New Zealand's world-leading 'wow' factor helped an American company deliver 'the best incentive trip ever'

Kim Hester, Senior Account Executive at California-based JNR Incorporated, faced a challenge when devising an incentive programme for a US media company - where in the world would she find enough ‘wow’ factor to entice a discerning group?
“The company wanted to entertain the top advertisers on their television stations, thank them for their business and bond with them to increase potential future business. In order to qualify for the trip, each advertiser had to meet or exceed certain pre-set levels of expenditure on TV ads. These are sophisticated travellers, so you really want to captivate them. You can't go wrong with New Zealand; I’ve never had a group say ‘that was disappointing’. It is one my top places in the world in terms of wow for great value.
“Plus, the perception of New Zealand is that you couldn't ask for a safer place on the planet. That is very important, since safety is now a major concern. And, the people are known for being friendly and welcoming to Americans,” Hester notes. “Add in beautiful scenery, a wide range of activities, superb wines, great food, and it’s an easy choice.”
Hester adds that the biggest challenge was the long flights, with delegates coming from across the USA to fly out of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The participants were offered coach seats but had the option to upgrade if they chose to at their own expense. “The option of four different classes of service available on Air New Zealand allowed for additional comfort in Skycouch and Premium Economy, without the Business Class price tag. We also placed staff in LAX to assist with the transition from the domestic to the international terminal which was a huge help to the participants.”
However, Hester notes the perception of the flight was worse than the reality. “Most people think it takes way longer to get to New Zealand than it does to Europe and that’s not the case for participants who live between the Midwest and West Coast. Nearly all of them arrived to say: ‘That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be!’ An added bonus was landing in Auckland in the morning, with guests going straight to their pre-booked rooms at the Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour to rest and refresh, before starting the programme proper at lunchtime.”
Reaching new heights in Auckland
Hester says: “We wanted to start with a bang, so went to the SkyTower for an amazing lunch of small plates at The Sugar Club. Then the guests had the option to do a SkyWalk or SkyJump off or around the 328-metre tower. I think people surprised themselves! With encouragement from their colleagues and fellow guests, just about everyone did one or the other. We had people in their 60s sky jumping, or walking the circumference of the tower and loving it. It was a badge of courage that created a lot of excitement, camaraderie and fun right from the start. With the great views, the ambience and fabulous food it was a perfect kick-off.”
Guests then enjoyed an evening welcome reception at The Wharf, which was decked out in America's Cup decor. Two-time America’s Cup winning crew member Craig Monk and preeminent sportscaster Peter Montgomery provided a personable and fun introduction to the City of Sails.
The following day saw guests cruise 35 minutes out to nearby Waiheke Island, a haven of golden beaches, vineyards, olive groves and an active artistic community. The group was split in two, travelling one way by luxury yacht, and the other way by ferry. “The yacht trip slowly took in the beautiful harbour as guests enjoyed refreshments, so they felt very pampered,” Hester says. “At Waiheke they had an orientation tour, a wine tasting at Cable Bay and then a gourmet lunch at Mudbrick Vineyard. We were really lucky, we had perfect weather and it was glorious. The group photographer got a wonderful photo of the entire group with the Auckland skyline in the background to capture the day.”
Guests could choose from a number of activity options the next day, from shopping and spa treatments to sea kayaking. “Racing on America's Cup yachts was the most popular activity,” Hester says. “For two hours they took over the boats and raced on the harbour. They came off the water really enthusiastic. A tour of the city on the back of a Harley Davidson was also very popular - the Harley enthusiasts who drove our participants were real characters and it gave a very authentic local flavour.”
Upping the ante in Queenstown
After a one-hour flight, guests received an unexpected welcome in Queenstown for the next part of their programme. “We wanted to create a surprise,” Hester says. “When they landed, we sent the luggage on ahead to Sofitel Queenstown, then took them down to the boat dock where they boarded a Shotover Jet Boat. They were a little apprehensive at first, but the boats zinged along and spun around at top speed before turning into the spectacular Queenstown Harbour. They came off the boats completely exhilarated! They were saying: ‘We feel like James Bond stepping off a jet boat into this picturesque town; that was incredible!’”
The following day, guests could travel on the Skyline Gondola at their leisure to take in beautiful, panoramic views. Hester laughs: “Now that they were all brave from Auckland, a number of them also decided to go paragliding on their own: ‘I've just jumped off a building, now I'm going to jump off a cliff!' Upping the ante for bravado was the name of the game now.”
That day’s lunch at the renowned Amisfield Winery was “one of the best meals I have ever had in my life”, Hester says. “They didn't want to leave, I had to push them out onto the bus!”
Later, guests arrived at the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump Centre for an evening of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres - and some action. “We thought perhaps 15-20 of them might jump but everyone wanted to do it!” Hester says. “We had about 80 out of 120 take the leap before we ran out of time. They absolutely loved it and they were all egging each other on.”
But the biggest wow was yet to come. “The next day we were meant to be helicoptered up to Coronet Peak but the winds were too high, so we went to Moonlight Lodge instead. It turned out even better, we had great facilities and a wonderful catered lunch,” Hester says. “The helicopter ride in and out circled over Queenstown and people were just blown away by the panoramic beauty of the place.”
The next day, optional activities again gave guests a choice based on their own preferences. “The 4WD adventure was very popular, everyone wanted to see The Lord of the Rings filming locations,” Hester says. “The second most popular activity was white water rafting. We warned them ‘this isn't for sissies’ and they loved it - they had Class Four and Five rapids. We also had a handful do a Ziptrek, play golf at Jack’s Point or take a wine tour.”
The programme culminated in a spectacular farewell gala evening at Stoneridge Estate. “We had a stunning sunset both times, with dramatic views of the lake and the mountains. The decor made the venue look like a New Zealand forest, with ferns hanging from the chandeliers. We had a superb dinner and a kick-ass dance band that had everyone dancing late into the night. They didn't want to leave!”
The ultimate adventure
The event was a resounding success, Hester says. “The guests were simply blown away. Each day there were ‘Oh My God!’ moments - what is next? It just kept building to better and more thrilling events and activities. We wanted daily wows and that is exactly what happened. Everyone had sky-high expectations and all expectations were exceeded.”
All elements pulled together: “We did very well on the currency exchange, we got a lot of value for our budget,” Hester says. “The food and wines were outstanding. The cuisine is gourmet, fresh and very high-quality, yet it’s food you recognise as well. Not too spicy or exotic. And it’s such a friendly country - people can’t do enough for you. In some countries it feels a bit forced, but there is a level of genuineness to the welcome in New Zealand is so appreciated.”
Organisation was also easy, thanks to assistance from the Tourism New Zealand Business Events staff based in the US. “I knew Alexa Bennett before the programme and she is wonderful. She understands the US incentive market and knew exactly what I was looking for. She guided me to excellent vendors and offered very good support. I am coming back for two more programmes in November this year.”
Hester concludes: “Every day was filled with excitement, adventure, delicious food, fine wines and delightful surprises. The trip unfolded within one of the most beautiful and pristine environments on the planet. Kudos to the Kiwis for their warm welcome and for keeping New Zealand just as Mother Nature designed it. Thank you for the best incentive trip ever!”