June 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Little Things Mean a Lot June 1999 Current Issue
June 1999

Little Things Mean a Lot

Glitter fades, but thoughtful details? can leave a lasting impression on incentive winners

By Lisa Grimaldi

Participants can fly with attitude in first class, live like kings and queens in a five-star hotel, feast on elaborate meals, party the nights away at wildly creative themed events and be put on a pedestal at a gala awards dinner. But what will stand out in their memories five years from now, after they have been to several more of these ever-bigger, ever-better events? Will it be the expensive bells and whistles, the program's splashy elements?

More likely, it will be that moment when incentive winners, hot and exhausted after a long afternoon of sightseeing, got back to their rooms and found their bathtub filled with bubbles and orchids. Or the "gypsy" who wandered onto their bus and had the group in stitches as she told their rather fantastical fortunes (and made the two-hour transfer seem like 15 minutes). Or the funky guidebook to Rome they found on their pillows the night before their free day of touring.

Yes, it's the little things, as the syrupy '50s song goes, that really mean a lot to winners. These touches usually do not require a lot of money, just a bit of ingenuity and insight on the part of the planner. (Some creative suggestions might come from hotel contacts and other suppliers, too.) The following little extras, garnered from seasoned incentive planners and suppliers, are sure to have a big impact on programs and, most important, the incentive winners.

Get the royal treatment momentum going at the outset of the program.

  • Private check-in: When all the participants are departing from the same airport, set up a private check-in desk for them. Arrangements can be made through the carrier's groups department. However, the courtesy is extended by major U.S. carriers only to groups flying domestically because of heightened security concerns, according to Jennifer Brock, manager, incentive sales, at American Airlines.
  • Group rooms: Many airlines have these at their major hubs and make them available to groups at the point of departure, at no cost or for a nominal fee. Reservations should be made through the carrier's groups department. The rooms at Continental Airlines' Dallas and Newark hubs are free, and the airline will provide free catering. American has one room at Dallas and one at Chicago that are free; catering is extra. United Airlines has one at Denver for which it charges $100, plus catering. Delta Air Lines' rooms at Los Angeles, New York (JFK International Airport), Tampa, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati and Portland, Ore., are free; catering is extra.
  • Pre-boarding: When incentive winners are traveling in coach, they still can feel important. Most carriers will allow groups to board the aircraft before the other coach passengers.
  • Announcements: Inflight recognition ("United Airlines welcomes XYZ Pharmaceuticals President's Club and extends congratulations to all the winners") is another simple and cost-free way to recognize participants. Most carriers accommodate requests for inflight announcements or special greetings. Typically, the planner makes the request through the groups department, then provides the cabin crew with the information.

  • Inflight amenities: Most airlines allow planners to distribute their own amenities, including food and nonalcoholic beverages. American, for example, will have the flight crew put amenities in participants' seat pockets prior to boarding, according to Brock.

    Arriving at the airport

  • Novel welcomes: Have a red carpet rolled out in the airport, and arrange for a marching band or calypso band to greet the group in the arrivals area, recommends Todd Vastine, vice president, travel, of Arlington, Texas-based Galactic Marketing Incentives Inc. Another meet-and-greet option is to employ actors wearing costumes. Greg Kurdian, president of Sunbound/Bahama Fantasies, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based DMC, says one of the most memorable greetings he arranged involved ruler-wielding "nuns" who ushered the participants onto yellow school buses, then handed out cookies and little containers of milk.
  • Enliven the drive: When participants fly in and get rental cars to drive to their destinations (a popular option for Arizona incentives, for example), give them welcome packs and maps at the airport as well as a list of landmarks to visit along the way. "It really breaks up a long ride and puts them in celebration mode," says Garrett Ross, incentive sales manager at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz.

    Arriving at the property

  • Private check-in: Arrange for an exclusive check-in area to be set up at the hotel, so participants do not have to wait on line at the main registration desk. Some properties will send personnel to handle check-in en route from the airport to the property, so participants can go straight to their rooms.

  • Pillows ready: When participants have flown overnight to the destination, arrange for a special early check-in. For the bleary-eyed, there is no worse start to a program than being told they cannot go directly to their rooms. Planners should ensure rooms will be ready immediately for sleepy participants, even if it means booking them for the day prior to arrival.


  • Special messages: Leave messages on the hotel phones or closed-circuit TV to welcome participants, to outline an itinerary or as teasers: Instruct participants to bring their beach bags and towels to breakfast, but do not tell them they will be boarding a sailboat right after they eat, suggests Sunbound's Kurdian.
  • A wake-up surprise: Arrange to have baskets with glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice and daily newspapers left outside participants' rooms each morning.

  • Read all about it: As a heightened form of recognition, create a daily newspaper filled with updates on the program and profiles of winners. Or, on trips where customers and sales representatives are together, profile the reps so their clients get to know them better, says Galactic Marketing Incentives' Vastine. Papers can be slipped under guest room doors in the morning.
  • Relaxation aids: Welcome weary participants with a bubble bath, and, to complete the mood of relaxation, have an iced bottle of champagne and glasses set up within easy reach of the tub.
  • Private happy hour: When folks are gearing up to go to an event and are getting dressed, have trays of cocktails and canap├ęs delivered to the rooms.
  • Sweet dreams: Have a delicious surprise waiting for participants when they return to their rooms at the end of the evening. Novel desserts (chocolate pianos, marzipan golf courses), plates of minipastries or truffles, and after-dinner drinks are nice touches that bring closure to an enjoyable day. Another idea, courtesy of Sandi Cottrell, vice president of San Diego-based PRA Destination Management, is to leave a note on attendees' pillows inviting them to meet in the hotel's kitchen for pre-bedtime cookies and milk.


  • Stylish transfers: Buses are generic, and limos are elegant but a bit old hat. There are more memorable ways to transport participants from the property to an event, such as boats, vintage cars, trains, helicopters, motorcycles, even hot-air balloons. "Just remember, if you spend the extra money for unusual transfers, all the participants should be comfortable, and everyone should arrive at roughly the same time, or the effect will be lost," says Andrea Michaels, president of Extraordinary Events, a special-events firm based in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
  • Road shows: When the transfer from point A to point B is tediously long, entertain the troops with actors dressed in costume who can give a bit of background on the area or an attraction the group is visiting. For a Smith-Kline program in Southern California, for example, Michaels hired actors to play characters from Old California senorita, friar, conquistador to tell the history of the San Juan Capistrano Mission en route to the site. Another diversion for a boring bus ride: trivia contests. They can be about the place, the culture, even the company sponsoring the event.
  • Time out: When heavy-duty sports or team-building activities are part of a day's agenda, offer little spa breaks for participants. They can get 15-minute massages or facials as rewards.

    Food and beverage

  • Morning treats: Develop themes for group breakfasts so the participants will have something to look forward to every morning. Some ideas: Have a server dressed as Carmen Miranda cutting up fruit for guests; have a coffee bar where the server grinds a custom blend for each guest.
  • Trivial pursuits: Trivia about the company or even the winners can be printed on napkins for a cocktail event.

  • Framed: Instead of using written place cards for seating, use framed photos of the participants, taken at the beginning of the program, to let them know where to sit.

  • Custom finish: Make the end of the meal truly special by serving everyone a different dessert. This concept works well for small groups (under 50); for larger groups, serve a different dessert to each guest at a table of 10 or 12. Encourage swapping or sharing, so the chocoholic's nose doesn't get out of joint when he gets a piece of cherry cheesecake and his neighbor gets mud pie.


  • Destination tie-ins: "The best gifts tie in to the destination and remind participants of the fun they had on that program," says Jim Heston, president of New York City-based Pillowgifts Worldwide. One gift that has universal appeal is prestamped postcards that winners can send to jealous friends and family back home. One planner even had a staff member designated as the postcard writer/sender; all the guests had to do was supply her with the names and addresses of those to whom they wanted to send cards. A literary-minded idea comes from Laura Sayegh, incentive planner for New York City-based Fox Liberty Network, who always purchases "the nicest hardcover books that tell the history of the town we are in. I always wrap the books and enclose a personal handwritten note to each guest."
  • Event tie-ins: Give gifts that relate to the program's events. After a '50s party, Andrea Michaels handed out T-Bird radios accompanied by handwritten "notes from Mom" with whimsical messages, like "Why did you come home so late?" and "I heard you were at the malt shop instead of doing your homework." Says Michaels, "Everyone had a different note, and they compared them the next morning." It's all in the delivery

    Planners can have the best intentions when it comes to choosing great gifts and memorable treats, but if delivery of the amenities goes awry, best intentions are not worth much.

    The ideal time to make deliveries is when attendees are out of their rooms. Let the hotel know the complete itinerary of the program, including off-site activities, so the timing will be right and guests won't cross paths with a gift-bearing bellman.

    And then there's the do-it-yourself approach. Andrea Michaels, president of Extraordinary Events, a special-events firm based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., avoids passing the chore off to the hotel's bell or housekeeping staff. "Take care of it yourself, or send a staffer along with the bellman to ensure that each and every participant gets his room gift," she says.

    Another way to guarantee everyone gets a gift: Distribute them to participants as they arrive at or depart from the night's event. "That way, you know every winner has his gift in hand."


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