan craft center of Sarchi.

Klapper-Randa believes that Costa Rica was the first of many adventure- oriented conferences for AAL. "We're looking at putting together a proposal for 2003 that splits a high-adventure destination with a more conventional site," she says. "I wouldn't have dreamed of proposing that if we hadn't gone to Costa Rica. Now it will be easy."

Delta Life: Go Fish "Our producers beg for our fishing trips. They're the first to fill up," says Paula Kelly, vice president, Delta Life & Annuity Co. So many qualifiers wanted to go on the Green River, Utah, incentive offered in July 1997, that Kelly expanded it to two back-to-back groups of 30 people each. Even so, five members of the company's board of directors got bumped off the trip because demand was so high.

Although Delta Life's CEO at that time was a Wall Street executive for whom fishing held little appeal, he gave Kelly a thumbs-up for the trip after she showed him the overwhelmingly positive feedback she'd received about earlier fishing excursions (the first was in 1991). "Our president recognized the value of the networking that goes on as younger and older producers sit around the campfire and talk," says Kelly, who is based in Memphis." They share a lot of ideas on this kind of a trip. You can't begin to get that level of bonding in a conventional program."

Eschewing the usual lap of luxury, participants--some experienced fishermen, some first-timers--spent two nights camping and two nights in a wilderness lodge, the Red Canyon Lodge in Utah's Flaming Gorge Recreation area. After some fly-fishing practice on the first day, they took off down the river.

Each boat carried two people plus a guide. A representative from Fishing International, the Santa Rosa, Calif., company that organized the trip, also traveled with the group. "Fishing International gave us incredible service," says Kelly. "They know the guides; they know the best places to fish. They arranged everything: meals, lodging, transportation, fishing licenses."

While participants floated down the river and fished for trout (which they released back into the river), guides set up the riverside camps--not the Ritz, but deluxe by camping standards. Each tent slept two, on air mattresses. Food and drink were ready when the qualifiers stepped out of their boats. Kelly says the participants got very attached to their guides as well as to each other. Three of them went back to the Green River on their own, doing the same trip with the same guides--this time with their fathers instead of their colleagues.

While Kelly says that agents call her all the time requesting more fishing trips, she can only afford to offer one every three or four years. "The small size really limits us," she says. "I'd like to do one every year, but unfortunately, you get a lot more bang for your buck with bigger groups."

Delta Life's next fishing incentive will be later in 2000 or early in 2001, most likely back on the Green River. "It's the most beautiful setting you can imagine," Kelly says. "Everyone loves it."

AAL Gives Back Many adventure travel destinations are either ecologically delicate or economically challenged. Responsible tourism can play a role in sustaining these destinations: Something as small as purchasing locally-made pillow gifts for a large meeting can give a boost to the local economy.

Or, like Aid Association for Lutherans, groups can give back in a big way. During its President's Cabinet conference in Costa Rica, AAL donated more than $40,000 and hundreds of toys to the Palliative Care Foundation, a local organization that helps terminally ill children. The meeting's host hotel, the Costa Rica Marriott, has long supported this charity as well (this year, every Marriott employee will donate one day's salary to the foundation).

This was the fourth time that fund-raising activities have been incorporated into the President's Cabinet, and it succeeded far beyond initial expectations. Field Conference Managers Kerri Degner and Lynn Schwandt organized raffles of locally made products, golf tournaments, and putting contests with the hopes of raising $5,000. They soon upped the goal to $10,000. By the end of the eight-day meeting, donations totaled more than $20,000, and were matched with fraternal funds from AAL. Attendees were equally generous when asked to donate toys for the children. "It took two truckloads to carry them all out," says Sally Klapper-Randa, AAL's director of field recognition and corporate travel.

Staying Safe Here are some safety and liability tips from Jonathan Spero, M.D., president of InHouse Physicians in Naperville, Ill., and ICP legal columnist Jed Mandel.

* Get Informed--Fully investigate the location, the tour operator and other suppliers, medical support, and security.

* Check Safety Records--Select tour operators with a proven track record of safety.

* Identify Responsibilities--Does the tour operator have trained emergency medical personnel who will be with your group? Does the vendor have insurance to cover medical care or a potential liability claim from a participant?

* Provide Emergency Transportation--Determine if the tour operator has med-flight insurance that can quickly transport an injured or ill person to immediate medical care. If the site is outside the U.S., arrange for med-flight insurance to pay for transportation back to the States.

* Inform Participants of Risks--List potential risks of adventure activities and have participants sign waivers.

* Inform Participants of Safe Practices--Give participants a list of the gear they will need. Remind them to bring and apply sunscreen and bug repellent if necessary. Ensure that they bring clothing appropriate for the activity.

* Medical Questionnaire--Require participants to complete a pre-conference medical questionnaire. The responses can also give insights into the types of activities appropriate for the group.

* Ensure Pre-Travel Medical Care--For international travel, determine what inoculations are required or recommended and inform the group. Require proof of inoculation where necessary.

* Check State Department Warnings--These cover the potential for political unrest in international destinations. Some parts of a country might be safe even if other areas are unsafe. Check a map.

* Determine First-Response Criteria--Who will respond to a medical emergency if you do not have your own doctor on the trip? Are they available 24/7? How are they contacted and what is their response time? Are they First Aid- and CPR-certified? What medical equipment do they carry with them?

* Mandate Safe Practices--Tell participants that they need to drink water frequently while out in the sun. Stop periodically to ensure that they are complying and see how everyone feels. Make sure people wear appropriate protective gear and that they understand how to use such equipment as inflatable vests.

* Discuss Emergency Procedures--Ensure that the group is briefed on all applicable safety procedures. What should they do if they encounter a grizzly bear while hiking in Alaska? How do they right an overturned kayak? How should they position themselves if they go overboard while white-water rafting?

* Control Alcohol Use--If you must provide alcohol, control the amount and availability. Save the alcoholic beverages for just before bedtime.

* Bring Prescription Medications--Remind participants to bring their own medications. Identify those who have extreme allergies, such as to insect stings, that could be life-threatening.

* Provide a Basic First Aid Kit--Depending on the activity, make sure there are enough first-aid kits included.

Roughing It, Incentive-Style A sampling of upscale adventure options:

* Plan an eco-retreat in a refurbished hunting lodge in Alaska's Kenai wilderness, operated by Alaska Wildland Adventures. African safari-style tents with wooden floors are connected by walkways that don't disturb the ground cover. Great fishing, spectacular scenery, grizzly bear and moose sightings. (800) 334-8730, www.alaskawildland.com

* Travel on the 15,000-square-foot King Pacific Lodge as it floats up the coastal rain forest of British Columbia on a giant barge originally built for the U.S. Navy. Participants luxuriate in 18 guest suites and enjoy gourmet meals while watching whales, sea lions, bears, wolves, eagles, and other wildlife. (604) 987-5452, www.kingpacificlodge.com

* One musical adventure itinerary includes stretching to the strings of four members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic before rafting down the Dolores River in Colorado, nestled between 1,000-foot-high red-wall cliffs. A gourmet alfresco dinner is followed by an outdoor concert. Dvorak Kayak and Rafting Expeditions, (800) 824-3795; www.dvorakexpeditions.com

* For advice on choosing reliable adventure travel companies, call the Adventure Travel Society at (719) 530-0171 or visit www.adventuretravel.com.