by Lisa A. Grimaldi | September 01, 2015

What kind of trip will really impress today's incentive winners? A hot trend now, according to the McLean, Va.-based Incentive Research Foundation, is authentic travel experiences that allow top performers to engage with the communities they visit. Following is a sampling of such journeys, all of which promise to bring a new dimension to rewards.

> Social-Impact Cruising
Pairing top performers with locals to learn about their communities through "social-impact" projects  is the aim of Carnival Corp.'s newest cruise brand, Fathom. The unique cruise product will launch next spring on the 355-cabin MV Adonia, sailing from Miami to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.


Fathom passengers learn sweet tasks
at a Dominican chocolate company.

In Puerto Plata, participants can spend up to three days helping locals with activities such as cultivating cacao plants and organic fertilizer at a nursery, assisting a local women's cooperative in producing artisan chocolates, and providing hands-on support to craft and build clay water filters that deliver clean drinking water to the community. For the duration of the cruise, groups' accommodations and most meals are aboard the Adonia, which offers amenities including a fitness center and a spa. (Fathom delivers lunch to guests during on-the-ground activities.)

"People have challenges finding trusted, relatively easy ways to make a difference," says Tara Russell, Fathom's president. "Fathom exists to address this need and to create enduring, life-changing impact, both in the communities where Fathom operates, and in the lives of the travelers who embark on our journeys, allowing for unique experiences before, during and after the trip."

Groups of up to 710 people can charter the entire ship; smaller groups of any size can join regularly-scheduled Fathom sailings. At press time, the company announced it will offer a similar program in Cuba beginning sometime in 2016.

> Sheepherding in Ireland's County Cork
"The idea is to experience the real Ireland," says Vagabond Tours' founder and president, Rob Rankin. "We take our guests far away from the tour buses, tourist routes and chain hotels, and go well off the beaten path to explore small villages and remote beaches."

Rankin's latest offering, "Shepherd for a Day," is as authentic as it sounds. "Observing a shepherd calling out and signaling to his sheepdogs to round up a flock is very different from actually doing it yourself," he notes. Participants work with sheepdogs and collect the flock on a working farm in County Cork for a true taste of the rural life and daily work of a hill farmer in Ireland.

The shepherd experience is just one way Rankin fosters engagement between visitors and locals. Trips to County Cork include stays at family-owned country houses such as the Gougane Barra Hotel, Bantry House and the Blue Haven Hotel in Kinsale.

"Typically we mingle with the locals in a pub for a bit of craic [Irish for "fun"] and some traditional music," says Rankin. Programs also can include hands-on cooking demonstrations of traditional Irish recipes, and meet-and-greets with local food producers and craftspeople in their farms and studios.

Vagabond programs currently are limited to groups of up to just 13; organizers can customize trip duration, itineraries and more.

> Montana Cattle Drive
"This isn't a dude ranch," says Bill Beck, manager of the East Glacier Park, Mont.-based Bear Creek Ranch. "Our guests are doing real work that will help the local ranchers." Beck and his team lead groups of up to 20 on cattle drives in Northern Montana, with the purpose of moving the herds to different pastures and feeding areas.

Participants stay at the ranch's charming bed-and-breakfast, where they enjoy hearty breakfasts and evening meals. Much of their day is spent in the saddle, where they learn to help direct a herd of cattle along a trail. But the drives aren't all work, stresses Beck: Delicious lunches are provided, and breaks are called whenever participants feel the need. Entertainment is provided by local cowboys, who share tales of their rugged profession during evening campfire sessions.

Guest have free rein, so to speak, at the venue. "They have access to the whole ranch, including the pastures, Bear Creek, the riding arena, the tack room and the corrals. When groups stay with us, they are part of our family," says Beck.

The cattle drives, which take place in the spring and fall, typically last seven nights, although shorter programs can be customized for groups..

Those who prefer an abbreviated  version of the cattle-drive experience can head to Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, in Montana's stunning Bitterroot Mountains. A member of Relais & Chateaux, this ranch has decidedly upscale guest quarters, with 24 luxury cabins, but the cattle drives are the real deal.


Roping and herding cattle
at Montana's Bear Creek Ranch

Guests can participate for a single day or up to three days during a weeklong stay. Incentive winners work with seasoned ranch hands to move up to 800 head of cattle to different pastures on the neighboring Sula Peak Cattle Ranch and Ehmann's Ranch, stopping in a serene valley to enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch from the Triple Creek Ranch kitchen.

Other activities include horsemanship workshops and penning competitions, where teams -- comprised of guests and cowhands -- separate calves from a cattle herd and move them into pens for care.