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5 unique destinations for your next employee incentive travel program

You’ve seen all those glorious, smiling photos on Facebook and Instagram of couples or groups at exotic, faraway locations. On cruise ships, slopeside at Aspen or Vail, surfing in Belize, street-dining in Viet Nam. Do you wonder how so many of your friends get to see the world while you’re back home, toiling away, banging out a living?

Maybe they’re traveling on someone else’s dime.

Employee incentive programs, often including lavish travel, are booming. Studies have shown the vast majority of workers enjoying annual salary increases and/or bonuses often just kick their lifestyle up a notch while not necessarily changing work habits or drive. Hence, the afterglow of a salary increase quickly passes. On the flipside, non-cash incentive programs like employee incentive travel programs stimulate the soul and inspire already high-performing employees to “up their game” to achieve even higher levels of excellence.

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), based in McLean, VA, is a group whose mission is to “fund and promote research to advance the science, enhance the awareness, and improve the appropriate application of motivation and incentives in business globally. A study released in 2017 revealed nearly 40% of U.S. businesses now use incentive travel in some manner to reward and recognize their top-performing employees, salespeople, and channel partners”. Cost per person is increasing, also. One-third of companies will spend $3,000-4,000 per-person, while nearly 40% will spend $4,000 or more.

A more recent IFC study released last month said, “Whether driven by safety and security concerns, or simply by a more travel-seasoned population, unique and offbeat destinations continue to gather popularity”. Incentive travel planners are interested in, and more willing to consider, new and different destinations because “these areas are seen as having similar ‘brag power’ and equal ‘wow factor’ to their bigger, greater known counterparts”.

Another trend in employee incentive travel programs is a multi-tiered award structure. For instance, those who meet and exceed annual performance goals by 10% or more qualify for a Power Trip while those who meet and exceed annual goals by a factor of 50% or higher earn a spot in the President’s Club which can play out as a more exotic location, a hefty gift card, or days tacked on to the standard Power Trip.

With this in mind, here are five unique destinations to consider for your next employee incentive program; locations sure to generate great experiences and memories, not to mention motivating your team to reach higher for increasing levels of excellence:

CROATIA: Go Island Hopping!

Long considered the “Jewel of the Adriatic Sea”, Croatia is a 1,200-island archipelago begging for exploration. Historically, travel between these individual jewels has been restrictive; limited to expensive private yacht charters or public transportation via unreliable ferries. Hence, the best of Croatia may yet to have been truly explored.

Until recently, that is …

In 2018, UberBOAT is expected to broaden its range of destinations in Croatia, making many of the isles readily available to explore and enjoy at a reasonable price. The app-based, on-water, ride-sharing service began operating in Croatia last summer and is rapidly gaining in popularity.

Among the most popular stops along the Dalmation Coast is hilly and stony Šolta which, in the past, has been overlooked in favor of splashier neighbors such as Bra? or Hvar. As a result, the isle has remained naturally pristine.

You’ll find pebble beaches, lush foliage, and turquoise-azure waters, as well as ancient villages, rich wine-making regions, and family-run olive farms and purveyors of some of the world’s finest olive oils. When the sun sets over Maslinica Bay, it’s time to check out the island’s array of stylish beach clubs, seaside bars, and open-air dining venues.

EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISE: “ … Oo-ee, oo-ee, baby! Won’t ya let me take you on a (river) cruise?”

Unlike ocean cruising which includes 2-3 days at sea when passengers are limited to onboard activities, European river cruises include stops each day with ground excursions readily available. If the goal of your cruise experience is to learn and experience new locales versus relax and chill, river cruises are a great option for your incentive group.

A few lines offer a la carte shore excursions at incremental prices but most build daytime sightseeing stops into the overall cruise package. These activities can range from exploring ancient castles, bike riding through towns and cities along the route, walking tours, museums, boutique shopping, wine- and food-tastings, motor coach tours, etc. Some lines offer higher-end evening activities at an additional fee, such as culinary classes, art classes, concerts, symphony, etc.

Most river cruises are a week in duration, allowing enough time to experience three countries along either the Rhine or the Danube rivers. Cruises typically start in Amsterdam, Budapest or Paris, and package pricing is based on number of cruisers with smaller groups of 50-100 costing more than ships carrying up to 200 passengers; as well as the availability of premium onboard offerings like spa treatment rooms, workout facilities, etc. Typically, the high season for European river cruises is April-October.

BELMOND GRAND HIBERNIAN: Ride the O’Rails through Ireland!

If you’re enamored with Ireland’s romantic history and rich culture, not to mention its beautiful scenery, the latest entry to Belmond’s stable of spectacular rail offerings – the Belmond Grand Hibernian – is sounding the All Aboard! to you and your employee incentive travel group. (Hibernian is an ancient Latin word for Ireland and this sparking new member of the fleet will whisk you around the Emerald Isle in high style.)

With outstanding culinary offerings, live entertainment (including glorious Irish story-telling and sing-alongs) and luxury train accommodations, the Belmond Grand Hibernian promises to make memorable experiences your ultimate destination. Belmond has quite a, er, “track record” with proven lines such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), Edinburgh’s Royal Scotsman, Eastern & Oriental Express, British Pullman and Britain’s Northern Belle. The Grand Hibernian may be its best effort yet.

Take your pick from three different routes:

  • Realm of Giants (two nights): Dublin-Belfast-Portrush-Dublin
  • Legends & Loughs (four nights): Dublin-Cork-Killarney-Galway-Westport-Dublin
  • Grand Tour of Ireland (six nights): This option combines the two shorter options above with golf junkets available along the way.

Belmond Grand Hibernian’s season runs from April-October.

MACHU PICCHU (PERU): Deliver a Peak Experience!

Machu Picchu, in the Peruvian Andres, is one of the most fascinating destinations any globetrotter could enjoy. The last stronghold of the mighty Inca Empire at the “peak” of its standing in the 15th and 16th centuries, Machu Picchu is a special (some say sacred) experience for travelers.

From the local Quechua language, Machu Picchu translates to “old peak” for the broad-based mountain that towers into a series of rocky, jagged peaks near the city of Cuzco. It is considered an extraordinary archeological site and, since 2007, has been listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Machu Picchu’s stone walls, terraces, stairways and ramps are seamlessly integrated into its natural setting. Finely crafted hardscape, a sophisticated irrigation system (for the age), and terraced fields speak to the Incans’ ahead-of-their-time architectural, agricultural and engineering expertise. Buildings were constructed using a masonry technique in which stones were cut to fit perfectly together without any sort of mortar or binding agent. The fit is so tight and seamless, cracks can’t be penetrated by something as thin as a knife blade.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims journey to Machu Picchu each year.  Maybe it’s time for you to see what all the buzz is about!

NEW ZEALAND: Keep Calm and Kiwi On

In a curious twist of irony, the perfectly respectful term “Kiwi”, used to describe those born in New Zealand, comes from a flightless bird called a Kiwi. Might we be so lucky to be able to go flightless and still visit spectacular and fascinating New Zealand (made up of the North Island and South Island). Yes, it’s a haul to get there – even aloft at 600 MPH, but once you arrive, you’ll forget about the dozen-and-a-half time-zones between Auckland and the East Coast of the U.S.

New Zealand is a nature lover’s nirvana with breath-taking snow-capped peaks, crystal clear coves, fish-filled rivers, coastal glaciers, fjords, and rainforests. Rotorua features one of the world’s largest geothermal areas where visitors can see, up-close, the mighty natural forces that created a landscape of bubbling mud ponds and hissing springs.

Wellington, the capital city on the North Island, is home to Te Papa Tongarewa, the expansive national museum, and dramatic Mt. Victoria. On the South Island, visitors find Fiordland and the Southern Lakes which provided the setting for the mythical Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

There are myriad options for high-octane sporting activity — whitewater rafting, luging, jet boating, heli-skiing, skydiving, and mountain biking. For the true adventurist, there’s Nevis Bungy Platform, a 440-foot-high bungee jump location outside Queensland. A glass-floored observation platform even allows spectators to enjoy the experience – without taking the plunge.

These are but five of many, many unique destinations for consideration when it comes time to plan your organization’s next employee incentive travel program. Bon voyage!


Step away from the familiar and consider someplace truly exotic for your organization’s next employee incentive travel program.


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