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Resources

Group Travel Reimagined: Tackling Ongoing Changes in Travel in a Post-COVID World

Kate Cardoso | September 7, 2021

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

Updated: September 7, 2021

Updates from Our Puerto Vallarta Trip!

Recently, I’ve been asked, “Why focus on group activities around corporate social responsibility (CSR) when participants have said they prefer individual time on their trips?” To this I say, CSR isn’t just a group activity, it’s a way to connect with not just other participants, but with the local community by giving them something to feel really good about and an experience to take home with them, and share with others.

Case in point: our recent trip to Puerto Vallarta and the following feedback about the group CSR activity (making lunches for the local food bank – Vallarta Food Bank):

  • We really enjoyed helping make the lunches and giving some of our time for those in need. It was a very special touch.
  • It was a great idea, good initiative to contribute to the society
  • I think it was a great idea
  • Giving back is always rewarding so this type of activity should become a standard.
  • That was awesome!! Helping the community.
  • Lets do it again!
  • This was a terrific idea and we should continue to serve the communities we visit!
 

Updated: August 4, 2021

Maintaining the Things that Are Important to Us (and our trips!)

For this update, I wanted to talk through some of the things that have not changed for our trips and our trip goers, while also talking through some new ones.

Let’s start with some oldies but goodies.

Promotional & Pre-Trip Mailing:

Promotional mailings and pre-trip mailings/communications are extremely important to any group travel trip. Promotional mailings can help motivate an audience to achieve a goal that will get them on the trip while pre-trip mailings/communications can instill a sense of excitement to the participants by giving them a small taste of what’s to come, helpful information about the destination, details on departure and arrival, and the onsite agenda. Nowadays, pre-trip mailings should include information regarding COVID requirements and precautions so that attendees know what to expect and how to keep themselves safe.

Depending on the budget, some gifts can be a helpful addition. For instance, here’s a recent promotional mailing for a group going to Grand Cayman next year. This was a mailing to inspire the target audience to achieve their goal and qualify to be on the trip.

And here’s an example of a pre-trip mailing we did for a trip to Puerto Vallarta in September of 2021.

In Depth Site Visits and Pre-Planning

If possible, every group travel program you plan should include a site visit, ideally before the contracts are even signed (although a lot of times that might not be possible). This is especially important given the issues related to COVID that are impacting every destination and even every hotel somewhat differently. Here are some issues to look out for when you’re doing site visits:

  • COVID restrictions/rules @ the destination and @ the hotel(s) / how are they going to impact your program?
  • Activities, restaurants, venues closed permanently or temporarily
  • Staffing concerns with any of your vendors

Here are some notes from recent site visits I’ve done in both San Francisco and Puerto Vallarta.

San Francisco is a very big and multifaceted city. There’s so much to see and do. The food is great, but with some COVID-19 restrictions still in place some restaurants are closed or open reduced days/hours.

There’s a new Four Seasons in San Francisco (Embarcadero). It’s a beautiful hotel but not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights (like my husband who was with me – oops!)

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is such a beautiful and diverse city. I highly recommend it as an incentive travel destination. I stayed at the absolutely gorgeous Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit and Julia Trejo CMP, CIS, DMCP was a wonderful guide to reacquaint myself with the city and its surroundings.

Concerning COVID, it’s very safe and has so much to offer – beach/jungle, adventure/relaxation, all kinds of shopping, wonderful restaurants, vibrant boardwalk, high-end hotels, modern airport, etc.

Including Community Service/Corporate Social Responsibility in Group Travel Programs

Which brings me to my final point for this update. While I was in Puerto Vallarta, I helped to plan HMI’s next community service initiative as part of a corporate group incentive travel program at the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit. We’re teaming up with the www.vallartafoodbank.com to make 600 bag lunches for people in need in Puerto Vallarta in mid-August and then again in mid-September. Francie, Juan and the other people I met with from the food bank are doing incredible work for those most in need in Puerto Vallarta.

I’ve started visiting food banks when I travel, both domestically and internationally, which are great organizations to support through a community service initiative incorporated into a group travel program.

Here are some wonderful food banks that we’re supporting/collaborating with for our initiatives, and I am so excited for this list to keep growing and growing:

I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be able to incorporate this community service work into my job as a meeting planner. It has given my work so much more purpose and meaning! If you don’t have that for yourself, I encourage you to try and find it.

Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like some recommendations/advice for how to do something similar for your organization. I am very passionate about this and I would be so happy to talk to you (absolutely no strings attached!)!

 

Updated: June 25, 2021

Hey Alexa, Play Come Together. 

Turns out, you might not have to be a joker to do what you please as hybrid-work scenarios come to fruition and bring the need for corporate bonding experiences to the forefront.  

Seemingly, the data on what professionals want with post-pandemic work environments is clear:  

The Subtext of Flexibility 

In all of these surveys, the subtext and anecdotes are the same. While employees demand flexibility, they also miss seeing their colleagues. The lack of organic water-cooler moments may take a toll on productivity and innovation unless companies are leaning in on creating moments of innovation by design. Meaning, companies who have high levels of intentional collaboration have high levels of team innovation. 

Where and How to Create Water-Cooler Moments 

A new wave of “off-site” meetings and events are on the rise. Call them bonding trips, elongated trips to the water cooler, innovation meetings, or whatever you please – but they’re here to stay.

The Wall Street Journal reported an influx of tech startups who have gone fully remote are re-investing that commercial real estate money towards multiple bonding experiences at memorable destinations around the world in direct response to the needs of employees to build relationship with their colleagues.  

And it’s not just the tech startups, companies like Salesforce are also heavily investing in an infrastructure to have a large increase in off-site events and experiences to bring folks together.  

Coming Together, Reimagined

The world has changed, but we still need to maintain our connection with each other. With corporate group travel programs becoming more popular, it’s important to make sure we can reengage with local vendors, reconnect with each other, and rejuvenate our sense of passion in travel and culture! 

Want to discuss more about what we’re doing to bring travel back? Take a look at our Group Travel Reimagined page

More research on this topic:  

Going Hybrid? Make It Human – Forbes 

Corporate retreats are now a must – Axios 

 

Updated: June 8, 2021

There’s been a lot of chatter lately in our industry about how group travel is dead. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and generally shifting tastes, the tide has turned in the direction of individual travel opportunities – at least, that’s what some of our colleagues in the industry are saying.

As someone who has worked for many years in group incentive travel, this is completely baffling to me. Group travel isn’t dead – it’s more alive than ever, and everything we’re doing at HMI is focused on reimagining what the group travel experience should be post-COVID. And to explain why, I’d like to take you through the details of a recent group incentive travel program I helped organize.

Why Group Travel is Here to Stay

It’s true that the pandemic forced a pause on group travel, but let’s not jump to conclusions here. First, all travel was largely paused, not just group travel. As the world slowly opens back up this year, we at HMI are starting to return to our regularly scheduled programming of group trips.

Second, and more importantly, if there’s one thing we’ve all been missing out on for the past year, it’s human interaction. It’s reconnecting with loved ones. Anyone who’s finally had a chance to interact with friends, family, or just anybody after months of isolation can tell you how refreshing it is to finally be back in the world again. Given that reality, why wouldn’t the face-to-face interaction inherent to group travel be desirable?

But maybe you’re worrying about the risk involved in big group activities right now, and you’re thinking that maybe individual travel (or not travelling at all) is a better idea for the foreseeable future.

And that’s a completely understandable concern – after so many months of this difficult situation, it’s hard to imagine the point where we’ll be back to “normal,” whatever that means for you. But here’s the thing – you deserve good things. We all do. It’s been a long year.

So, instead of nixing group travel altogether, some creativity is needed to make sure every attendee is safe and comfortable. To help settle your mind a bit on this issue, here’s a rundown of my experience preparing and implementing my recent group trip to Aruba.

Before the Trip

This was our first big international group trip that we’ve run post-COVID (we’ve been getting into regional travel a lot recently), so it’s a bit of an understatement to say I was nervous about it. With a group size of around three hundred attendees, safety and peace of mind were paramount, even with much of the world beginning to open back up.

For every trip, I conduct a site inspection with or without client contacts about a year before the trip is set to take place. We head to the location, look at hotels and the surrounding area, and maybe try out some activity options to figure out what’s going to work best for the client’s attendees. (I really enjoy these site inspection trips – it’s sometimes the only chance I have to see/experience the destination because being onsite for a program usually means I’m in a hotel meeting room all day, every day.)

But with safety a continued concern, we knew the inspection from a year ago wasn’t going to be enough, so a couple weeks before the trip kicked off I headed back to Aruba to make sure every contingency was accounted for. Along with my hotel contact, Ivonne, and my destination management company contact, Darysse, I looked for any and all potential issues that could arise with this large a group – to give you a couple of examples:

  • We realized that the hotel’s regular breakfast restaurant would have trouble accommodating all of our attendees given its limited capacities during COVID, so we worked out a private space for breakfast
  • We organized a private onsite COVID testing option for the group to make testing easier and quicker (a negative COVID test was required for returning to the U.S.)
  • We identified a better location for our group dinners that required special permission from the hotel but that ended up working out wonderfully
  • We pre-booked restaurant reservations off-property for the dinner at leisure nights because capacity and availability were limited

One of the lessons I’ve learned after years of working in this business is that site visits and planning meetings are always important, but especially now, with partners in hospitality coming back into business. It’s vitally necessary to understand the reality of what’s happening on the ground, and the preplanning stage is the best opportunity to identify potential issues and resolve them prior to the attendees’ arrival.

Welcome to Aruba

The trip itself was four nights, five days at a luxury resort. Attendees were treated to group welcome and farewell dinners but were otherwise largely on their own to explore the area, dine at the restaurants they chose, and socialize with the other attendees. It was the perfect, relaxed trip to get everyone – both the organizers and the attendees – back into the swing of things.

That’s not to say we weren’t working the whole time. As the main trip coordinator, it’s my job to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible for our attendees. That means facilitating arrivals and departures, working with ground transportation to get attendees to and from the hotel, greeting them when they arrive, making sure their rooms are ready, coordinating luggage, ensuring that the group functions go as planned, and being available throughout the days of the trip to answer any questions or concerns.

We brought three Travel Directors on the trip, my longtime colleagues, who staffed a hospitality desk, in addition to many other things, that was accessible as a resource to help attendees resolve issues. That means any issue whatsoever: a problem with their room, help getting a dinner reservation, facilitating an activity, anything.

Also at the desk with us was a rep from a local destination management company (DMC), an expert in the area who could provide help with transportation, activities, entertainment, local history, and any tips about things to see and do. We often don’t know everything about an area we’re going to, so we rely on the expertise of local people to help our attendees get the most out of their trip.

(By the way, now might be a good time to consider/reconsider outsourcing your group incentive travel and meeting planning to make sure that you have a team of corporate event planning and regional experts who know how to help you be successful with your group travel in a post-COVID world. But make sure you know what you’re looking for in an event planning partner!)

Safety First

Even with all of our careful preparations, I was still worried something would go wrong. Issues very frequently come up on group trips for so many different reasons – weather and flight delays/cancellations being the most frequent and disruptive issues – but in the time of COVID it’s especially important to prepare. In addition to our attendees’ safety being a top priority, we also needed every one of them to have a negative COVID test before they were allowed to board both the flight into Aruba and the flight back to the U.S.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that coordinating multiple COVID tests across a group of three hundred attendees is a logistical headache. It meant we had to be vigilant about communicating requirements for travel via email and our mobile app. I was sure that out of hundreds of attendees, we’d have at least one positive case, and we made sure to work out our protocol for quarantining and rearranging travel to ensure that even in that event things would go (relatively) smoothly.

So, I was overjoyed to learn, at the end, that our safety measures had paid off: not one of our attendees tested positive prior to returning to the U.S. Still, I don’t at all regret preparing for contingencies: that’s just part of the job. As we’ve seen a lot over the past year, things that can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s important to be ready for that.

But Don’t Take It from Me…

Here are just a few of the enthusiastic testimonials from attendees in our post-trip survey:

“All phases of the trip from pre-flight to final flight home were smooth and stress free.”

“Well planned, great coordination with all of the pandemic issues that were overcome.”

“Very buttoned up & detailed which is great for us as we are so dang busy. It’s [nice] to have the organized package.”

“Always fun to arrive & see old friends that we don’t get to see for basically a year & then see how relaxed everybody is at the farewell dinner. The food & drink were very good as always.”

Additionally, our client spoke fondly of the trip in an interview, which you can watch here.

Curious to Learn More?

I’ll be writing more about the group travel experience as travel ramps up through this year and into next year. I’ll try to provide helpful and actionable insights each time, so come back frequently for more stories and tips for running programs in a post-COVID world.

Want to discuss more about what we’re doing to bring travel back? Take a look at our Group Travel Reimagined page.

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