Unforgettable Incentives

6 authentic experiences at home and abroad

Fathom guests farmers Puerto Plata

Cultivating community: Fathom guests (pictured) assist farmers in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

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.


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.


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.

> Close Encounters in Kenya
In destinations like East Africa, engaging with "the locals" can mean wildlife as well as people. One of the most charming ways to get to know local animals is via a stay at Giraffe Manor, owned and run by The Safari Collection in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. The 12-acre site is home to a herd of endangered Rothschild giraffes, and guests often are "visited" by the graceful creatures, who poke their long necks into windows, on the lookout for treats doled out by the staff.

The property also houses the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife's Giraffe Center, where visitors learn about the animals and take a guided walk around the sanctuary.

The nearby Sheldrick Wildlife Trust shelters orphaned elephants and rhinos. Participants can feed the babies and even "adopt" an orphan by contributing funds to their future care.

Giraffe Manor can accommodate groups of up to 20 incentive winners.


Giraffe Manor offers guests unexpected
visits from the namesake residents.
Giraffe Manor offers guests unexpected visits from the namesake residents.

The Safari Collection also offers a seven-day "cultural safari" that includes stays at all four of its lodges in Kenya, including Giraffe Manor. This program, led by award-winning photographers, allows guests to immerse themselves in the culture of Kenya's Samburu tribe, who share their traditions in their community; participants also can photograph the regional wildlife.

The Safari Collection finds the ideal size for this program is 12 participants, but group size, itineraries and program duration can be customized.

> Sustainable Farm Stay in St. Kitts
Top performers can experience the farming life, West Indies-style, at the Belle Mont Farm on St. Kitts. The boutique property is part of Kittian Hill, a planned farming community whose founder, Val Kempadoo, intended to "bring together community and culture, mindful conservation of natural resources, along with rewarding activities and learning opportunities" for guests and island residents alike.

At the 84-room sustainable resort, which also offers 10 three- and four-bedroom villas, visitors are encouraged to hike the land and engage with farmers who raise the organic food served at the property, including the luscious fruit box each guest receives upon arrival. The local bounty also is the basis of "organic wet treatments" at the on-site spa, appropriately named Mango Walk.

Another unique feature of the resort is billed as "the world's most edible golf course," named Irie Fields. Participants can pick fruit from trees planted around the greens as they make their way through the 18-hole, par-71 course.

In the coming months, guests will have even more opportunities to immerse themselves in the Kittian Hill community: In the works is a culinary academy where visitors can take classes, forage, learn about local fruits and vegetables, and prepare their own farm-to-table meals. Plans also call for an artists' village, showcasing local artisans, writers and musicians.

> Molokai Ranch Stay

Many native Hawaiians consider sparsely developed Molokai the island that best embodies the traditions and culture of Old Hawaii, making it an apt setting for an authentic incentive experience. Among the few properties that host groups on the island is Pu'u O Hoku, a family-owned ranch that seeks to conserve Molokai's bountiful natural resources. The owners share their passion for ecological farming and initiatives such as the reintroduction of the endangered Nene goose, Hawaii's official state bird, as well as the protection of Hawaiian monk seals, which can be seen sunning themselves on quiet stretches of the ranch's beach.

Among traditional Hawaiian activities offered at the ranch are ukulele and lei-making lessons. Guests also can engage with farmers and ranch workers on-property.

Pu'u O Hoku offers several options for accommodations, all built in the 1930s in classic Hawaiian ranch style and furnished with Balinese and Hawaiian wood and textiles. Groups of up to 34 are accommodated.