THE YEAR WAS 1974, and Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder topped the music charts. Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign. Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. And “Ten-Cent Beer Night” in Cleveland was such a big hit with baseball fans that the Indians were forced to forfeit their game with the Texas Rangers.

It was also the start of a 30-year relationship between General Motors and the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., which began when first-year, part-time meeting planner Bob Dooley approached brand-new resort sales and marketing director Pat Wagner about holding a dealers' incentive there. Dooley's full-time job was as sales promotions manager for the New Orleans-based Chevrolet division of GM; he planned meetings as an extra responsibility.

At the time, the 144-dealer division held its incentive program on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Miss. Then, one of the division's largest dealers began playing golf at Sandestin; he was considering buying a condominium there. “You should take a look,” the dealer told Dooley.

Little did Dooley imagine that he would end up holding an annual incentive program there for the next 26 years, until he retired from the company, and then again when GM hired him back to continue organizing the event.

Why Sandestin?

Which all raises the question: Why? There are hundreds of resorts in Florida, and dozens of sun-and-fun destinations throughout the South. Why this one — over and over and over again?

The most important reason was really quite simple: the staff.

“They're all well-trained, all positive, very, very professional,” Dooley says. “Any time you walk in that place, it's unbelievable. You feel that you're the most important person in the world when you do business with them.”

Another reason he kept coming back was the way management empowers the staff to solve problems.

“If you've ever had a problem at an event and went looking for the suddenly invisible catering manager — that never happens at Sandestin. They have someone at every activity with the authority to do what you need done. All you have to do is turn around, and they're there.”

Also, the resort itself met the group's needs in many ways. “When you take 300 people anywhere, you've got a lot of people who have to be occupied,” Dooley says. “If they're not, then they want to know, ‘What are we going to do next?’ This resort is pretty well self-contained. If we're between activities, our people can always find something to do.”

VIP Treatment

On his most recent visit, Dooley was in the lobby, alone, unannounced, when a young woman he didn't recognize called out his name and came running over.

“Mr. Dooley!” she said with glee, giving the startled man a hug. “I'm so glad you're back!”

“Everybody on the property appreciates it when Bob comes,” says Wagner, now the national sales manager for Sandestin. “They've seen him for so many years.”

In 2000, the year after Dooley retired from GM as Southeast regional sales manager for trucks after 36 years with the company, his successor decided that 25 years at the same place was enough; it was time to take the group somewhere else. Let's start a new tradition, he said.

Bad idea.

“I'll tell you how much people like to go to Sandestin,” Dooley says, proceeding to tell the story of how the guy who succeeded him called out of the blue one day. “He said, ‘Will you come back and plan that Sandestin trip? Everywhere I go people don't want to talk about business, they want to talk about Sandestin!’”

Since then, GM has rehired Dooley as a consulting meeting planner whose sole responsibility is the Sandestin event.

Last fall, Sandestin recognized Wagner for her 30 years of service, Dooley for his 30-year relationship with the resort as a client (receiving a “Most Loyal Group” award), and George Kleinpeter, the resort's director of golf and grounds maintenance, who was also celebrating his 30th year on the property.

“When Bob started coming here, George was 20 years old and riding a lawn mower,” Wagner jokes.

How deep does this relationship really go?

“We've become friends — it's not just a client relationship,” Wagner says. “Bob is on my e-mail joke list. His wife, Sally, is a friend. She's brought her ladies in the neighborhood group here as a result. Their clients call me during the year for individual reservations to bring their families down.”

And Sandestin isn't the only half of the partnership that benefits financially from the longstanding association. A few years ago, Wagner told newly arrived Sandestin General Manager Mike Stange that GM's loyalty to the resort should be recognized in a new and different way.

“GM is a wonderful client of ours. I told him we should purchase all General Motors products because the company was so faithful to us through the years — and that's what he did,” she says. “We now have about 200 GM vehicles on property. The resort is 2,400 acres. We have trams to take people from one end to the other. Mike is making sure that even those are GM.”

It was advice she decided to follow with her personal transportation budget as well.

“For eight years I drove a BMW,” Wagner explains. “That didn't go over well with the GM brass. They teased me unmercifully when I was driving a foreign car. Now I drive a Chevy Trailblazer.”

GM's Incentive: Then and Now

Little has remained status quo since the beginning of GM's Southeast Commercial/Fleet division's sales incentive:

  • NO MORE MEN'S CLUB — The first incentives, in the mid-1970s, were all-boys affairs — and all white. (Of 144 dealers, 144 were white males.) The men could bring their wives, but most preferred to attend stag. Today, men and women of all races are represented in everything the auto maker does — and more bring significant others than not.

  • BUSINESS FIRST — In 1974, the event that Sales Promotion Manager Bob Dooley brought to Sandestin was almost entirely a reward. The closest it came to a business meeting would be the nightly group dinners. Today, it's as much about business as pleasure.

    “Now, our trips are more meeting-oriented. We have a big truck show every year, where suppliers come in and display trucks, and it gives attendees a chance to see a lot of product they wouldn't see unless they went to three or four places. Then we have a meeting the next day where all the brand people get their latest message across, and the fleet and commercial people tell the managers about their new programs.”

  • RESORT CASUAL IS PREFERRED — “A lot of the women used to bring new duds to show off at the dinner on the first night,” Dooley recalls. “We used to ask the men to wear a jacket, but that's long since gone by the wayside. You may have a person come in a jacket once, but they don't do it the next year.”

  • A DIFFERENT PROPERTY — As for the resort, it, too, has changed with the times. “There was only one golf course when I first went there. Now they have four on the property. They've made the capital investment that makes it a place people want to come to. It's well-planned, well laid out. You can get anything you want without ever leaving the gates,” Dooley says.

  • TRIPLE THE SIZE, BUT NOT THE PRICE — The meeting has roughly tripled, from 100 participants (including spouses) to 300. On the GM side, most of that growth can be explained by corporate consolidation as the car maker reorganized from 13 regions to five. Obviously, the cost of the meeting grew over the years, but not in a prohibitive way, according to Dooley. “We spend a lot more money now than when we were taking 100 people. But if you take out inflation, I don't think it has increased much. I think you get as much for your money now as you did then because there are a lot more things to do when you're there.”

  • TECH REVOLUTION — Filmstrips and overhead projectors were about as sophisticated as the technology got at Sandestin in 1974. Today, the resort offers a complete AV department with all the modern computer-driven bells and whistles. “Where we used to get the little screen we brought out of a station wagon, today they have a screen as big as a wall that hangs from the ceiling.”

  • NO NEED FOR ROOM GIFTS — In the early days, Dooley provided T-shirts as souvenirs; one year, when they did a cowboy theme, attendees received a glass cowboy boot with the resort's name and date on it. Now, so many suppliers give away tchotchkes at their trade show booths that Dooley doesn't bother. “By the time people get through the displays, they're junked up,” he says.