"People wanted warm and sunny," says Jana Stern, director, conventions and conference planning, at ReliaStar Life in Minneapolis. When they unfolded the kickoff poster (item 1) announcing the company's 1998 Top Ring contest, "warm and sunny" is just what they saw--an invitation to board the Radisson Diamond and cruise to tropical ports of call. A record number of qualifiers will be ReliaStar's shipmates (and not shark bait) when the cruise launches this month.

After the poster, qualifiers received a tube containing a historic-looking map and a compass (items 2 and 3). "We do at least one or two 3-D things," Stern says. "The only way I can tell if they like [the promotion] is when they call and ask for more. Everyone loved this one." Stern saves money with her promotions by choosing items that are easy to mail. The tube, for example, was a self-mailer. "We've been burned on shipping before. You might have a three-dollar item but by the time you create the box it costs ten dollars."

This year's trip is the first cruise ReliaStar has hosted since the 1970s, when the company took qualifiers on an Alaskan voyage. "This time we're promoting the ship and the upscale islands," Stern says. "I think promotion is very important. A lot of agents already know they're going to qualify. Promotions motivate those who wouldn't necessarily qualify. Our agents are all independent, and our trips are one way we distinguish ourselves."

The Program * Company: ReliaStar Life, Minneapolis, Minn.

* Event: 1999 Top Ring

* Sites: SCC Radisson Diamond (ports of call: Jost Van Dyke, St. Maarten, St. Barts)

* Dates: March 10 to 15, 1999

* Qualification Period: January 1, 1998, through December 31, 1998

* Qualifying Attendees: 87

* Total Attendees (including spouses and home office): 200

* Theme: Shark Bait or Shipmate?