Share this:

by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Head in the Air

Once you run the gauntlet of checking in, depositing bags, negotiating security and finally boarding, the time on board an aircraft can be good head time if only for the fact that you’re your own captive audience and are usually free from the random interruptions of terrestrial life. Today I’m in an aisle seat with my stuff spread out around me, one of those lucky flights where you end up with extra space. My mind is roaming as freely as my junk, thinking about a really successful event that I’ve just attended. So besides a great education programme, I ask myself, what made the Incentive Research Foundation’s Annual Invitational so successful?

In no particular order, I’ve come up with these 5 principles for success.

1. Choose a memorable destination and host property

Johnny Cash summed up many people’s experience of the Irish landscape with his “forty shades of green” image. I stood for ages trying to think of a similarly pithy and clever phrase to describe the azur waters of the Caribbean but couldn’t liberate my teaming brain from Enya’s Caribbean Blue.

Caribbean Blue and Ladies in Red

Evolutionary scientists say all life came from the water so maybe this is what we find so mesmerizing about the ocean, its ever-changing moods and  colour palate. Sun, sand and sea destinations need make little effort to convince attendees of their merits. Cancun is a triple “s” destination par excellence and therefore a home run for IRF before the event even takes place.

If a destination is the theatre, then a venue is the stage and Hard Rock Hotel Cancun provided a wonderful platform upon which to enact the IRF drama (and there’s always lots of histrionics!) even providing iconic guitars for us to strum in the privacy of our rooms when the action got too much for us.

2. Connect with the uniqueness of the destination

For the past 3 years this event for me has been a unique opportunity to play golf on two consecutive days. I broke the habit this year by opting on day 2 for a class in Mexican cooking. I figured I can play great Jack Nicklaus courses in many parts of the world but there aren’t many places outside of Mexico where you can learn to make tortillas and guacamole with a real Mexican chef. And Marcos Merin from Merida, our chef and guide was the real deal.

We were taken to Puerto Morelos to the Little Mexican Cookery School one of a number of entrepreneurial initiatives dreamed up by Catriona Browne, an ex pat from Sydney Australia who also runs a small speciality food store and a B&B at the same location.


It was simple and unsophisticated, charming and utterly authentic. Feedback was unanimously positive from 15 pretty jaded, fatigued and cynical meetings and incentives professionals who had more wow experiences than most folk have hot dinners. Even Jim Adams, the most experienced, and jaded of us all, declared this a triumph!

3. Plan your parties well!

Social events play a key role in the overall success of a meeting or conference but need to be well planned, balancing event objectives with attendee objectives while, of course, remaining on budget. The IRF events at Le Blanc, Secrets and J.W.Marriott were all well planned parties that delivered on the full gamut of objectives.

The pre-event party at Le Blanc had a boutique, elite feel about it, appropriate in that attendees were all invited clients and top tier event sponsors. Overall it was a low key, laid back affair which allowed the deep sensual appeal of the venue emerge in a natural, unforced way.

Secrets, by contrast, was a full-on event proclaiming in strident, confident tones the arrival of Cancun’s newest hotel project. Each of the property’s 7 restaurants showcased its culinary specialities, there were speeches from the entire leadership team and a widely divergent entertainment programme included impressive projection technology, an Operatic interlude and risqué dance club routines a la Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Secrets Raunch

J.W.Marriott, finally, provided the perfect interior setting for the IRF live auction, a much anticipated feature of the IRF. By dividing the huge ballroom into 2 areas, the live auction was able to proceed in one area while in the other area attendees continued to mix and mingle, gambol and graze around opulent, highly refined buffet presentations. Despite the segregate

4. Hire a great live band

At one stage they were lined up 5 abreast across the stage, bass, rhythm, 2 leads and a vocalist. For a moment I thought of the Thriller video when the zombies and un-dead commence the dance formation. These World Class Rockers from Steppenwolf, Santana, Journey, Boston and Lynard Skynard bear the burden of the years on their ravaged faces so the comparison, while unkind, mightn’t be too much off the mark.


However, whatever about their ragged appearance, there was nothing lacking about the passion and performance of these superannuated rockers. They hooked a pretty demanding audience from the first notes of “Magic Carpet Ride” and played them merrily through “Don’t Stop Believing”, “Black Magic Woman” and countless other 40 year old memories culminating with a breathless version of “More than a Feeling” with Fran Cosmo himself centre stage.


So yes we were all a few pounds heavier, and yes the hair was dyed, grey or not there at all but these World Class Rockers and a few complimentary adult beverages transported us back to high school again and all of a sudden we were 17 and flying without wings.

If you want to create a successful event, hire a great live band.

5. Organisational leadership

My final principle for event success relates to the leadership of the organisation staging the event in question. I’ve been impressed by how the leadership at IRF out-sources the management of the event to Lisa Cherry at The Opus Group while assuming exclusive control for its governance and, most crucially, its community building.

Members of the Board of Trustees are constantly visible and accessible to attendees and make a point of connecting with you to hear direct feedback, both positive and negative.

There’s a pervasive atmosphere of collegiality and friendship and not a trace of elitism despite it being a supplier/buyer community.


Padraic Gilligan is co-owner and Managing Partner at SoolNua, a marketing consultancy firm specialising in MICE. At the IRF he represented Ovation Global DMC a proud partner with AMSTAR, one of the two DMCs who partnered with IRF in the delivery of a spectacular event. In particular Padraic would like to thank Michael Freedman, Director of International Sales at Amstar for his support and friendship. He’d also like to acknowledge the input, help and support of Ovation’s co-sponsors at the event Niamh Burns of the Killarney Park Hotel and Ailish Wall of the Ritz Carlton Powerscourt



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.