Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fam trip etiquette, a cautionary tale

During the holiday season words like “gratitude” and “giving thanks” get thrown around a lot. But one of the places we don’t really talk about them is on familiarization (fam) trips within the travel/incentive industry. I bring this up because I was recently on a fam trip to Asheville, NC and was disturbed by another planner’s behavior. After discussing this with another attendee who was likewise stunned, I decided to write this blog. More than just being ungrateful, I have seen a number of planners who are actively disingenuous and rude to their hosts. We don’t publically talk about this kind of thing very often. Most planners will talk to each other behind the backs of their hands but so rarely does anyone call out the offenders or really get to the heart of the problem. Perhaps it is time for this to change.

I will tell you the story of what happened on my recent trip. I will not use the planner’s name but anyone who was on the trip will surely know who I am talking about.

The main thing to note is that this fam to Asheville was only 1.5 days long. Get in on Sunday afternoon, leave by Tuesday morning. We had a fairly loose schedule that had us leaving the hotel on Monday morning at 9:45am (positively late by most fam standards) and also included time for a little shopping in the afternoon. I mention this because we certainly were not packed in like some fams I have been on. Keep this in mind as you read on…

The first night we had dessert at a wonderful local coffee/chocolate shop. Near the end of the night they brought us boxes to take some of the sweets with us. I was the first person to get my box and took a few cookies and a few brownie bites for my guest and myself. The planner I mentioned came up behind me and took (no joke) ¾ of the tray! I almost choked! So the rest of the group of 12 was left with nearly nothing to take with them. Rude, yes? Well, the story doesn’t end there.

On the way back to the hotel, the CVB rep was talking about our itinerary for the following day. She said something to the effect of “let me know if you won’t be joining us in the morning”. He immediately said “oh, we don’t have to be there? Okay, then I am letting you know [that I won’t be there].” I, already annoyed by his previous behavior, was blown away.

(By the way, the morning event was a charity event called Sole Hope where you cut uppers for shoes. They send those uppers to impoverished areas of the world where they teach the poor to make shoes. It helps fight the spread of disease, keeps feet sanitary and gives people jobs. It’s a very cool and easy charity event for groups!)

But I digress. The man was crude and rude. Unfortunately, this is not a random isolated incident. In fact, it is only a small example of this kind of behavior and is not even that rare in our industry. I have spoken to several coworkers about this and they have seen some pretty bad fam etiquette too. So we have compiled a short list below. None of these have to do with valid complaints like buses not showing up or sour food. They are examples of truly poor manners observed by members of our team:

  • Telling a host hotel to their face that they don’t care for their room and/or facilities
  • Complaining loudly about some aspect of the trip no one can change (TSA requirements, airline delays, etc)
  • Showing up to events obviously drunk or intoxicated in some way
  • Showing up to an event dressed completely inappropriately (cut-off shorts and a tank top to a formal dinner, etc)
  • Carrying on an (often loud) conversation with their guest during a site inspection when the DOS is describing their facilities
  • Skipping site tours or events altogether (sometimes this becomes necessary when work needs to be done but most of the time this is not the reason)
  • Changing flight arrangements and not telling the hosts, who then wait for them at the airport in vain. This is especially bad when the hosts have paid for the airfare.
  • Worse yet, people simply not showing up for the entire trip (sometimes without even informing the host)

Unbelievable, right? (Have any you want to add? Comment below!)

So I ask, what is going on here? What has happened to simple common courtesy? When you are invited to visit an area (especially when they are paying for you to be there), be gracious about it. Attend the events, be nice and be appreciative. Acting like you are entitled endears you to no one and just makes you look like a huge spoiled brat. You not only ruin the trip for your fellow planners but you make the CVB/hotel/transportation company/restaurant feel like they wasted their money. Fam trips are a nice perk of the business. You certainly have to work on most of these trips and they are not always a picnic. There can be several hotel sites in one day that require tons of walking and viewing of ballrooms and bedrooms. However, these ARE the point of the trip. They want to show you everything their city/area/resort has to offer.

I like to remember that because of these trips, I have been able to see plenty of locations that I would not normally have been able to on my own. I have certainly stayed at hotels I never could have afforded on a planners pay scale! Most of these are great experiences that I treasure and I am happy that they can lead to me bringing business there.

So I implore you, the next time you are on a trip, do what is asked of you and do it with good grace. This industry is built on relationships and people talk. You would be wise to remember that.

Anjee Sorge
Director of Operations

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Emerging Markets

On a recent trip to Asia which included Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Kyoto Japan I learned a few new things. The USA needs to take a lesson from these “emerging markets”.

I had back surgery in the early part of September and vacillated back and forth about whether to cancel my two week trip long planned to Asia. Although my recovery seemed a bit slow I decided to stick with my original plan and take the tour.

The flight there is pretty brutal, especially having recently had surgery. It runs between 12 and 14 hours and "Economy Plus" on Delta's ancient 747's from MSP is a bit of a joke. Do yourself a favor, spend the extra cash to upgrade if you can swing it (and those with status, don't count on a free upgrade. I'm platinum and they wouldn't even consider it without a $5,000 up-charge). On the other hand, I was able to order wheelchairs all the way through. Talk about getting the princess treatment! Special people assigned to carry your luggage, send you through a private gate for customs, send you to the head of the line and wheel you across long distances to get you on your next flight. That part rocked! There are a few nice parts to traveling after surgery I guess.

So first stop Hong Kong!

Hong Kong

With only two nights to check things out I barely scratched the surface of this hopping city. I took a look at a few hotels including the famed historic Peninsula hotel. I also saw the Shangri La, the Hyatt, the Meridian and a few others. The Hyatt stood out as a really nice property for a significant group and their sister property in Macau was lovely. The Hyatt brand was consistently nice throughout Asia. The sales teams were sprinkled with US or British folks who really could communicate well with planners, and that really does make a difference. We checked out some other splendid venues including the markets, the floating restaurant, and the peak.

In general, I was not impressed with Macau. Had it not been for my “wheelchair” needs I would have been stuck in customs for over an hour just to get in from the ferry boat. The Portuguese egg tarts and restaurant were the highlights of my visit. It felt as the the hotels were attempting to rival Las Vegas but didn't really come close. The Galaxy was really cheesy and the Venetian, well, looks just like the one in Vegas. Although I see this as a good option for travelers in Asia who don’t wish to take the long trek to Vegas, Americans need not make the trip if it is high quality gambling casinos and event space they seek!

Next on the agenda was Singapore, which is a very modern and CLEAN city. It is even illegal to sell gum there! This is an excellent venue for convention business - especially large groups - as there is a good deal of hotel and conference space and some excellent DMC’s. The city is extremely safe and this is very important for convention goers. Our DMC, Pacific World, was fabulous and I would highly recommend them. I got a bug while I was there and one of our DMC’s mothered me like my own – stopping to buy me meds and giving me the eastern medicine of her ancestry. I called her Mama Gina! I think the bug came from the local market as my traveling companion seemed to get it also. We spent Saturday night downing Alka Seltzer cocktails rather than out on the town which was the initial plan. The break was probably just what we needed anyway!

Me and "Mama Gina" with the Marina Bay Sands in the background

While in Singapore, we were able to check out the Conrad Hilton, The Marina Bay Sands, the Shangri La, the famed Raffles and Fullerton hotels. All had their advantages and disadvantages depending on what you are going for (incentives vs conventions, etc). The Raffles is charming and, of course, one must go to the bar to have the original Singapore Sling. It is where it was invented! The story goes, the bartender was trying to get rid of a patron one night and concocted it for her in hopes she would not like it – instead she adored it and it caught on like wildfire. Too funny!

Having Singapore slings at Raffles in Singapore with Pacific World DMC

There are a number of sites one should see while in Singapore. Without a doubt, my personal favorite was the middle eastern district with the Mosque and the nightlife and shopping. Little India is anything but little, and a trishaw ride is a must to go through this area!


Do keep in mind if you are planning a conference in Singapore, it is not cheap at the moment, or at least it wasn't at the end of October. The US dollar to the Singapore dollar is fairly weak. Not as expensive as Europe to be sure but not exactly a bargain. Still, it is a great spot to keep in mind,

Next stop- Tokyo! This was an interesting visit. First, one should know that private transportation to/from the airport is extremely costly – somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 for a private car to take you into the city. The Limo buses are the only way to go coming in somewhere around $30 USD one-way with stops at major hotels. If you are bringing a group, keep in mind that it takes about 1.5 hours to get to the city from the airport.

We stayed at the Westin Tokyo, their flagship property, and you know why if you are fortunate enough to stay. The service is top notch! A few nights in Tokyo with a lovely dinner hosted by the CVB and delightful company, along with a tour gave us a pretty good feel for the city.

The Tokyo market. Don't ask me what's stuck to my shoulder, I don't know!

After two nights in Tokyo, we were off on the bullet train to Kyoto. The bullet train was amazingly smooth and comfortable, and if you get the seats (E & F side) you get a good look at Mount Fuji on your way down. Kyoto is one of those stealth cities that when you first see it you don’t necessarily “get it”. You need to stay in the city long enough to pick up on the amazing charm of the people and the city! In contrast to modern and sleek Singapore, Kyoto is historic and quaint. We were able to stay at a more traditional Japanese Hotel (the Acura) and then move over to the Hyatt which was a true pleasure. This is where I had my first ever Acupuncture treatment which proved to be the best relief I have had since the back surgery (I am now hooked!). We also took a look at the Westin there and had a fabulous sukiyaki dinner with the staff there (the Vueve Cliquot they treated us to certainly did not hurt either!). We visited a true Japanese style Royadan where guests sleep on the Tami mats and take meals in their rooms while sitting on the floor. Truly Japanese style!

Tea Service

What do you think- should I start wearing kimonos?

We visited a number of the temples and other venues, along with a few traditional Japanese tea services, but truly it is the people of the city that really charm you! The city is so safe that the tourism director said he has left his wallet 3-4 times in a cab and always gets it back with the money still intact. The Japanese just don’t want to dishonor their families so they are honest in a way that most large American city dwellers would find hard to understand. How refreshing!

Locals in Kyoto- don't they look happy?

A visit to the Geisha district with a guide who is an expert on geishas was truly fascinating! Our guide was involved with a recent documentary on them so he was a positive fountain of knowledge on the subject. I think most folks consider the geisha a glorified prostitute but this could not be further from the truth. Their commitment to the lifestyle, which is to perform and entertain, is incredible. They start with 5 year contracts to live and study in the boarding schools and take years to perfect their art. This is more of a life’s calling than anything else. We were able to catch them going off to entertain clients for the evening. They command about $1,000 each per night but no group function would be complete without adding this element. Many of the geishas are wearing from $30-100k worth of garb when they fully dress up. Talk about nerve wracking!

Geisha, presumably on her way to a job.

A bullet train back to Narita airport with one switch and we were back on a flight headed for home. I once again had to deal with the lousy "economy comfort" – Delta, you can’t get those planes redone fast enough!

A couple of takeaways - Asians sure like their 7 star toilets! Even the most modest of places have the built in bidets and the heated seats. If you have a plumbing supply group, they are good candidates for an incentive trip to Asia!

It is a long trip so be sure to think about your group and plan to stay at least a week – it take you that long to adjust to the time difference. But in the end, the experience is well worth the trek.

Sandi Daniel
President and CEO

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What is Engagement?

I recently attended the annual Enterprise Engagement Alliance (EEA) conference in Tarrytown, NY. The entire subject of "engagement" may seem new to some, but it has actually been a long standing corporate problem. Today, it is ever more exacerbated by the recent economic and demographic changes in our world of work.

Right now 52% of mission critical jobs are not being filled. In addition, recent studies show that 18% of workers are actively DISENGAGED when it comes to their work. That costs our economy over $382 billion dollars each year.* What does all of this mean? It means that when the economy kicks back, about 60% of the workforce will be out seeking new employment opportunities.

Recognition, rewards and engagement are a blip on most company operating budgets but soon they will find out how important those things are. My prediction is that in the next 1-3 years companies will be scrambling to retain their A players as they start looking for jobs elsewhere. To keep these key employees, companies need to put a special focus on how to engage them. Of course that involves providing a proper compensation program, incentives for going above and beyond and rewards and recognition. While these things are important for keeping employees engaged, they are often the Band-Aid to a much deeper issue.

Organizations have to build in an engagement strategy that brings the employee in from the day they start work and keeps them engaged throughout their employment. A truly great employee performs out of passion, not fear. To think about engagement is to think about what gives you passion to do your job every day. It is a way to excite your employees to WANT to do a great job for you. It's a philosophy and a practice, not just an incentive program.

That is why our organization is involved with the new EEA certification process. As engagement consultants, we work with organizations to plan their engagement strategies from day one. The fact is, people these days value quality of life more than money. It used to be that money was considered the number one signifier of happiness. This is no longer the case. In fact, monetary compensation barely breaks the top five.

In my company, we have struggled with the downturn in the economy like everyone else. So, in lieu of raises, we made some changes to our corporate philosophy. We stopped tracking every minute of vacation and sick time, allow employees to bring their dogs to work, have a casual dress code (unless we have a client meeting), have the ability to work from home when they want and have incentives built into their jobs. Wearing jeans and having a pet with them in the office makes them happier which, in turn, makes them work harder for us. I know that these philosophies may not work for every organization but they are examples of how changing some fundamental workplace rules can change how your employees feel about your company. And that can make all the difference when the economy turns around.

Sandi Daniel
President & CEO

*Source: Presentations at EEA Expo, June 1-2, 2011. Can also be found on www.eeaexpo.org

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Incentive travel budget doubled in size....CEO reaction will surprise you!

Times are still tough and incentive budgets are under that microscope for sure. I have had my fair share (maybe more) of interactions with purchasing managers and many CFO's that get involved early and often in incentive budget discussions. Their goal, make this budget be as low as possible but deliver a highly positive experience. Right.

I have managed to not only get past these types of meetings, where you have to come armed with ideas on how to "save money" in fear of losing the business, but I have actually created cheerleaders from both purchasing and CFO's for incentive budgets. One such experience included an incentive travel program that had a budget of $600K in 2009. The request was to produce a program that would "not appear to be less in value, but needs to be below our budget of $375K for 2010".

That incentive travel budget, after a business case analysis was conducted and presented to the Executive Team, was projected to be $1.6 Million, "in order to move your business to the next level". Not only did I get this budget approved, I gained complete support from the CFO in doing so. The CEO, after the results were in (they exceeded next level results), ordered a company-wide (over 600 employees) celebration that included a video broadcast of the sales team, from their incentive travel destination, telling those employees how much they appreciated being able to exceed sales and margin objectives "due to your support".

The presentation concluded with the Senior Vice President telling the employees, "No, we can't all be on that trip, but we are all celebrating growth in our business while our competition is meeting to try and figure out who to lay-off".

Best year yet and more to come.

Guest Blog written by Bob Dawson of CITE

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Not Your Grandmothers Ft. Lauderdale!

I had not spent any real time in Ft. Lauderdale in over 5 years, and the last time I stayed there was probably 15 years ago. So when they asked me to come down and take a look, I have to admit I was not really sure it would be a destination that I would ever want to recommend, especially during spring break. Boy was I pleasantly surprised! With 23 miles of beach that is in pristine condition, I had to erase those memories of young college kids drinking and partying into oblivion until all hours of the night. That is not to say you can’t find action in one of the 123 nightclubs in town, but it is just a bit more “grown-up” then it once was.

What I saw during “spring break” were adults and adults with children, and 4,122 restaurants filled with “normal” people just enjoying a little vacation. Who knew? The new Ft. Lauderdale is a civilized South Beach without the price tag! Yet, there are over 45,000 resident yachts stretching along the many marinas and Inter-coastal waterways that cover over 300 miles. They call it the Venice of America for a reason.

What does the Greater Fort Lauderdale Spring Breaker of today look like? There are apt to be chic couples in the mood for golf or luxury spas, opera, ballet or Broadway shows, and staying in luxury resorts like the W Fort Lauderdale, recently named the trendiest hotel in America. Or, they might be convention goers; the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, celebrating its 20th anniversary, welcomes 580,000 attendees from around the world each year. Or they might be cruise passengers enjoying a mini-vacation before or after their voyage from the city's Port Everglades, one of the busiest cruise ports in the world.

During my long weekend I was able to look at a number of surprising properties that are worth a visit, if not a stay. The W, as I mentioned previously, is really chic and fun; the Ritz Carlton, which started as a St. Regis, is truly upscale and beautiful – yet different in style from your typical Ritz. A real surprise was the Hilton on the Beach with their condo-style rooms, equipped with mini-kitchens that are very well appointed. The same holds true for the Doubletree which boasts a water taxi stop right out the back of the hotel on the Inter-coastal. (You can also book their yachts for a breakout session….now that is a unique meeting room!) The Westin is newly done and very warm and inviting. The real surprise on this visit was the B Ocean property – it truly has a WOW factor, and so unexpected! It was once a Holiday Inn, but you would never guess it. The meeting space is all floor to ceiling windows, and well, you just need to see it for yourself – it is hard to describe! I think the most surprising thing of all is that many of these properties are truly very affordable. You can have a South Beach type of experience for far less. To be honest, I always feel quite imperfect while strolling along South Beach with all the model types, Ft. Lauderdale is so much easier on the self esteem (although there are still plenty of pretty people among the beach goers).

During my visit I also attended the Gulf Stream horse pre-derby event. Of course I arrived with Derby hat and outfit in tow! The race highlighted many horses that will be in the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

Me with Stacy Copeland from the Fort Lauderdale CVB

One thing is for sure, I still have no talent when it comes to picking winning horses, but I sure know a winning destination when I see one! If you have not seen Ft. Lauderdale lately, you need to take a look.

Sandi Daniel
President and CEO
FIRE Light Group