When Wendy Butler, senior program manager, global meeting services, at M&I, Caledonia, Wisc., was searching for an international destination that would create buzz and excitement, Dubai rose to the top. Her client, a food company, was bringing together a group of 100 marketing directors from around the world and the focus of the February 2013 meeting was on emerging markets. “Where better to hold a meeting like that than in an emerging market?” she says.
As she worked with the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel and other suppliers, she found they were highly sophisticated in their understanding of the meetings market. “They know everything there is to know about how to work with groups and are very efficient. The hotel offered the same delegate package pricing options as you would find at European properties, and all I had to do was pick.” There were no issues with time or language differences. “It didn’t even feel like I was calling the Middle East, because I could get online early in the day and reach my vendors and everyone spoke perfect English, even in the restaurants.”
Dubai is located in the Middle East, but it is truly a global city. Airlift was fairly straightforward, with attendees making a single connection. She was sold.
Basque Region: Ready for Incentives
The term “emerging” implies that a destination might have had problems in the past—like an insufficient infrastructure, or destination management companies that were not quite up to speed—but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it just hasn’t made it onto the radar yet for U.S. groups. Other times, it might have undergone a period of financial or political instability and then reached a point at which these things were no longer issues.
Take the Basque region of Spain, which is seeing increased interest from clients, according to Jim Schultenover, president of Krisam Group, Washington, D.C., a global hotel rep firm. His company (which is a sister company to giant Global Events Partners) is in the planning stages of a 2014 distributor incentive trip to the Basque region that will include the three distinctly different destinations of historical San Sebastian, industrial Bilbao, and the Basque countryside, all a short distance apart. Highlights will include catamaran rides and gastronomical adventures in San Sebastian, a visit to the famous Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and a day where winners will have their own car and driver to explore the countryside. The base will be the Maria Cristina, an incentive-quality property that’s part of Starwood Hotels’ Luxury Collection.
Schultenover finds this region “particularly interesting because it isn’t your ‘typical’ Spanish destination,” he says. “For while, it was not favored by the U.S. customer due to political reasons, but we believe it has opened up.”
Prague has had many of the same challenges, often being overlooked for the higher-profile Vienna just as San Sebastian is overlooked for Madrid or Barcelona. Not any more, says Jim Adams, president of Performance Strategies, Indianapolis, Ind.
An industry veteran with 21 years under his belt, Adams describes it this way: “In this industry, some things are around forever and the temperature never changes. But it is changing for Prague,” which he now considers to have DMCs that are “in the same league” as Vienna. “I feel very confident they also are coming in with the right venues and majestic off-site options that I haven’t heard of in all my years in the business.”
Prague is known for its rich culture and stunning Art Nouveau architecture, and DMCs play off of that with activities such as creating a piece of Bohemian crystal under the supervision of a famous Prague artist or tasting local wines at a beautiful chateau. The city is limited only by the small size of its five-star hotels, such as the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental; for large groups, the choice is the less luxurious InterContinental.
Opening up on the other side of the world is Panama, according to Jean Johnson, CMP, president and CEO of M&I in Caledonia, Wisc. A combination of new incentive-caliber properties (flags include Westin, Waldorf Astoria, JW Marriott, and Trump), a variety of off-property venues and activities, a strong infrastructure, and a downtown that is “oozing with history, great shopping, dining, and night life” have put it on the incentive map for Johnson, who has brought four meetings there in the past year, two of which were incentive meetings.
Panama is also an easy transition for U.S. groups, she says, because the currency is equivalent to the U.S. dollar and English is the widely used second language. It also offers all visitors free medical insurance in the case of an emergency during the first 30 days of their stay—an uncommon initiative created to encourage tourism.
An interesting fact and popular activity, according to Johnson, is that visitors can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic at the same time. “It’s the only place in the world where this is possible, and only at the ‘S’ curve in the country where the Atlantic Coast is actually west of the Pacific Coast.”
Sicily came into the incentive spotlight when the 2011 Crystal Award for exceptional Motivational Travel program went to Philips Lighting for an employee incentive program it held as part of its global quality improvement competition. Four hundred qualifiers visited the island off the southern coast of Italy in five waves. Highlights included a gala dinner in a 200-year-old Sicilian villa that was transformed into Don Corleone’s mansion, but the trip also introduced a more contemporary Sicily, with the final night’s dinner at a modern disco-restaurant.
According to Kevin Devanney, president ofIncentive Travel Solutions, Charlotte, N.C., Sicily is now ready for incentives. “The main infrastructure components are there. The Hotel Verdura (Rocco Forte Hotels) in Sciacca is fantastic. A visit to the Selinunte archeological site combined with lunch at Baglio San Vincenzo wine estate makes for a great day. Also, using The Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina offers our clients a wonderful dual destination.”
Brennan says his clients “continue to look to us to raise the bar for unique destinations, resorts, and hotels. Sicily meets that expectation, even for people who have traveled to Italy before, because it is off the beaten path and not a ‘traditional’ incentive destination.”
Also, What’s Old is New Again
When we asked incentive houses, meeting managers, and incentive industry leaders which destinations they considered to be “emerging,” many of the ones they chose were popular years ago and are now coming back into vogue. Among them:
Aruba—This island in the lesser Antilles is back on the map, due in large part to the much-anticipated opening of The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba, next year.
Beijing/Shanghai—These cities, which are often combined for incentive groups, are back on radar after being off for 10 years, says Jim Adams, president, Performance Strategies, Indianapolis, Ind. “They rule the entire Asian experience right now.”
Mexico—The focus is primarily on the Riviera Maya/Playa del Carmen, but also Cancun, where the Incentive Research Foundation is holding its Annual Incentive Invitational May 7 to 11. “We’ve chosen the motto ‘Your first and best opportunity to see the new Cancun,’” says IRF President Melissa Van Dyke, “because of the focus by the Mexican government on investing in this area. There are a number of new and renovated properties that most planners have probably not experienced, such as the Hard Rock Hotel [headquarters hotel for the event] and Secrets the Vine.”
The lesser-traveled Caribbean—Here, the resort itself is the destination. Among those mentioned: Jumby Bay Resort off the coast of Antigua, Sandy Lane Resort on Barbados, and the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, which reopened at the end of 2010 after it was devastated by Hurricane Omar in 2008 (creating a national emergency for the island since the resort was the island's largest employer).