Creating a Sense of Place at Meetings

An afternoon spent immersed in the Maori culture in New Zealand. Competing in traditional Scottish Highland games. A Samurai experience in Japan. These are one-of-a-kind activities unique to each respective destination. And when a group experiences something so memorable together, the camaraderie created -- not to mention the memories -- can be powerful.

"The best networking happens when the group is doing something new and unusual together," says Lindsay Griffiths, director of global relationship management for International Lawyers Network, an association of more than 5,000 lawyers worldwide. She plans from two to four international conferences a year for the organization, and is a proponent of incorporating a sense of place, adding that, "We build unique cultural experiences into the social program to bond the delegates."

Among these are tossing the caber (a large log) and learning Highland dancing last year on Loch Lomond during its Scottish European Regional Conference; bike riding through rice paddies in Vietnam; getting pedicures at a fish spa in Singapore -- the more out-of-the-ordinary the better. "These are the things my delegates are still talking about," she says.

The group has met in destinations as diverse as New Delhi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Singapore, Lisbon, Rome, London, Paris, and Copenhagen, and she turns to her association for help in selecting them. "I use the expertise of our local members to find out what we should incorporate into the program," explains Griffiths. "I've found that local DMCs can get access to things that you wouldn't be able to get on your own."

The groups, which range from 75 to 125 attendees for the annual meeting and 25 to 45 at the regional meetings, has a dine-around one evening where groups of about 10 experience small, nearby restaurants. "We always try to stick to local cuisines," she says.

For example, one of the restaurants chosen for a dine-around in Rome was where Fettuccini Alfredo was invented. "They made it for us tableside. It was amazing," says Griffiths. "Not only do we look for local restaurants, but we try to stay at hotels that are not that generic."

Finding ways to infuse local culture into events is so important that many hotels, resorts, airlines, and even convention and visitors bureaus, have added cultural ambassadors to their staffs.

For example, Palm Beach County's Cultural Concierge helps groups tap into the more than 42,000 cultural experiences available in this Florida destination. Air New Zealand employs Andrew Baker, an indigenous New Zealander, or Maori, as cultural development manager. In his role, he makes sure passengers understand the uniqueness of his country and culture -- and how to experience it firsthand.

Meeting Demand
Hotels are finding ways to meet this demand for meetings infused with local culture. The Ritz-Carlton's newest program, "A Meeting of the Senses," focuses on meetings that not only awaken the mind, stir creativity, and intensify focus but incorporate local culture as well.

Sixty Ritz-Carlton properties around the world are participating in this program that creates immersive experiences. For example, at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, planners showcase the destination's beauty with the "Picnic Under the Stars" program, in which each guest receives a picnic basket they take to the property's rolling Plantation Lawn, and there enjoy an outdoor movie. The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans offers an "Oyster Butler" and "Crawfish Concierge" to guide attendees in properly shucking oysters and peeling local crawfish.

Another property highlighting the local culture for international meetings is The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre. Traditional dishes like Chicken Shawarma are presented as part of a coffee break setup, served with traditional appetizers such as hummus, fattoush, and mutabal. Taking the experience further, the property incorporates a variety of Arabic touches that can include a welcome from someone dressed in a traditional Khandoura or entertainment from a Henna artist.

For meeting professionals who want to extend their programs outside the walls of the hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre's signature "Impact Experience" invites groups to make a meaningful contribution and feel personally connected to the local community through "Give a Ghaf," an initiative that aims to help preserve the national tree of the UAE.  

Tapping Local Speakers
Tapping local speakers is another way to infuse the flavor of a destination. That's exactly what the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) did during its 2016 convention, held in Vancouver September 25-28 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Motivational Speaker Roger Haskett presented his talk, "How to Be a Vancouverite," and Chris Hadfield shared what it was like to be the first Canadian Astronaut to walk in space and serve as the commander of the International Space Station.

Another way the association ensured the group enjoyed Vancouver's surrounding beauty was by having events outside. One evening reception was held in the Jack Poole Plaza set around the majestic Cauldron that burned brightly during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. "With breathtaking harbor and mountain views, this reception was held both inside and out. We had fire pits and telescopes for our group to enjoy," says Larry Baile, NAMIC's assistant vice president, convention and association services.

For some corporate groups, one of the best ways to tap into a city is to see how the locally based companies do business. Hootsuite, the widely used social media dashboard that started in the city, infuses every aspect of its offices with the city's culture. The company's mascot, an owl named Owly, and the owl motif is seen throughout the offices. Staff have meals in the lunchroom with its picnic tables. At the end of the lunchroom is a stage where "Lunch and Learns" are held, an opportunity for any employee to teach others something they are passionate about.

The company's spaces can be toured by visiting groups, who can not only experience the Vancouver-focused design of the space, but understand how a local company does business.

Rome as the Romans Do
Creative Group, which specializes in engagement, incentive, and recognition solutions, and event management, took a trip to the Vatican a step further for a major automotive company by arranging for them to have exclusive access to many areas not normally open to visitors.

The group was treated to a private tour of the Vatican museums, including the Sistine Chapel, where permission for photography was granted. Special approval was also received for dinner to be held in a beautiful, intimate "behind the curtain" room within the Vatican museums, where the group sipped wine and listened to the Vatican choir, led by the famous choir director, Monsignor Pablo Colino. The evening was capped off with an exclusive performance by an opera-caliber tenor and soprano.

An underground tour of the Roman Colosseum, a visit to the Borghese Gallery, and a trip to a countryside winery where the group not only sampled wine in the family home but had a cooking class led by the family's matriarch, were all featured during this President's Club incentive trip.

"The attendees have the financial wherewithal for high-end travel, and creating an experience to surpass anything they could create on their own is a main challenge," says Creative Group President Janet Traphagen.

A private gourmet walking tour of Rome with a stop for coffee and homemade pizza was well received, and after the tour, the group enjoyed a private tasting lunch where the chef provided a history of Italian cuisine.

A successful incentive trip for the same client took place in Istanbul, Turkey, with accommodations at the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus. "Using our knowledge of the group and of Istanbul, we worked closely with our Turkish partners to come up with singular moments and personal touches for each of the activities and evenings," explains Traphagen.

Highlights included an exclusive tour of the Grand Bazaar with visits to local artisans; exclusive entry to Topkapi Palace -- arguably Istanbul's most popular attraction -- one hour before it was open to the public; and a Turkish bath experience at the famous Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, built in the 1500s (accompanied by a historian).

Creative Group planned another incentive trip to Los Cabos, where participants visited a remote rural area where they caravanned in enclosed off-road vehicles. They enjoyed themed stops along the way, including one for a smoothie at a stand Creative Group created, and another where a naturalist spoke about the local flora and fauna and how and why people settled in Los Cabos. The caravan ended at a beach that seemed to appear out of nowhere, where a surprise brunch was waiting in a tent at the edge of the water.

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