The Devil in the Details

When you travel frequently as part of your job, as I do, it would make sense to stay home when on vacation.  But because I find the world an endlessly fascinating place, for me, vacation is the perfect time to put the shoe on the other foot and be the recipient of all the wonderful destinations, excursions and experiences that we put in place for our clients.

This past December, we travelled to some amazing places in India and Africa.  The trip was filled with new places, people, sites, and sounds and, as it always happens, with opportunities to be reminded of why it’s so important to pay attention to all the details when planning an incentive travel program.

We traveled on a beautiful mid-size ship in the Indian Ocean. The food and service were wonderful and our every need was tended to – except when it came to the excursions.  These exotic locations don’t offer what many tourists expect and if this isn’t understood from the outset, things can go terribly wrong.

Given the smaller ship, the process for on- and off-loading passengers should have been simple and well organized.  It was not.  There wasn’t an effective priority system to get people with planned excursions off the ship first so they could make their scheduled departure time, resulting in long, unnecessary lines.  It’s normal for people not to listen well to instructions so it’s up to the tour operators or the ship to go the extra mile to make procedures clear, easy to follow and effective.

In many cases the tour descriptions didn’t match the experience so we saw many passengers who were disappointed in their outing. And when things happened unexpectedly, even something as simple as a change in weather, there didn’t appear to be adequate back-up plans in place to keep things running smoothly.

Just these few examples reaffirmed why it’s so important to use an experienced incentive company if you are planning an incentive travel program for your group.  The company you hire will:

*  Make sure excursion descriptions match the experience.
*  Choose excursions that match the interests of your employees, customers and channel partners.
*  Work with suppliers to give your group priority boarding and disembarkation when appropriate.
*  Have alternate plans available when unexpected changes occur.
*  Empower staff to make decisions to call for back-up buses, alternate tours or provide timely reimbursement for excursions that are cancelled.

These are just a few examples of the details that can hide the devil and may ruin a program that your people worked hard to earn.

Borgo di Vagli – A Feast for the Senses

A view of the Tuscan valley

Our magical part of Tuscany is where the weather doesn’t seem to matter to our enjoyment of all its charms.  We arrived in the midst of a rare fall wind and rainstorm.  After a two hour trip savoring the pleasures of rediscovering shopping in an Italian grocery store, I had a pot of my Ragu simmering on the stove while Colin was deciding which bottle of Rosso di Montalcino we should try – a new purchase waiting to be discovered or an old favorite from Casanova di Neri (one of the greatest wines this area offers).  The rain continued, Il Volo played on the CD player and we sampled salumi and parmesano reggiano.  We were home!

That night the wild boar paid us a visit  and as we lay in bed we heard their snuffling and grunts of pleasure as they discovered the black walnuts and figs that had fallen to the ground from the trees outside our window.

Morning arrived and with it, bright blue sky and warm sunshine.  I had been intrigued by an article I had read about a tiny chamber in the Palace of Urbino, a Renaissance town in the Le Marche region.  We headed off to discover this part of Italy about two hours northeast of Cortona.  The tiny room is by all comparisons, a veritable feast for the eyes but was only one part of the huge castle of marble and stone. The chamber, or Studiolo, a room of contemplation for the Duke of Urbino in the 15th century, is composed of intarsia.  This woodwork technique creates the illusion of 3 dimensions in 2 dimensions and apparently only a handful of these rooms were ever built.  Incredibly beautiful and a must see for anyone in the area.

Fruits of the Region

In the center of Urbino, the restaurant Antico Osteria de la Stella did not fail us either.  As usual, lunch was a two hour affair replete with Carpaccio of beef, gnocchi sautéed with pancetta and pistachios, tender beef filet and gianduja (combination of hazlenuts and chocolate) ice cream accompanied by whipped chocolate cream and almond brittle.  As much as I love cooking I also enjoy being cooked for and this was an unexpected treat!

Days for us in Tuscany pass quickly as we are caught up in the spell of the area – in the rolling hills that lie on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, and the mountains overlooking Lago di Trasimeno where Napoleon defeated Hannibal and the bones supposedly of thousands lie.  Walks in the hills gathering the fruits of the season have become a favorite pastime of mine.  This year I am happy to discover plums, apricots, cherries, berries, and of course overladen trees of figs and walnuts.  Ripe for the picking and oh so good! Beautiful sunrises and sunsets combined with warm sunshine and a nip in the air delight us.

A visit to this area however is not complete without a visit to Ristorante Walter Redaelli, the best in Tuscany if not all of Italy. Walter is the former head chef at Locanda Del Amorosa and his current restaurant is located at a charming B&B La Leopoldina in Bettolle just off the A1.  Fresh local ingredients serve as the inspiration for both imaginative and traditional seasonal cuisine prepared by the chef himself. Great value, impeccable service, and an outstanding wine list make this a must go to and a favorite of mine.


Next on our list was a visit to Poliziano a winery located just outside of Montepulciano for our yearly tasting of their latest vintage!  We were not disappointed!  Fabio met us as usual and Jennifer (American expat and author) did our tasting with us regaling us with her latest anecdotes of life in Italy and all the information on their latest releases including a fabulous Vin Santo of which only a few hundred cases were made.  In addition, we were treated to a new taste treat, their 2008 Mandrone di Lohsa.  I understand Wine Spectator has just given it a 92.  We were lucky enough to be able to buy a couple of bottles and one bottle of the vin Santo.  We intend to share them at Thanksgiving this year……… What fun that will be!

Memories of Boca

It’s wonderful when you can revisit a destination and experience something new and exciting.  We recently operated a program in Florida and stayed at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Boca Raton is an original Florida resort developed in the mid 1920’s. Today it’s a lovely mix of old luxury and today’s conveniences. The resort recently underwent a $120Million renovation and the changes are visible and deep.  Visiting Florida in the summer is also a terrific value.

View of Beach Club and Ocean

The resort boasts two golf courses, tennis courts, a fitness center and a phenomenal spa.  It has great restaurants, beautiful vistas of a half mile white sand beach and the Atlantic Ocean.   From the front desk staff to the restaurants, service here is top notch.  It felt very personalized as the Bellman, among others, engaged us in pleasant and very welcoming conversation as we were shown to our rooms.  It was the perfect centerpiece for an incentive reward program.

On this trip, our client wanted their participants to interact with each other and to network with upper management.  They also wanted to provide them with some true vacation time – time to spend on their own away from their business colleagues.  We accomplished this with a varied and interesting agenda.

Aboard the Kathleen Windridge

On the first evening, the entire group boarded the Kathleen Windridge, a luxury yacht, where they enjoyed cocktails, dinner catered by the resort and a four-hour sail on the Intracoastal Waterway.  They enjoyed views of beautiful homes, the setting sun, the company of their co-workers and company executives while listening to a Jimmy Buffet-style trio.

Over the next few days, guests enjoyed the amenities of the resort as they pleased. We provided additional agenda flexibility by applying a room credit to the guests account.  This credit could be used at any of the many restaurants onsite, at the golf course, spa or for any other resort service. The room credit concept works for the company since it is cost effective, provides a good value and delivers agenda flexibility to the guest.

Tower of Boca

I would like to share one last memory of our trip to Boca Raton.  At the end of a delicious meal at Trulucks Seafood, Steak and Crab House, we ordered a “Tower of Boca,” for our table, a foot high chocolate square pound cake filled with raspberries and whipped cream.  Each individual serving was topped with dark chocolate sauce and sugared pecans.  It was astonishingly delightful and managed to satisfy every sweet tooth in our party. If you are in the Boca area you really ought to try this restaurant for an exceptional dining experience. I recommend it highly!


Just One of Those “Lifetime Memories”

Last month I wrote about the wonderful time we had in Los Cabos during our PEI Executive Summit.  I want to talk more about one particular event that was so amazing that I just can’t stop thinking about it.

Travel is a huge part of the work Colin and I do and we love it. However it can be exhausting to always be on the road.  The last six months in particular, have been very busy with programs, site inspections, and hosting our own executive summits.  Rarely do we have the opportunity to be the recipient of any of the special services that we create for our clients.  This was an exception.

The Fiesta Americana Grand in Los Cabos has designed an evening called “Barefoot Elegance.”  From start to finish, all five senses are engaged – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

It starts as we approach the beach.  We are greeted by butlers who “check” our shoes, remove them on trays and escort us to a living room on the beach with overstuffed rattan couches where we are served grape martinis and hors d’oeuvres.  After enjoying this brief respite, we are then taken further down the beach where there are 12 massage therapists standing in various yoga positions awaiting their guests.  The sun is setting, casting a beautiful glow over the whole scene.  At each guest “station” there was an overstuffed rattan chaise and a small wine barrel.  What happened next was quite unexpected!

We each were helped into our own individual barrel where we proceeded to stomp on purple wine grapes.  Aided by the therapists, we smashed and laughed, not realizing that the therapy had already started.  After a few minutes, we settled into the lounge chairs and enjoyed foot and lower leg massages with rare French grape seed oil and the grapes we had just crushed.  Closing our eyes, we could hear the ocean and waves crashing on the sand in front of us, feel the wind, smell the aroma of the grapes and citrus incense as well as enjoy the sensations of the massage.

The timing of day for this event was perfect.  When we opened our eyes, the tiki torches had been lit and the sun was disappearing over the horizon.  At this point, the wine sommelier took us through an exquisite wine and canapé pairing just as the stars began to appear.  After a short presentation on the constellations over Los Cabos, we moved to a private dining table where we watched the chef prepare and serve a magnificent five-course meal.  Another unexpected delight was the staff member who performed a romantic Italian opera aria over dessert.  It was just magnificent.

After dinner, we enjoyed some social time at the fire pit, tasting Mexican liqueurs and listening to live music.  By this time, the sun had fully set and the scene on the beach was warm and totally relaxing. Good food, good wine and good friends.

It’s not often that we step out of the role of host but on this occasion, I really felt like we had been on   the receiving end of this incentive program and of the world-class treatment we endeavor to deliver to our clients.  It was an experience I will remember for a long, long time!

Our Cabo Experience – Beyond Expectations

We’ve been to Cabo before and already knew that it had world class hotels and restaurants.  It’s why we chose it for the Executive Educational Summit that we hosted last week.  But this visit exceeded all of our already high expectations.

We stayed at the Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort on the southeastern coast of the Baja Peninsula.  Management had arranged for a hotel tour which set a very high standard for all hotel tours going forward.  We viewed standard rooms and suites and an amazing Imperial Presidential Suite, which was a free standing villa with a private pool – all beautiful.  The surprise came when we visited the ballroom where the banquet manager had set up six stations each demonstrating a different themed party including sample h’orderves, entrees, and beverages.  They also showed how they integrate an individual company’s brand and culture into the event through promotional items and logo identity.  The tour ended with a proud introduction to Mexican wine as the group gathered around the fire pit overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Over and over again, the hotel management demonstrated their commitment to service.  The General Manager not only provided an introduction at the Summit conference event but stayed throughout the meetings to share his own experiences in employee engagement.  And later when a member of our group ordered a cocktail that wasn’t “on the menu,” the staff took it upon themselves to search out the ingredients and the recipe and deliver the requested beverage to the guest.  It was clear that this wasn’t “special” treatment but something they do for anyone who visits their hotel.

Off-site, summit attendees were treated to some free time in Old San Jose along with sampling of restaurants available in that town.  They experienced amazing snorkeling at the famous Cabo San Lucas arch, enjoyed walking on the beach and seeing the seals who gather along the shore.  Of course, a highlight of any trip to Cabo is a fishing excursion in waters that among the best in the world.  And today was no exception as they enjoyed the trill of catching a blue marlin.

Fiesta Americana put an exclamation point on the Summit with an extraordinary event on the last evening.  Aptly titled, “Barefoot Elegance,” our guests were treated to a unique treat.  After checking our shoes at the door and crushing some grapes with our own feet (think Lucy Ricardo!) we settled into easy lounge chairs and succumbed to foot and leg massages by spa therapists.  The combination of the crushed grapes, special grape oil from France and aromatherapy collars relieved any stress that may have crept in during the day.  We enjoyed some wonderful Mexican wine pared with gourmet h’orderves served on individual spoons (very elegant!)  After a delicious 4-course dinner on the beach we finished the evening with after dinner cocktails, dessert and entertainment at the fire pit.

Cabo San Lucas provided the perfect setting for an exchange of ideas, the sharing of experiences and the creation of lasting memories for the Summit attendees.

Mexico’s Beaches Are Not Its Borders

Mexico’s troubles are unavoidable in the news.  And the question of safety is always at the top of the priority list when planning an incentive reward program.  As it should be.  However, I just got back from accompanying a program to Cancun and have to report that Mexico’s beaches are not its borders.

A Peaceful View

A telecommunications company in Utah chose Cancun after the president of the company had had a favorable experience in Cabo San Lucas.  He wanted to reward his agents who had qualified to become part of the company’s “President’s Club.”  So he was open to the resort areas of this beautiful but troubled country.

We chose Live Aqua for their brief excursion.  And as soon as they arrived, our guests were treated to hand massages and herbal tea at the registration desk.  The entire resort is dedicated to awakening the senses – aromatherapy throughout the lobby and in the rooms, the sounds of the ocean, food to satisfy any palate and the beauty of the beaches to complete the sensation of being a world away.

Lunch Almost Gone!

The resort, including its spa and fitness programs provided everything our guests needed ugh we did enjoy a few off-site excursions like snorkeling and zip-lining.  But we could not have asked for better attention for our guests as they enjoyed a leisurely cerviche lunch on the beach or dinner at MB Restaurant, founded by Miami’s renowned chef Michelle Bernstein.  If you’ve never had Mexican food in Mexico, you’ve never had Mexican food.

The resort areas of Mexico offer an extraordinary value for visitors and they deliver on excellent accommodations, food and service.  The beaches are a long way from the borders.

So Glad To Be Here!

As we introduce our new website, I am thrilled to become part of the blogging world.  We have had so many unique and wonderful travel experiences through the years.  Now we have a forum in which to share them with you.  Look for my updates on destinations, experiences, challenges and successes.  I’ll do my best to bring the character and personality of the people, places and adventures we are proud to share with our incentive program clients.  Stay tuned…