– Max McKeown, author and innovation consultant
In October of 2020, we ran a regional event to the Village Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. Located on the impressive Biltmore Estate, the hotel was chosen for a number of reasons beyond its charming and unique setting and upscale amenities. To begin with, the city of Asheville was conveniently just a four-hour drive for most of the participants, who were based in Nashville, Tennessee, making it an ideal “drive-to” getaway destination. In addition, the hotel grounds are set amidst the open air of the sprawling Biltmore Estate, with miles of walking and biking paths and the nearby Antler Hill Village within short walking-distance.
Finally, the Village Hotel demonstrated proactive health and safety precautions, which included protocols such as mask-wearing inside the hotel’s public spaces (the hotel also gave out free masks to those guests who did not have them) and socially distanced tables in the dining areas. Other adjustments designed to promote safety and comfort included the absence of certain “close-quarters” amenities like shuttle services and valet and minimal contact with hotel staff such as bellmen and housekeeping (though the latter was available upon request). These modifications helped to minimize risk without taking away from the general hotel experience.
In addition to a self-tour of the Estate, other trip activities included zip lining, falconry, skeet-shooting, and an off-roading Land Rover experience. These sorts of outdoor activities were designed to be both fun and health-conscious, and all were well-received by participants. Two major trip events were a private dinner in a large, open-air barn with tables socially-distanced and masks required when getting up to go to the restroom, food stations, and bar, as well as a customized wine-tasting that was organized at the hotel.
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The latter in particular was a great example of how everyone, from the participants to the trip coordinators to the hotel, was willing to make adjustments to make the trip a success. Originally scheduled as a brewery tour at the nearby Sierra Nevada Brewery, the event unfortunately had been postponed, and then canceled; as a result, we decided to pivot to a wine-tasting event with a local Biltmore winery that was set up outdoors at the hotel. Rather than ask participants to walk around to various wine-tasting stations, the event was designed to accommodate social distancing requirements by allowing participants to remain at their own tables, with staff instead bringing the various wines to the participants. This event turned out to be a wonderful “Plan B,” with one company principal remarking: “I know we wanted to go to the brewery, but I think this was better.”
Why the Trip Worked
So, in spite of all of the headwinds and potential challenges of traveling during a pandemic, was this regional trip a success? Based on general feedback from the participants and client principals, it was a resounding yes:
- “Everything was great!”
- “We had an amazing time!”
- “We enjoyed the dinner, the stay, the zip lining and the beautiful Biltmore tour! Wow!!”
- “The customers had a great time. . . . Several [participants] indicated the time spent was perfect. ”
One reason the trip was successful was because of the destination itself. As mentioned, the Biltmore Estate was an ideal location for a socially-distanced trip. With the local village within walking distance, plenty of space for strolling through the Estate’s beautiful grounds, and activities designed to embrace the great outdoors, Asheville and the Biltmore provided the perfect backdrop for a trip.
Another reason for the success of this regional trip was that the hotel did an effective job of managing health and safety concerns. Between their ability to implement the latest protocols and their willingness to adjust and accommodate their guests, the Village Hotel succeeded in making things easy for everyone involved. As a reflection of this, when trip participants were asked on a survey whether they felt like the hotel took the necessary precautions to keep them safe, 100% of respondents replied “yes.”
Lastly the “drive-to” element of the trip provided a level of ease, comfort, and convenience that would otherwise have been impossible. What’s more, participants did not have to worry about getting to the airport on time in order to make a flight; instead, each participant could travel to the destination at their own pace. This also allowed individuals to make their own “itineraries,” which could include scenic detours or stops along the way (which a number of participants took full advantage of). In fact, some remarked that the weekend drive through this beautiful area of the country was actually a pleasant and enjoyable way to start and conclude the trip.
Adaptability is one of the keys to running a successful business in the long term, and how we adjust in the face of great challenges says a lot about our ability to move forward. In the case of incentive travel these past two years, finding new and unique ways to continue to reward the people who deserve it has required significant adjustments to be made for program planners and trip participants alike. A regional event that focuses on drive-to destinations has been one option that we’ve utilized now on numerous occasions, and one that seems to be picking up momentum as the economy opens back up and more and more travelers become comfortable once again with leaving home.
With our recent visit to Asheville, we saw firsthand how such a regional event could work. By providing participants with the flexibility of having their own transportation and working with the hotel and local businesses to make sure necessary accommodations were made, we were able to arrange a trip in which participants felt as comfortable and safe as was possible. As a company principal remarked, people look forward to these incentive getaways, and when enough care and consideration is involved in the planning process, a regional trip can be just the thing they need.
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