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I Discovered Buried Treasure On Tiny Canouan Island …

A long, long time ago, I produced a sales incentive trip for a computer software company where I worked at the time.  I was the only event planner on staff and incentives for the sales team were a new thing.  Needless to say, the pressure was on to make a big splash.

Canouan Island. Never heard of it ..? Yeah, me neither.

That should’ve been my first red flag.

Admittedly, I was green.

And when I say green, I mean young, naïve, and mostly inexperienced.  Greener than a Saint Paddy’s Day parade. Some might even suggest clueless because I’d not had enough time as a professional planner to learn where all the landmines are hidden in any project. [And we all know they’re there!]

But I was still Julie and that meant, what I lacked in experience, I made up for with an innate willingness to be bold and daring … which proved to be both a positive and a negative thing at the time.

Since I was relatively new to incentives, I didn’t have that pesky little voice in my head whispering to me …

Hey, Julie, this is too risky.  Don’t be a guinea pig!

What if this goes wrong?  Or that? 

And, oh, my goodness, no, Julie.  Just NO! 

For years, I’ve joked with the cherished few who endured this program with me [maybe “survived” is a better word], that I’d write about it one day. Why not? It was probably the most valuable, hands-on learning experience of my 20-year career.

Momentous … if not calamitous.

Until now, I’d never gotten around to putting the experience in story form. I’m sure the years have been kind and blurred some of the grittier matters, but I do know that certain details and recollections will be forever etched, burned and tattooed into my memory – for better and for worse!

And if you’ve ever worked with me, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve experienced the repercussions of this particular program many, many years later.

Canouan Island. “Can-a-Juan” get there? Not easily. At least not at the time.

Basically, Canouan is a speck in the Caribbean Sea, part of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines archipelago, and lying among the Windwards.

It was 2005 and I was in search of a truly unique destination and I’d found it! An amazing resort island no one had ever heard of, couldn’t pronounce, and had no clue where it was.  For all they knew, Canouan was in the far reaches of the Mediterranean Sea, off Tasmania, or somewhere in the Adriatic.  

Nope, this beautiful little gem lies 20 miles south of St. Lucia and 110 miles west of Barbados.  At the time, it was home to just 700 people and covered an area of just three square miles. To get there, you had to fly to St. Lucia or Barbados then take a tiny, six-passenger puddle-jumper.  Easy enough, one would think.

I wish I could say this was the extent of my worries that week, but there were far greater challenges [and a few blessings] that would come my way.  

Your instincts may be your best friend …

By 2005, I’d racked up a whoppin’ total of exactly one incentive program.  But my instincts were on point and I wisely hired a brilliant and knowledgeable, third-party planner to help me navigate this, ahem, adventure.  To this day, we remain fast friends. Battle Buds, you might say.

The program was approximately 250 total people. We did a complete buyout of the resort and had a handful of rooms in reserve. To get everyone to the island, we chartered a plane from Miami to St. Lucia and from there we had several prop planes on standby, each able to transport  six passengers at a time to Canouan. Takeoff after takeoff, landing after landing, we were eventually one happy group of 250 … eventually.

See where I’m going with this?

We had some mechanical issues with the charter in Miami which delayed us by a few hours.  Inconvenient, yes, but not the end of the world.  Finally, we were safely able to get the first 125 passengers to St. Lucia.  [Put a pin in this.  I’ll come back to it in a bit.]

Meanwhile, the event team was already in place at the resort, with the goal of making sure everything was beyond perfect and set to receive all 250 guests.  We’d arrived a few days earlier and that’s actually when the unraveling started. 

During a site-planning visit months earlier, I made note that running water in some of the guest rooms not frequently used ran brown for a few minutes. Obviously, I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to our guests.  [As a side note, we inspected about three times the number of guest rooms than what’s typical during a site visit due to the uniqueness of the property.]

When we arrived for the program, I wanted to check the VIP rooms first — as I always do to this day — and make sure they were in tip-top shape.  Room after room, my hopes and dreams of the perfect Caribbean Paradise ebbed further and further away like the outgoing tide.  Little did I know, the average occupancy for this resort was only about 30% — which meant they used the same rooms over and over, letting the other 70% sit in neglect.  

As we walked the VIP rooms, it became abundantly clear that we would need to check all 150ish rooms.  When we’d finished the inspections, my nightmare had been realized.  Some had no water.  Some had no electricity. Others had no furniture.  In another, the tub had been moved from the bathroom and placed in the closet. 

We were in trouble …

I’ll skip over some of the other sordid details and fast-forward to the solution.

Immediately, we created teams of people that included one event person, one maintenance person, one housekeeper and another warm body.  [It didn’t matter what the warm body typically did, we just needed a runner and extra set of hands.]

We created a two-page checklist, assigned rooms to teams, and got to work.  Divide and conquer … and pray. Then pray some more.

Mind you, Canouan is a sprawling resort where each room had its own golf cart to get around.  We worked through the night for two nights straight — from literally stapling curtains to walls, rearranging furniture, spraying for mosquitos, making beds with fresh linens, and Lord knows what else. We did it all. 

I remember being in a guest’s room when they checked in early and was somehow able to convince the couple I was part of the Welcoming Committee.  I guess I was a fast thinker even then. 

But after two long days and two longer nights, we still weren’t ready to host this group.  That’s where the seemingly unavoidable disaster somehow morphed into a small miracle. 

Remember the chartered plane mentioned above that had safely landed in St. Lucia?  Well, because of the delay in Miami, we were not able to get the second group of 125 people from St. Lucia to Canouan on the main arrival day because – I kid you not — the one and only light at the top of the mountain at the Canouan Airport was out.

One light.  One tiny light was out and the charter that held half my group had to overnight in St. Lucia.  And for extra giggles, try searching for 60-65 hotel rooms on another island at 4 o’clock in the afternoon for that night. I’m telling you, I can’t make this you-know-what up! 

But in a twist of irony, that single burned-out bulb was one wonderful, brilliant blessing! You see, it allowed our divide-conquer-pray teams one more night to ready the remaining rooms for our weary travelers. 

There were so many other challenges that happened that week — flooding in bedrooms, a TV that caught fire while I was watching it in my room, lost luggage galore [about 45% of the group], an overturned golf cart (operator error, but still overturned), learning you can have air conditioning in the final night dinner room or the casino for the after-party … but not both. And I promise, I am not making this up, one guest even suffered heat stroke.

And these are just some of the things I recall. I’m sure there must’ve been locust swarms, flying monkeys and Murder Hornets along the way but, blessedly, my memory fails me. Combined, it was just about more than my young, green self could handle. Minus a hurricane or two, it was my version of The Perfect Storm.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change that experience for anything!

At some point, I remember having a pep talk with myself in the mirror of a guest room that involved a good old-fashioned, shall we say, “cry sesh”.  I remember asking, “Julie, at what point do you throw in the towel, just give up?  When do you say, ‘I’ve done all I can do’?” 

The answer was just as clear then as it is today as we deal with COVID-19, a punch-drunk economy, racial injustice, cities being looted and all the other “yuck” that has defined 2020.

You don’t. 

As legendary basketball Coach Jim Valvano once said, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Keep fighting to make things right whether it’s a calamitous cluster in Canouan … or anything else.

Fight with all your might.

Fifteen years later [and if you doubt it, just ask those who soldiered along with me on that program], it was the best incentive any of us have ever attended.

Why …?

Holy Moly!  With the help of that amazing team, our collective will and determination to power through, and some help from above, we turned what was undoubtedly headed for disaster into an incredibly successful and memorable experience for 250 guests.  In a sense, each of us discovered buried treasure on tiny Canouan Island that week. We learned all things are possible when you never, ever give up.

And you know what?

We’ll do it again in the face of everything terrible that’s happening in the world right now.

I won’t give up, and neither will you.


Julie Thompson-Whelan