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Colorado is a Top Pick for the Reawakening of Incentive Trips

By M+E Staff

After the shake-up and near death of incentive trips from the economic downturn that began in late 2008, incentive trip business started picking up again in 2012 and beyond but in a modified format and with a bit of caution.

“The economy being on the move and corporations seeing profits goes hand and hand with incentive trips,” notes Fred Brodsky, group sales director for Snowmass Tourism.

Nicole Marsh, CMP, DCMP and partner at Denver-based AXS Group, observes that incentive trips are almost fully back but are not as elaborate and groups are seeking resort versus city experiences. “Most are doing a CSR or team-building activity, so there are elements of a meeting,” she says. “Companies are forgoing huge theme parties and focusing more on activities and getting out in the destination.”

Melissa Layton, partner of Operation Altitude in Vail, agrees, adding that most of their clients’ incentive programs include 50 to 400 guests and involve nice and unique dinner events. “When visiting Colorado, groups want to experience all that the destination has to offer like skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, biking, fly fishing and rafting,” she says. “Colorado is the perfect corporate playground. People love it here, especially in the summer when they want to enjoy the cool Colorado temperatures and bring their families.”

AXS Group also is working with groups that have never done winter incentive programs, testing them out and seeing what attendees think, Marsh says.

Yet, there’s a new careful approach to incentive trips. “In 2009, corporate groups were tentative to book resort destinations because of public perceptions,” Layton says. “Now they are cautious because of the stock market and an election year. We had optimistic hopes of upward trends since 2010, but 2016 is showing tentative and last-minute bookings because of fear of the unknown economic climate.”

Classic Colorado

In February, Operation Altitude welcomed an incentive group of 400 based at The RitzCarlton, Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek for three nights. Mornings were devoted to meetings and keynote speakers and afternoons reserved for activities like skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, fly fishing, wine tasting and culinary classes. One of the evenings featured a concert by Sheryl Crow at Dobson Ice Arena, a gala dinner showcasing the cuisine at The RitzCarlton, Bachelor Gulch restaurants, appearance by Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and comedy dessert show with Nate Bargatze.

For an incentive trip based at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Operation Altitude coordinated a pool party at the resort for the welcome reception and an outing to Spruce Mountain Ranch in Larkspur for the final night, with interactive activities including fly fishing, horseback riding, Jeep tours of the ranch and lawn games culminating with a barbecue dinner, live band and line dance instruction. Mountain activities were offered every day to showcase the destination including zip lining, Garden of the Gods Jeep tours, horseback riding, Segway tours and mountain biking.

AXS Group recently received the Best Creative Activity – Best Tour Program at the Association of Destination Management Executives International’s 2016 Awards Gala. The award recognized a weeklong winter incentive trip to Vail for nearly 100 from a global high-tech firm that alternates between warmand cold-weather destinations. The experience catered to skiers and snowboarders of all abilities as well as nonskiers, who enjoyed a broad variety of outdoor tours and activities such as snowmobiling, dog sledding, snow biking and hot air ballooning. Those not as adventurous participated in confection classes, snowshoeing, ice skating, snow coach tours, spa services and shopping, keeping everyone on the go.

“Our client’s objective was to make sure the incentive trip winners felt the many hours traveled from across the globe were well worth the trip. Some attendees had never seen snow, so they were in for a treat,” explains Marsh. “Upon registering, winners were given the option to choose a ski/snowboard experience or a nonskier experience. Those who chose the nonskier experience were given the same dollar amount as the others to put toward alternative tours and activities, essentially building their own agenda for the week.”

A team of concierges recommended tours, compiled attendee requests and managed the account balances for each guest. It was an option to choose only a couple days on the slopes and the rest trying other activities, says Marsh, noting that about 60 percent chose the ski package.

Based at the Lodge at Vail, the group enjoyed private use of Vail’s tubing hill and bōl for an evening of bowling, dinner and dancing. A finale dinner was held at Larkspur, a venue for corporate groups and weddings, and concluded with a custom fireworks show set to music. A special touch was nightly room drops that were a prequel to what was happening the following evening, such as mini bowling pins, cookies and an invite for bōl. Prior to travel, attendees could select from a variety of coats appropriate for winter activities planned and chose between a hat, glove and scarf package or base layer package.

Incentive Preview

RMC, an Aspen-headquartered destination management company, teams up with St. Regis Aspen Resort and on-site partners Aspen Sports and Aspen Outfitters to offer Luxury Ski Week every spring, a tradition that has now spanned 24 years. Held this year on March 31 to April 3, the purpose was to give approximately 50 potential clients and their guests an incentive experience that includes several venues and daytime activities such as skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, fly fishing, skeet shooting, dog sledding, spa services and a scent-paired lunch.

The three evenings of festivities were spread between the St. Regis courtyard, new Aspen Kitchen and Rec Room downtown, and a 21,000-squarefoot mansion with a surprise appearance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human Band from Late Night with Stephen Colbert.

For example, a technology client made the journey instead of a pretrip to check out venues being proposed by RMC. “We are true believers in showing the experience,” says RMC President Nathan Boyd. “It is one thing to show pretty pictures and talk about Aspen on the phone. They need to see how easy it is to get into Aspen from the airport, which is 3 miles from town; they can visualize better when seeing the destination.”

It’s also a chance to show that spring ski trips in April are possible, as two of the four Aspen/ Snowmass ski areas stay open later and the weather is mild.

A New Approach

In a unique move for a destination marketing organization, Snowmass Tourism has helped develop a new adventure travel-focused receptive tour operator that is headquartered in Snowmass but feature itineraries that span a number of Colorado’s iconic mountain towns.  “We are getting new and different requests from groups, they don’t want just sun and fun on a beach but something more active,” Brodsky says.

Together, Snowmass Tourism and Ursus Adventures have developed fully guided, full-service itineraries that should play well in the incentive market and are being offered only business to business at this time. “These itineraries feature daily adventure-based activities, cultural happenings, great culinary opportunities and are fully customizable for a particular client,” he explains. “This is really new concept stuff in Colorado, not just reawakened but reinvented.” 

It’s a concept similar to traveling abroad. “When going to Europe, you typically visit a few days here and a few days there. The same can be done in Colorado mountain towns, so not only staying in Aspen and Snowmass but also Crested Butte, Telluride and Durango,” Brodsky says.

These active incentive trips, offered from June through early October, are typically a week long. Economy to high-end lodging can be selected, and there is an adventure-based activity planned for each day. For example, an excursion might include overnight rafting on the Arkansas River, llama trekking outside Durango, riding on the Durango Blues Train, visiting craft breweries, and hiking from Aspen to Crested Butte.

The goal is to provide groups with deeper, richer incentive trip experiences. “Groups from the United States don’t need to go to the ends of the earth for great adventure travel, they can enjoy it right here,” suggests Brodsky.

For destinations like Snowmass with several properties that don’t have the capacity to serve large groups, these types of trips open up the opportunity for great smaller properties to get involved. Brodsky says, “It allows other lodges to play ball in this market.”

The big message? Today’s incentive trips are not about luxury and excess, they are about creating memorable experiences, building teams and giving back while being rewarded.

Tips for Sucess


“Know your group, as they are all so different. Are kids and spouses involved? Is the group made up of weekend warriors who will like rock climbing and zip lining or people who prefer touring the mountains in a Jeep?” – Melissa Layton, Operation Altitude

Colorado Prepared
“Since Colorado is at a higher altitude, encourage attendees to drink a lot of water and take it easy. Think about having bottled water in the room and an orange juice station upon arrival. Make it easy. Also, sunscreen and lip balm can be an initial amenity or room drop, part of a welcome package.” – Nicole Marsh, AXS Group

“For the group that went to Spruce Mountain Ranch, we had an assortment of cowboy hats to choose from. During winter trips, it is nice to give a fleece so participants have an extra layer. Photos are always popular with photo booths or candid shots taken during activities and made available on a website for viewing, downloading and printing.” – Melissa Layton, Operation Altitude

Care Packages
“When a spouse or guest is not invited, give attendees the opportunity to make and send a Colorado care package that includes things like recipes and spices.” – Nicole Marsh, AXS Group