Despite the economic downturn in recent years, luxury travel is still very much in vogue for incentives. In brand-obsessed markets, where personal luxury goods can confer status, experiential luxury incentive travel provides kudos and the pressure is on each year for incentive planners to come up with exciting new destinations.
With international travel now so much more accessible and affordable, planners need to look outside mainstream destinations for locations that deliver something dramatically different for their high achievers.
Three such destinations fit the bill – Bhutan, Mauritius and Australia’s Northern Territory. None of them are, as yet, on the path well travelled by Asian incentive groups and yet, each is capable of conjuring up tantalising exotic images: mist-shrouded mountains, a picture-perfect tropical island surrounded by sparkling blue ocean, and fascinating outback and wilderness experiences.
Bhutan: A pure and happy land
A landlocked country the size of Switzerland and bordered by Chinese Tibet and India, Bhutan only really opened its doors to the world in the 1960s. Straddling the eastern Himalayas, the country is a unique blend of old and new and has a policy of “high-value, low-volume tourism”, which has enabled it to keep its pristine environment, centuries-old traditions and culture intact and alive.
Since the first plane arrived in 1986, tourist numbers have been closely managed. In 2011, overall arrivals hit just 64,038, a mere drop in the ocean in comparison to other destinations which see millions pass through on an annual basis.
The country, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, has a constitutional monarchy with a royal family much loved and revered throughout the land. Bhutan achieved worldwide recognition when the King decreed that the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of his people would be the primary benchmark for the country, rather than Gross National Product. GNH decrees that development and progress must be for society’s greater good and is measured in not only economic but also social, emotional, spiritual and cultural terms. Incentive groups seeking a destination that is not only one of the world’s best-kept secrets but which also embraces such genuine CSR (corporate social responsibility), need look no further.
“Bhutan offers a new frontier,” says PN Nageshwaran of Incent India. “Ease of airline access, choice of accommodation styles and the opportunity to experience a totally different culture sets it apart.” Vanessa Armstrong from Flight Centre Group Travel comments, “It’s been intriguing to visit a country that so values the happiness of its people. Many companies and organisations could benefit from taking a closer look at the four key principles which make up GNH. Surely happy people equal better performance and greater achievement.”
Karma Lotey, managing director of DMC Yangphel Adventure Travel, explains the unique charm of Bhutan for incentive groups: “Those fortunate enough to visit Bhutan describe it as a unique, deeply spiritual and mystical experience. This kingdom is an adventure like no other. Here is a country that is slowly opening up to the modern world in a fine balance with its ancient traditions.”
Bhutan has boutique luxury resorts, retreats and mountain lodges built in the unique Bhutanese architectural style, most with luxurious health and wellness spas. Respected international hotel operators such as Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, Aman Resorts, COMO Hotels and Resorts and the uniquely Bhutanese Zhiwa Ling in Paro, provide insight and access into the many fascinating layers of Bhutanese culture, along with superb international cuisine.
Lotey advises that they are seeing growth from the India, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore markets. “We have handled CEO groups from Singapore, religious [Buddhist] groups from Thailand, YPO and WPO groups from India, a CEO group from the US and many others. The latest big event we handled and organised was the PATA conference in Bhutan.”
Anthony Wong, group managing director of Malaysia’s Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel, who attended the PATA conference, says: “Bhutan is a gem and an exclusive destination, and people should understand that coming here is a privilege.”
With 72 per cent of the country under forest cover, outdoor activities are a must. The pristine environment offers pure air, crystal-clear rivers and beautiful wildflowers. Gentle guided walks can be arranged for every level of fitness, as well as mountain biking in the challenging Himalayan terrain for experienced riders.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and archery fields are everywhere, with no shortage of highly experienced instructors available. Requiring a good eye and a steady hand, this presents a unique team-building option to satisfy the competitive streak in ?high achievers.
The country is dotted with temples and dzongs, fort-like monasteries which are home to both the Buddhist religious and regional administrative authorities. Colourful Tsechus or festivals are held each year in April and October at these venues, and can be a fascinating focal point for an incentive trip. One of the country’s most spectacular monasteries clings to a vertical granite cliff more than 600 metres above the valley floor. Surprisingly, the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery can be reached on a half-day guided trek and is quite achievable for incentive participants with a reasonable level of fitness.
The country’s national carrier Drukair will commence bi-weekly direct flights between Bhutan and Singapore starting in September, complementing the daily flights operating to Bangkok.
Mauritius: Sparkling gem in a sapphire sea
Author Mark Twain noted that “from one citizen, you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius”.
Located in the southwest Indian Ocean, Mauritius measures just 67 km long and 46 km wide and yet offers amazing natural diversity, from dramatic mountains and volcanic craters to aquamarine lagoons and beaches. Relatively close to mainland Africa, it offers the tantalising opportunity for a dual destination itinerary, combining a luxury tropical island and an exotic African wildlife experience.
The history of Mauritius includes visits by intrepid explorers, pirates and adventurers with Arab, Dutch, Portuguese, French, British, Chinese, Indian and African influences creating a rich and diverse melting pot of customs, culture and cuisine. Nowadays, English is the official language although French and Creole are also commonly used.
Mauritius is a year-round destination with a warm, tropical climate. Exclusive resorts abound and include the Mauritian-owned and operated Beachcomber Hotels Group, as well other luxury brands such as Four Seasons, One&Only, Constance Hotels Experience ?and Naiade.
Constance Hotels has two resorts on the island: the Constance Le Prince Maurice and the Constance Belle Mare Plage. Groups at both properties can enjoy a customised wine and dine experience as well as special spa treatments at their branded spa centres.
In 2012, the Beachcomber Hotel Group is celebrating 60 years of operation. As tourism pioneers, they managed to secure the most spectacular beach locations for their hotels and now operate eight properties in Mauritius.
Henri Maurel, group sales and marketing manager for Beachcomber Hotels, reveals there is positive growth from Asia, especially from the Chinese and Korean markets. “We’ve hosted oil industry and pharmaceutical incentive groups in the past two years from Malaysia, Hong Kong and China,” he says.
With the 160km coastline of Mauritius almost entirely fringed by coral reefs creating calm, crystal-clear lagoons, water sports activities are an obvious choice and ocean swimming with wild dolphins is a special feature. Pirogue regattas, sailing on the traditional flat-bottomed fishing boats of the region, are popular and these vessels can also be used for special transfers to other offsite beachside dinner locations, where traditional Mauritian “Sega Dancing” shows can be staged, with all their colour and rhythmic beats.
Every year, Amway seeks a prestige location for its Amway Achievers, and they selected the deluxe Beachcomber properties of Dinarobin and Paradis on the Le Morne peninsula for their 600-participant event. Renato Fabbro, special events manager, Amway Australia and New Zealand, says: “Our participants simply loved Mauritius. What made it special was the warm hospitality of all the staff from both the Beachcomber properties.”
The magnificent hinterland reveals expansive nature reserves and parks, tea and sugar plantations and beautiful colonial homes and mansions previously owned by the rich sugar barons of bygone days. Many of these homes are now available for offsite functions and events, including the stunning Chateau de Labourdonnais, Chateau de Bel Ombre, the Eureka Estate and Chateau Mon Désir.
An official “Tea Route” showcases the various beautiful tea plantations and their elegant 19th century residences, including Domaine des Aubineaux, Saint Aubin and the Bois Chéri tea plantation, while rum distilleries and attractions such as La Rhumerie de Chamarel and L’Aventure du Sucre also provide excellent offsite venues for incentive group activities and functions.
Casela Nature & Leisure Park, spread over more than 14 hectares, is ideal for team building. Home to 1,500 birds as well as lions, cheetahs, deer, zebras, ostriches and antelopes, it has the longest zip line circuit in the Indian Ocean region. Fully escorted private tours of the park can be made in safari coaches, open buggies, on Segways or quad bikes, and VIP visitors can take an unforgettable one-hour walk with the lions, escorted by an experienced keeper.
Briony Baglin, event manager with cievents says, “Casela was an unexpected surprise. To be up close to so many beautiful animals was a great experience. The variety of activities ?and options available makes the park suitable for many different groups depending on their requirements.”
Another incentive highlight could be a day at the races in the capital city of Port Louis at Champ de Mars, the oldest horse-racing track in the Southern Hemisphere and the second oldest in the world. In 2012, the track is celebrating 200 years of continuous racing and incentive groups can gain VIP access to an exclusive private enclosure at the track on race day courtesy of organisers Crown Lodge.
Northern Territory: Outback Oz at its best
With Singapore just a four-hour flight from Darwin, the Northern Territory provides the closest Australian incentive experience for the Asian marketplace and offers amazing diversity. Covering some 1.35 million square kilometres, it has two key regions – the lush, tropical Top End that includes the cosmopolitan capital city of Darwin and the Unesco World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park; and farther south, the stunning desert landscape of central Australia that is home to icons such as Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and the outback town of Alice Springs.
The Northern Territory has established a niche reputation for boutique luxury wilderness lodges and retreats, which are perfectly suited to small, high-end corporate incentive groups seeking a bespoke experience. With Singapore Airlines recently launching a new international dual-class, four-times-weekly service between Singapore and Darwin on SilkAir, these lodges are now even more accessible.
“We believe that the Northern Territory offers a truly unique Australian incentive experience,” says Scott Lovett, director of the Northern Territory Convention Bureau (NTCB). “Incentive organisers can choose from a range of boutique luxury retreats and lodges where high achievers can be motivated and rewarded by Australia’s ancient indigenous culture, outback cattle station experiences, wilderness adventures or tropical city flavours.”
Wildman Wilderness Lodge, which opened in 2011, has already achieved recognition at the Northern Territory and Australian Tourism Awards. Situated in the beautiful Mary River Wetlands just a two-hour drive from Darwin, it caters for up to 50 guests in stylish freestanding cabins called “habitats”, as well as luxury “camping” experiences in safari tents.
“Guests are able to come to this very special part of Australia for business reasons and at the same time immerse themselves in the spectacular beauty of this region,” says Sally Cope, director of sales and marketing for Wildman Wilderness Lodge. “We’ve designed a wide range of activity options specifically tailored for incentive and corporate groups who are seeking ‘out of the box’ experiences.”
BMW Australia chose Wildman Wilderness Lodge for a prestigious motor vehicle launch event and drive programme in late June 2012. Piers Scott, head of corporate communications for BMW Group Australia explains why they chose the location. “We are always seeking to create a memorable experience combining luxury, innovation and cutting-edge design. Wildman Wilderness Lodge perfectly reflects the BMW brand as a premium resort destination offering adventure and luxurious comfort in equal measure.”
Nearby is another of the Top End’s premium lodges, the multi-award-winning Bamurru Plains. Just nine safari suites provide exclusive “Wild Bush Luxury” within the bush-fringed floodplains. Both of these properties are located on the doorstep of the pristine wilderness of Kakadu National Park, so nature-based experiences are to the fore, ranging from quad bike tours and 4WD nature safaris to guided walks, air-boat excursions and billabong cruises. River, sea and estuary fishing can also be undertaken from boats or as a heli-fishing adventure.
In the northwestern corner of the Northern Territory sits one of Australia’s most well-known cattle stations, Bullo River Station. At half a million acres (202,343 hectares), it offers quintessential Australian outback experiences for small incentive groups of up to 24 participants. Bullo features dramatic Aboriginal art “galleries”, exotic gorges, swimming holes and a close-up look at a working cattle station. With hundreds of kilometres of river frontage, leisurely river cruises and fishing excursions can be undertaken, as well as spectacular aerial tours from the property’s own landing strip.
And in the very heart of Australia lies the world-renowned Longitude 131° luxury retreat at Uluru (Ayers Rock), located at the gateway of the dual World Heritage-listed national park. Its elevated “tents” come complete with five-star luxury and private views of Uluru.
By day, bespoke itineraries provide insights into this ancient land through interaction with the traditional landowners, sunrise and sunset safaris, camel rides through the desert, art classes with world-renowned indigenous artists or 4WD bush excursions. At night, incentive groups dine out under the spectacular desert night sky at Table 131°, where an intimate three-course dinner is served with the finest wines under a glittering canopy of stars.
• Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA ) – www.tourism-mauritius.mu
• Beachcomber Hotel Group – www.beachcomber-hotels.com
• Constance Hotels Experience – www.constancehotels.com
• Tourism Council of Bhutan – www.tourism.gov.bt
• Yangphel Adventure Travel (DMC) – www.yangphel.com
• Northern Territory Convention Bureau – www.ntconventions.com