Sherrie Chelini's idea of a dream destination? Rio de Janeiro. “My heart jumps when I see it,” says the director of planning for Creative Travel Planners in Woodland Hills, Calif. “It's indescribable until you've been down there. And for all the places people take incentive trips to, Rio, hands-down, is a place most people haven't been to.” And that, she believes, is a crying shame.

After hearing Chelini and another big Brazil booster, Bobby Bulger, wax poetic about the sights, sounds, and tastes of the fabled South American locale, it's hard to imagine anyone not wanting to travel there. After all, it's got:

  • great food,
  • unmatched sights,
  • favorable exchange rates, and
  • eager-to-please hosts.

“Our dollar isn't worth anything in most places, unfortunately,” says Bulger, owner of Dallas-based Travel Concepts Inc. “But the dollar is extremely good in Brazil. Shopping is great; pricing is good. When people are looking at sending incentives and groups, looking at the bottom line, this is a good alternative.”

Last Minute No More

In 2004 and again in 2005, Chelini led incentive trips to Rio for top radio station sales reps from Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively. The radio stations use the trip as first-quarter incentive programs when ad buys are typically down. “We do these trips in the April/May/June cycle, which is a great time to go to many places around the world.”

Visas are now required for Americans going to Brazil, which is a post — September 11 development. The visa requirement makes adding or changing attendees at the last-minute more complicated for planners. Each person going to Brazil needs a visa and a passport. Chelini also advises getting a tourist visa rather than a business visa. And to be accepted, your passport must not expire for six months after the trip.

Drop-dead cut-off? If you want to pay a third-party service a lot of money to get a visa, five days before the trip is as close as it gets, Chelini says. “But even then, they can't guarantee it. Governments work at their own speed.” Smarter and safer means cutting off the process two weeks before leaving. “I always work on the side of safety,” Chelini says.

Paperwork in hand, expect that from wherever you depart in the continental United States, you will most likely be stopping in Miami before continuing on to Brazil. From the West Coast, a stop in Houston might also be expected.

“The flights aren't always easy getting to Rio, but it is so worth it,” Chelini says. “We leave on Saturday from San Francisco and arrive on Sunday.”

Day by Day

“There is a ‘hippie’ market on Sunday with leather goods, jewelry, knickknacks, and the works of local artists. If people are tired, it keeps them awake,” says Chelini. When we arrive, people either go to the market or to the beach.”

Chelini prefers the Caesar Park Ipanema as a basis of operations for her group's five nights in the country. On Sunday evening, she schedules a beach cruise with dinner on a tour boat.

“The next day we go to Corcovado Mountain, site of the Christ the Redeemer statue,” she says. “We arrange to have an airplane tow a welcome banner while we're at the base of the statue. The guide says, ‘Look to your right,’ and the plane flies right by, welcoming our clients by name to Rio. It's a great way to start out.”

Next up is a trip by Jeep convoy to the Parque Nacional da Tijuca. “It's a beautiful green forest,” according to Chelini. “You see a totally different side of Rio.”

That night, on returning to the hotel, Chelini takes her group to a dinner of traditional Brazilian barbecue.

Day three is at leisure because by then travelers are usually itching for the beach, shopping, or both.

“The next day we usually go to Sugar Loaf Mountain,” she continues. “It's a two-hump mountain. We go up there by cable car and, depending on budget, we do a champagne reception at the lower tier and then helicopter four people at a time to a restaurant at a private club. They swoop you off the mountain at twilight, whisking you by the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches in a three- or four-minute ride.” The helicopter ride is a complete surprise to the group. Those who are reluctant to board the helicopter have the option of a land transfer that takes about 45 minutes.

The penultimate day in Rio is devoted to a full-day excursion to a tropical island via a leisurely sail aboard a masted schooner. It's all about getting out of the city, lounging in hammocks, playing volleyball, and tanning at the beach. Dinner that night is back at the hotel.

Chelini has learned how to find exactly the right pillow gifts for her attendees in Rio. She gives them embroidered beach bags with towels and picture frames handmade by a local artist. “The last night, we take pictures of everyone and present them as gifts on the last day,” she says.

Day six, the group's last in Rio, is another one spent at leisure. It could mean a last-minute shopping spree, a beach day, or anything else. That evening is Chelini's grand finale, a gala carnivale with dancers and emcee at a spectacular house in the mountains. She also puts on a slide show of the photos she shoots during the trip. When the trip is over, she sends a copy of the photos to each attendee as a final keepsake.

“By then you really feel as if you've done and seen everything,” she says.

Get Outside the City

Bobby Bulger was the director of group and incentive travel for American Express for 29 years before putting out her shingle as a boutique meeting planner. Her consulting company primarily accepts repeat and referral clients only; she also does training for hotels and ground operators, including taking travel professionals on highly specialized familiarization tours to destinations such as Brazil, Croatia, and South Africa.

“The planners see it a little differently with me than they would on just an inspection trip,” says the veteran planner. “My groups get to see and do things the average person would never see and do. Maybe you go up the tram on Sugar Loaf, for example, and have cocktails or champagne at night.”

In April, Bulger took 14 planners on a one-week whirlwind tour of Brazil via Varig Airlines, starting in Salvador da Bahia, then on to Rio de Janeiro and Iguassu Falls. “It's one of the most outstanding falls in the world,” she says. “There's Victoria Falls, Niagara, and this one. Iguassu Falls is a spectacular side trip. You can take safari trips around the falls. Boats will take you right under the falls. They have built walks where you are almost standing out over the falls. And [from some vantage points] it's possible to see both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides.”

Here are some of Bulger's top tips for corporate meetings and incentives in Brazil:

Don't miss…

“Salvador da Bahia is a phenomenal resort area, like the Riviera of Brazil.

“Rio is a beautiful city with a lot of wonderful sites and side trips.”

Hire the right DMC

“If you get a good DMC, they will have the right buses, the right tour guides, and will know the right shortcuts.”

Try the local barbecue

“The barbecue is totally different than ours. It is meat being grilled on open fires. There are also incredible seafood restaurants along the waterfront.”

The show's the thing

“I'd guess the concept for Vegas shows started in Brazil with Carnivale: the beautiful costumes, the dancing, and gorgeous women.”

Make a side trip to…

“Petrópolis, the Imperial City (once the summer palace of Emperor Pedro II) and Teresópolis, on either side of the range in Serra dos Orgaos, a national park. You can make interesting stops en route and there is one outstanding restaurant that I take my people to. It's in an old colonial home, Manaca. Your group takes over the whole area, sitting outside for cocktails and appetizers, then goes inside for a home-cooked meal. Then, in Petrópolis itself, visit historical cathedral and imperial museum. We usually stop by the ceramic factory there, too.”

What to Know Before You Go

Some people who visit Rio on business or on vacation have been known to return with troubling stories about crime and gangs. But Chelini sees those experiences as the exceptions, not the norm.

“Rio gets a bad rap,” she says. “It has its crime, but I think that gets more attention [than is warranted]. It's all in being well-informed. The company that does our transfers makes it clear where to go, where not to go. They'll tell us not to venture beyond certain avenues, and to be informed about things around us. In other words, use the same caution you'd exercise in certain areas of New York, Chicago, Miami, or Los Angeles.

Portuguese is the language of Brazil, but finding English speakers is not difficult. “Even the vendors at the so-called hippie market in Rio speak English or will find someone who does,” Chelini says. “The people there are so nice. They appreciate the tourist industry because that's what makes the place tick.”

Rio Resources

BITO — Brazilian Incoming Travel Organization

Brazil Tourism Office

EMBRATUR — Brazilian Ministry of Tourism

RioTur — City of Rio de Janeiro Tourism Authority

Rio Convention & Visitor's Bureau

VARIG Brazilian Airlines

Iguassu Falls