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There’s Always A ‘Work-Around’. You Can Move Forward!

Yes, no, maybe. Hurry up, slow down. Ready … set … wait! To meet or not to meet, that’s the daily conundrum facing event planners and their clients. So, how do you cut through the fuzziness of it all and make the big decision? 

In late-February of 2020, I managed a high-end incentive for 200 guests in a sunny, tropical, beachy setting that luckily wrapped up just before the pandemic hit the fan in mid-March of last year.

Before we could even begin to start planning our February 2021 event, COVID knocked everything catawampus. The “abundance of caution” thing kicked in and my client decided to pause the incentive, rescheduling for late-August. By then, the Delta variant had entered the picture. Nothing like a double-whammy to keep us on our toes.

Our incentive ultimately landed at a resort in the beautiful Riviera Maya region of Mexico. Yes, steamy hot Mexico in the middle of hurricane season, I know, but you’ve got to roll with the punches, right? On a side note, I must say, if you or your client find yourself needing to shift a program, UNICO 20°87°, an adults-only all-inclusive and the newest property in the RCD Hotels portfolio, is a rather luxurious, soft-landing spot. The resort and its staff are excellent!

As we know, incentives are very important if you want to inspire your best and brightest to keep closing big deals. But deciding to reschedule or relocate [or both] is admittedly an easier one to make with an incentive versus a business conference in which you’re planning to launch a new product or roll out strategy and tactics for the coming year.

Real-world, modern-day considerations

I give my client credit for postponing, monitoring matters then later making the decision to forge onward and hold the incentive. I also give them credit, as well as UNICO 20°87° and our team, for delivering a program in the safest manner possible, given current circumstances. As meeting planners, we take all possible steps to minimize risk while executing programs but, truth be told, we can never say with 100% certainty that something out of our hands won’t impact a program or an activity. Or in our case, a number of activities.

We did see our RSVPs drop from an anticipated 200 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 140-145 pax. In many cases, the opt-outs were guests of winners and more than a few times I heard married couples say they couldn’t take a chance on one or both parents picking up the virus while away and both being stranded in another country. So, one remained home. Other invitees mentioned they were caregivers for elderly parents and didn’t want to risk infecting them and had to RSVP “no”.

All very understandable, real-world, modern-day considerations, for sure.

[Note: All Americans returning home from offshore locations must show proof of a negative COVID test performed within 72 hours of inbound travel at any U.S. port of entry. If travelers to Mexico become infected with COVID while in the country, they are offered, if available, a hotel room for up to a 14-day quarantine period at no cost. If the infected traveler requires hospitalization, medical services up to $10,000 are covered. Travelers are welcome to return to the U.S. with a negative test at any time during their quarantine.]

Because this was a closed program [incentive winners and guests only, no customers, clients or vendors as some companies do], my client was able to mandate COVID testing in advance of travel to Mexico. These days, many resorts include pre-travel COVID tests as part of the negotiated package. We also made a point in our advance communications to remind invitees of the airline industry’s COVID-related regulations.

Every one of our invitees uploaded their negative test results though we did have several couples where one or both tested positive onsite and had to opt out of activities. As you know, tourism is the lifeblood of hotels and resort properties in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, etc. So, while Mexico doesn’t require testing prior to arriving, it was certainly appreciated by the hotel staff and drivers alike. 

Let’s take it outdoors … or not.

We had originally planned a mix of indoor and outdoor activities but shifted all events outdoors in the interest of guest and staff safety. Unfortunately, that led to two events being rained out. We had a truly unique aerial show consisting of 40 drones doing a carefully choreographed routine that, at one point, spelled out the name of my client’s company that had to be moved from Opening Night to Closing Night due to weather. And a mandatory business session that was to be held en plein aire was shifted indoors with social distancing in place, hand sanitizers, etc. A planned indoor, swanky Casino Night also went away since we couldn’t set up expensive gaming tables and such outdoors. But everyone went with the flow which was really gratifying.

One outdoor event that did go on as planned was our killer cornhole tournament, one of the highlights of my client’s annual incentive. We added an extra level of energy to the competition by flying in Atlanta-based DJ Jeff B. [Jeff Burnisky] which cost us the same as if we’d hired a local deejay we’d never worked with. And trust me, he’s worth every penny and then some. 

There’s always a “work-around”

I share all this because I want you to know meetings and events are marching forward, albeit with new-world considerations. There’s an entirely new dimension called pandemic-era safety; steps that must be factored in, along with the usual considerations like weather, security, etc. Key point: There’s always a “work around” or a Plan B.

In football, it’s called an audible when a quarterback changes a play call at the line of scrimmage. In meeting planning these days, it’s just another day in the office or onsite as we course-correct and make adjustments on the fly.

One of the most gratifying moments for me personally was hearing guests mention how the event team had been so attentive throughout the program and even anticipated guests’ needs before they realized they were in need. [And yes, I’m pretty proud of the team, too.]

When you’ve been in this industry as long as I have, you learn to expect the unexpected and you know how to react accordingly. Certainly no one could have anticipated the trials of the past year-and-a-half and I believe there is no one better equipped to make adjustments than meeting planners.

Just as Chick-fil-A sets the standard for superior customer service, meeting planners are the gold standard for flexibility, infinite patience, and the innate ability to find a “work-around”. Admittedly, it was disappointing to have to adjust the original program design but I know we did it for all the right reasons.

One final point and it’s a biggie …

It was unmistakably obvious how happy and excited people were to be gathering again, face-to-face. That told me incentives and other F2F gatherings remain critical to business success and we should never walk away from them. Yes, you need to adjust for what’s happening in the world right now, and be more flexible than ever, but do know there is always a way to pull off a successful program, be it an incentive or otherwise.


Julie Thompson-Whelan