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By Pádraic Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, SITE & Managing Partner, SoolNua

Connect, Learn, Discover

If one thing is clear from SITE’s Incentive Summit Europe, real people in real time in real places are a force to be reckoned with and will NEVER be replaced by AI, AR or any other two or three letter acronym!

Almost 60 incentive travel professionals took planes, trains and automobiles from 16 different countries – including the USA and Canada – to gather for 4 days at the delightfully dishy W, Verbier, a star performer in Marriott International’s recently created MILUX portfolio. The reason for coming? To be part of SITE’s latest foray into Europe with our incentive summit series, a boutique event for incentive travel professionals promising connections, education and destination discovery.


By late afternoon on the second day it was clear the promise had been kept. The opening reception, which ran a full 90 minutes over time, had the high pitched familiarity of a college reunion, not the awkward pauses of a first date; the education session, delivered by Edouard Getaz of InsideRisk, had us on the edges of our seats, fully immersed in a thrilling, page turning drama involving a kidnapping, a hostage and the payment of a ransom; overnight snow greeted us as we pulled those curtains wide on our first morning but by lunchtime azur blue skies provided dramatic contrast for the freshly fallen white powder as we ate al fresco in the shade of Mont Blanc.

This was Connect, Learn, Discover par excellence!


Incentive Travel Professionals from 16 countries attended ISE. There was a great mix of mature, established source markets like the UK and the Netherlands and new, emerging source markets like Ireland and Poland. Similarly on the supplier side, we had great representation from Switzerland, the host destination and a tier one favourite for incentive travel. But we also had emerging destinations like Slovenia and some independent boutique hotels like the extraordinary Abadia Ruetera, a stunning converted monastery set in its own vineyard.


A shared train journey from Verbier to Geneva allowed me connect with Mikolaj Jerez (aka Niko) of InDreams in Poland. Quite the incentive travel veteran, Niko was new to SITE and was delighted to connect with other senior industry personalities on the agency and supplier side. I was astonished by the “out of the box” travel incentives that he’s crafted over the years for Polish corporations – full immersion experiences in Alaska involving RVs, 3 day rallies on Route 66 with Mustang Cabriolets, incentives in far flung places like Georgia, and Azerbaijan. He was heading off on Qatar Airlines over Doha to Denpasar to operate a 200 person incentive between Ubud and Nusa Dua, Bali. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to such an intrepid explorer, a true aficionado of the transformational power of travel.


It’s often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and it’s one the few quotations I recall from my post-graduate diploma in Education:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand

It nails what experiential learning is all about and perfectly describes that extraordinary experience we had at SITE ISE with producer / director Edouard Getaz of InsideRisk who took us on an emotional roller coaster ride between Switzerland and Colombia as we got fully involved in the dilemmas, enigmas and conundrums of ransoming a hostage.


Supported by slick video footage, great AV and a tension heightening sound track, Edouard brought us into the mind, heart and soul of a Swiss C-suite executive forced by circumstances to single handedly deal with the kidnapping by Colombian terrorists of a young female engineer. Through a dramatic re-telling of the true story we are required to evaluate key truths about leadership, business and personal ethics, the value of a human life. Delivered over two morning sessions, the topic was discussed and debated hotly over lunch and dinner bringing a deeper, more enduring connection between us all.


For the majority of us, Incentive Summit Europe also represented the discovery of a new destination – the wonderful W hotel and its magical alpine location in Verbier, one of Switzerland’s premier year round resorts. And, yes, it is a “planes, trains and automobiles” journey via Geneva (shorter) or Zurich (longer) but therein the appeal too. You leave the cityscapes of Geneva or Zurich by train and get gradually drawn inwards and upwards until you’re in this enchanting place of wooden chalets clinging to the side of steep mountains.


The W, Verbier effortlessly plunges the usual urban sophistication of the W brand into this chocolate box setting – not an easy task – to deliver a hotel experience of forensic attention to detail that’s not annoyingly fussy. All of the usual W whimsey is there – in both English and French – yet this is unequivocally alpine and uncompromisingly Swiss. I particularly LOVED Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface, one of the random pieces of reading material in my guest room.

My former colleagues at Ovation Switzerland did themselves proud as lead DMC partner getting all of us in and out of Verbier without a glitch. Renato and Andy also brought immense destination knowledge and local connections to the creative planning process helping Tahira, SITE’s Head of Events, build out an event experience that truly facilitated destination discovery. For the non skiers, they organised tastings of unique Swiss fare at Distillerie Morand and Fromantheque, Martigny infusing both events with special additional moments to surprise and delight. 

So what about 2020?

Verbier is our proof of concept for Incentive Summit Europe. It’s now abundantly clear that there’s a sharp appetite for an event in Europe that brings together incentive travel professionals to connect with each other, learn together and discover new destinations.

We’re deep in discussions with another destination in Europe for ISE2020 – keep an eye on and on SITE’s social feeds for details.

To deliver Incentive Summit Europe is a mammoth task, requiring massive support. You’ll find all of our supporter listed here – to each and every one of you, massive thanks. But there’s always an initial supporter, someone who comes on board when there’s only an idea, a concept the bare bones of a story. We thank Barbra Albrecht of Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau (the only DMO in the world to feature “incentive” in its name?) for believing that Incentive Summit Europe could be done.

Finally, a special word of thanks to Lorenzo Pignatti and Heather Williams of TerraEvents for bringing Francesco  to ISE to capture its essence so magnificently – see more of his amazing work here  

Pádraic Gilligan, Pat Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels, venues, agencies and associations on strategy, marketing and training. Pádraic also serves as Chief Marketing Office at SITE.





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