March 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Having it all March 1998 Current Issue
March 1998
Having it All

They may help cut costs, but can all-inclusives deliver incentive-caliber programs?


They promise you the world -- rooms, food, drinks, transfers, sports, activities, entertainment, even gratuities -- for one fixed price. To throngs of sun-and-fun-seeking vacationers, all-inclusive resorts are a great deal. Isn't it a given that they'd work for incentive programs, too?

Well, yes and no. Fans say all-inclusive programs are a snap to budget, and they avoid the headache of planning the myriad details conventional incentive programs require. But traditionalists claim they're the antithesis of the true incentive, leaving little room for the customization, creativity and luxury that many winners expect as their reward for reaching an extraordinary goal.

Strong opinions aside, the suitability of all-inclusives has more to do with the particular group than any predispositions for or against all-inclusives. To determine whether these venues are the right fit for your program, consider the following advice from planners.

Extras, Extras As many an unsuspecting planner has found out, the term "all-inclusive" is a bit of a misnomer. For groups, there will always be an extra charge or two. The key, says Cheryl Bump, president of Virginia Beach, Va.-based Brickell Incentives, is to ask enough questions to uncover the charges in advance. "I have a 15-page checklist of costs that I go over with every property I'm considering -- and all-inclusives are no exception."

She adds: "Don't be afraid to negotiate -- they may want your business enough to throw in the private cocktail party or awards dinner. Just make sure you get it in writing."

Among the more common extras at all-inclusives:

  • Bottles of wine: The all-inclusive price generally covers glasses of wine. If you want bottles on the table (or, if bottled wine is included but you want a finer vintage), prepare to pay.
  • Golf and deep-sea fishing: Although most other sports and watersports are covered, these more expensive activities usually cost extra.
  • Off-site functions: If you take the group off-property for a dine-around, all-inclusives typically don't offer rebates for the missed meal.
  • Private dinners: Most properties impose a service charge if you want to hold a special event, such as an upscale cocktail party or awards dinner. SuperClubs, for example, charges $6 to $16 per person, depending on the lavishness of the affair. Some chains, including Sandals, will also charge a fee for closing off a restaurant or area of the resort for the group's private usage.
  • Upgraded transfers: While all-inclusives typically include transfers between the airport and the property, participants will be riding in a standard minivan or minibus. If you want to wow your folks with limos or antique cars, expect to pay extra. * L.G.

  • They're a good deal if...

  • You're on a tight budget. Hands-down, the "one price for all" policy is the number-one reason incentive planners like all-inclusives. You know what you're spending up front -- and you aren't going to go into coronary arrest when you're presented with the final bill. Joan Miskowiec, manager of planning and purchasing for Minneapolis-based Northwestern Incentives, recommends all-inclusives to low-budget groups. "They're a good value, because you not only get the basics, but you get things like watersports and nightly entertainment that you might not be able to afford in a different setting."

    Participants benefit, too. "You don't want your attendees to have to reach for their wallets during a program," says Cheryl Bump, president of Virginia Beach, Va.-based Brickell Incentives. "At an all-inclusive, they're free to enjoy themselves without having to worry about paying extra for this and that -- which can take away from the incentive."

    Before Bump selects an all-inclusive resort for a client, she gets price quotes from other properties and destination management companies (which also offer package deals) at the destination. Beware, however, if you need to show your boss or client an apples-to-apples price comparison. All-inclusives like Club Med, Sandals and SuperClubs will absolutely not break down prices for you -- you'll have to "guesstimate" what they charge for individual budget components such as food and beverage, rooms, transfers, etc., based on the package price.

    Bump says she can't think of a situation in which a non-inclusive property offered better value than the all-inclusive. In fact, she once had two groups of roughly the same size hold concurrent incentive programs on St. Martin. One group selected an all-inclusive property; the other chose a traditional resort. While the initial costing worked out to be almost equal for each program, the real difference, she says, was in the running master account, particularly for drinks. "The firm that didn't stay at the all-inclusive ended up spending far more."

    Laura Sayegh, vice president, sales operations, for the New York City-based Research Institute of America, has also planned incentives to the Caribbean at both types of properties. "It was much more of a challenge to balance the budget at the non-inclusive property -- there was a surcharge for everything, and it really added up," she says.

    Even Anne Wold-Graham, who's not a fan of all-inclusives for incentive programs, says the genre can't be beat when budget control is top priority. "At the end of a program I did at the Almond Beach Club in Barbados, I was presented with a $19.95 bill for incidentals," laughs the senior vice president of New York City-based planning firm EGR International. "I've never had a bill that low in my life."

  • Your participants live large. "All-inclusives work well for groups that will take advantage of everything the resorts offer," says Lesley Meyer, CMP, vice president, operations, for Dallas-based Sunbelt Motivation and Travel. That's because you're paying for it all, including sports and activities; if your participants would rather sit around the pool reading a book, you won't be getting your money's worth.

    Beverage consumption is important, too. Whether your participants drink the bar dry or they're teetotalers who indulge in nothing stronger than Diet Pepsi, you're going to pay the same price. "You really need to have an idea of their habits and know their history to figure out if the setting's going to be right and it's a good value," says Brickell Incentives' Bump.

    They also need to be fairly independent, says Northwestern Incentives' Joan Miskowiec. "If participants enjoy snorkeling, windsurfing, even eating most meals on their own, rather than doing the 'tight group' stuff, all-inclusives are a good option."

    Another consideration: Will the group be happy staying put? Although you can organize a tour of the destination or a dine-around one night, they're pretty much stuck on-property for the duration of the program. Make sure they don't expect to be wowed by a different venue every night.

  • You want to simplify your job. "Holding my program at an all-inclusive was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Sayegh. "It was great not having to pick a breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. The menus were varied enough; they [Antigua's Curtain Bluff] have it down to a science." And Sayegh was delighted that she didn't have to plan nightly entertainment, worry about decor or "do anything extra."

    When Kathy Johnson, director of corporate communications for Clear Channel Communications, a San Antonio-based broadcasting company, held her first all-inclusive incentive program in January at Sandals Ocho Rios, she was relieved of another time-consuming chore: Doling out spending money to winners, a typical practice of her company and many others. "Since no money technically had to leave participants' hands, I didn't have to go through the detail work of that step," she says.

  • Going Solo More companies are offering individual incentives today, rather than traditional group programs, according to a study of the U.S. incentive market conducted last year by the Incentive Federation. So it's no surprise that all-inclusives like Sandals, SuperClubs and Club Med are meeting the demand by offering individual incentive rewards.

    The concept is a natural for all-inclusives, and the individual programs are quite good, according to Jim Feldman, president of Chicago-based Incentive Travelers Cheque Int'l., Inc., an incentive company specializing in individual incentives. But, as of yet, they haven't caught on with either winners or program sponsors.

    "If we offer participants 100 travel options for a particular program, their choices skew in two directions," says Feldman. "The participants either want a special-interest reward -- at a ski resort, golf resort or a spa, or they want to completely 'veg' out. And in those cases, they'll usually pick a cruise over an all-inclusive. [With a cruise], they get basically the same things, but they're visiting different destinations and aren't locked into one property," he says.

    Program sponsors, on the other hand, have their own concerns about all-inclusives. For one, they're higher-priced than the packages offered by non-inclusive hotel chains. But Feldman says there's a bigger concern.

    "They don't like the fact that liquor is included in the package -- they fear that a participant will overindulge, take a nasty fall, break his or her ankle and then sue [the sponsoring company]." Although the same thing can happen in group programs, he says at least the sponsor has some supervision and control over the event.

    Feldman's solution: "We have all of our participants sign a liability waiver, stating that they can't sue us or the client." * L.G.

    Better look elsewhere if...

  • You want a fabulously creative program. Of those who shun all-inclusives, a chief gripe is the generic nature of their incentive programs. "It's hard to do the personal touches that make incentives special," says Wold-Graham. In other words, forget the motorcycle road rallies, the schooner sailing to a private island and the black-and-white ball.

    Of course, you can do a cocktail party or a theme party, but you'll be limited in the scope and range of your event -- even if you are willing to pay the price (see "Extras, Extras," page 56). As Sunbelt's Lesley Meyer says, "The very nature of incentives is to specifically design a program to a group's needs, and that creativity is hampered at all-inclusives."

    Henry Kroesen, vice president, marketing services for Don Mills, Ontario-based NN Financial, designs high-budget (about $5,000 per participant) incentives for independent insurance agents, and he steers clear of all-inclusives -- calling them "strictly for the tour and travel crowd." Says Kroesen, "I'm competing against other firms that are offering fabulous incentive programs, so I stay away from any type of program that people book themselves."

    He adds: "Sure, all-inclusives can do one special dinner for your group, but the rest of the time, what they're getting is no different than what all the other guests are getting."

    It's also difficult -- unless you've taken over the property -- to make your events exclusive. Wold-Graham says one property refused to close off the pool area for a welcome cocktail reception because local craft vendors, who displayed their wares there at cocktail time, protested. The result: A lot of unfamiliar faces wandered into the party. (Fortunately, it was not a function that warranted extra charges.)

  • Your participants are sophisticated eaters. While the food is usually good and plentiful, it's probably not the stuff experienced participants are used to. "Your dining options at all-inclusives are limited, and there are way too many buffets," says planner Cheryl Bump. "That's going to bother some folks."

    EGR's Wold-Graham agrees. "After you've been there for the sixth breakfast or sixth dinner, and the same hors d'oeuvres are served with cocktails every night, it can get pretty tiresome," she says. "I always try to do a dine-around off-site for one night, just to break things up."

  • You expect flawless group services. While most planners agreed that all-inclusives are making great efforts to learn the needs of incentives, they're still fine-tuning some of the amenities. For example, although they provide transfers between the airport and property, you'll have to make special arrangements so participants are taken to the resort upon arrival -- a normal feature of an incentive program -- and not waiting in the van for other guests to arrive, gripes the incentive planner for a San Francisco-based direct marketing firm (who asked to have his name withheld). "They're still not quite up to speed on the little stuff," he says.

    Clear Channel Broadcasting's Johnson had to insist that her participants be checked in en route to the resort. "The property wasn't used to a group coming in at once, and I didn't want a mob scene when they arrived," she said.

  • You want a one-of-a-kind experience. Then there are the traditionalists -- those who feel that all-inclusives just don't have the right "carrot appeal" for the type of participants they're trying to motivate.

    Judi Taylor McLaughlin, director of corporate events for Philadelphia-based McGettigan Partners, says all-inclusives are not her firm's preference. "We're trying to create a unique environment that participants can't create on their own," she said. "Our incentive clients -- mainly financial services and pharmaceutical companies -- have participants who have money to travel wherever they want, so we offer programs with elements like a ride on the Orient Express or a private reception at the Vatican Museum."

    The San Francisco-based planner agreed. "We do two types of incentives: a pure 'thank you for a job well-done' trip, and a 'vacation of a lifetime' traditional program that only 30 top sales reps qualify for." He says all-inclusives work perfectly for the reward trip, but he would never use one for the goal-oriented incentive. "People aren't willing to work hard for stuff they can do on their own -- and just about anyone can afford to take an all-inclusive vacation." *

  • Three for All It's been nearly five decades since the all-inclusive concept was introduced by French company Club Med to Europeans in 1950, but the idea didn't catch on with North American vacationers until the 1970s. Since then, many firms have joined the all-inclusive bandwagon. Some are individually owned and operated (such as Almond Beach Resorts in Barbados); others are members of traditional hotel chains (such as Wyndham's Sugar Bay Resort in St. Thomas).

    In the Caribbean, three chains -- Club Med, Sandals and SuperClubs -- specialize in all-inclusive resorts. All three initially targeted vacationers, but they began courting the lucrative incentive industry in the '90s. Their efforts seem to be paying off. While groups represent a relatively small percentage of their business (no more than 15 percent), all three say their incentive business has increased dramatically -- by at least 200 percent -- in the past two years.

    For details, contact the chains directly.

    Club Med
    Scottsdale, Ariz.
    (800) 453-2582
    Fax: (602) 443-2086 Sandals
    Miami, Fla.
    Fax: (305) 663-4355 SuperClubs
    Hollywood, Fla.
    (800) 859-7873
    Fax: (954) 929-4382
    No Tipping, Really? All-inclusives love to tout their "no tipping" policies (meaning gratuities are already figured into the set price). But does this mean you shouldn't tip a bit more? While top executives at both Sandals and SuperClubs all-inclusive chains say additional tips are completely unnecessary, most planners say they generally slip some extra bucks to key staff members either before or after the program.

    At the end of her incentive program at Curtain Bluff, an all-inclusive in Antigua, New York City-based planner Laura Sayegh of the Research Institute of America added a gratuity to the master bill and gave staff members hats and T-shirts with her company's logo. "They did a really great job, and I wanted them to be just as enthusiastic about my group the next time I used the property," she said.

    On the other hand, Kathy Johnson, director of corporate communications for San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, followed Sandals' strict instructions not to tip during her firm's recent incentive program in Jamaica. "I was nervous about it -- I like to tip in advance to make sure my participants are taken care of," she says. "But in this case, it didn't matter. The staff couldn't have been more hospitable to our group." * L.G.

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