Manihi Pearl Beach Resort
Waterfalls cascading through lush jungle. Thatched-roof bungalows perched over turquoise lagoons. Palm-lined beaches. Fragrant flowers. Tahiti is a dream for most people. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between California and Australia, French Polynesia contains 118 islands in five archipelagos. Tahiti is the largest (1,043 sq. km.) of the Society Islands, whose archipelago includes Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha’a and other scenic isles.
“Tahiti is exotic. It’s unusual. It’s a place that many people have heard of, but not been to,” says Angie Pfeifer, assistant vice-president, corporate meetings, incentive and travel, for Investors Group. In June, 2008, Pfeifer organized a meetings and incentive trip to Tahiti for 400 Canadian participants. “We’ve run incentive programmes for more than 25 years, so many of our seasoned travellers have seen the world. Tahiti generated more competition during the qualifying year than any other destination.”
The top-tier qualifiers visited Bora Bora, then joined the second-tier qualifiers and rewarded field directors in Tahiti, with a day-trip to Moorea. “If you’re going all the way to French Polynesia, you should explore as many islands as you can,” says Pfeifer. “Don’t just go to Tahiti. Bora Bora and Moorea are truly beautiful islands.”
Perceived obstacles to paradise, like distance, shouldn’t prevent fulfilment of dreams, according to Pfeifer. “The perception of distance is worse than reality. We flew participants from all over Canada to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com), nonstop from New York and Los Angeles. From LA, Tahiti is a seven- to eight-hour flight, which is comparable to flying from Toronto to Europe. People think the South Pacific is far away, but they’re probably thinking of Australia and New Zealand, which are five to six hours farther.”
Air Tahiti Nui flies out of Los Angeles’ LAX — as much as 13 times per week, in high season, with daily connection to New Zealand. “Our incentive business is excellent,” says Guy Champoux, director, Canada. “I have eight Canadian Tahiti incentive groups booked, so far, for 2009 and 2010. The largest group is 160 passengers. We can handle 294 people per flight. After quoting the group price, I notify head office to close the seats before flights go into the computer reservation system.”
“Air Tahiti Nui was fabulous. They treat you like royalty,” says Liz McKendrick, project manager for Maritz Canada, in Mississauga, Ont. In May, 2007, McKendrick organized a meetings and incentive trip for 45 Mary Kay clients. “Our group, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, cruised between islands on the Paul Gauguin (rssc.com) for seven days. We had three meetings on the ship. Part of the group did a two-day pre-cruise stay on Tahiti. Mary Kay key executives added a three-day post-cruise Tahiti extension.”
McKendrick’s group stayed at the InterContinental Resort Tahiti (tahiti.intercontinental.com), near Papeete, the capital city. “It was excellent. I worked with Bernard Rickenbach [regional director, groups and incentives sales]. The man is brilliant. He gave us ideas for off-property activities. I wish I could clone him and put him in other hotels.” According to Rickenbach, the resort accommodates a maximum group size of 300 or 150 rooms. The InterContinental also has one Moorea and two Bora Bora properties, one with the South Pacific’s only Thalasso Spa.
“Sheraton Hotel Tahiti [rebranded in January, 2009, as Hilton Hotel Tahiti] was the only hotel that could accommodate our group of 400 for both accommodations and meetings,” says Pfeifer. “The 100 participants that went to Bora Bora stayed in overwater bungalows at The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort (starwoodhotels.com/stregis), where Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban honeymooned.”
For Investors Group top performers, the thatched-roof bungalows, built on stilts over the lagoon, were “absolutely outstanding,” says Pfeifer. “The aqua blue water and the size of the bungalows [1,550 sq. ft.] were the ‘wow’ factors.”
Both McKendrick and Pfeifer used Tahiti Nui Travel DMC. “When we got on site, they couldn’t do enough to help us,” says McKendrick. “They arranged all our land programmes, except for a barbecue on Paul Gauguin’s private island. In Bora Bora, a Polynesian family prepared lunch, which we ate from chairs and tables in the water. We snorkelled. We swam with manta rays and harmless reef sharks. Our participants loved it.”
“We work with the local population, including chefs and waiters, entertainers and the ‘lovely mamas’ who make flower head wreaths and leis,” says Sylvie Abarnou, of Tahiti Nui.
“The beach feast, prepared by locals, was great. Polynesians are very lovely people. They’re so inclusive and so welcoming,” says McKendrick. “Our group enjoyed Moorea the best.”
Pfeifer’s group also enjoyed Moorea. “We divided them into groups of 80 to 150 people for their choice of a car rally, jeep safari, spa with lunch, golf or a cruise to a motu (coral islet).” Tahiti Nui arranged an interactive Polynesian Culture Day for Investors in the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands’ garden. “Participants watched dance performances and cooking demonstrations, talked to tattoo artists, ukulele players, traditional drummers and craftspeople, as they made hats, jewelry and carvings,” says Pfeifer.
In Bora Bora and Moorea, Lionel Philipp, at Marama Tours Tahiti, organizes beach Olympics, barbecues, customized tours and events, themed dinners and cultural entertainment on private motus. For groups staying only on Tahiti, the InterContinental Resort has two on-property motus.
Groups can save money by booking a section of tables at the InterContinental’s Friday and Saturday evening dinner shows, according to McKendrick. “The show is phenomenal,” she says. Held after a bountiful buffet, it features traditional dances by the famous Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti.
“From a cost perspective, Tahiti is no different than Europe,” says Angie Pfeifer. “You can’t compare prices for a room in a Hawaiian hotel to an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. Incentive participants don’t want to stay in a building. They want a bungalow,” says Abarnou.
Philipp says planners can use a rule of thumb for budgeting: “If a Tahiti programme costs $1, then a Moorea programme is $2 and a Bora Bora incentive is $4. Generally, low season is November to April, while high season is May to October. April is great and the first few weeks of May, as well as October.” While rain is more likely from November and March, temperatures average 28?C, year-round.
Pfeifer advises, “If you’re doing an elaborate business programme, which requires significant staging and production, you’ll have to bring in the equipment, because Tahiti doesn’t have an AV company to supply it. Another factor that impacts your costs is that all flights to Tahiti arrive at 11:00 p.m. or midnight. Normally, our guests arrive in time for an evening welcome reception. So instead of our usual five-night programme, we made it six nights. Make sure you work with a DMC that’s done business in Tahiti and understands the flights.”
“Tahiti was a fabulous programme and people loved it,” says Pfeifer. “Our goal was to deliver an incentive programme that increased productivity. Tahiti motivated people to work harder to get there and rewarded them accordingly.” McKendrick agrees. “If a client has the budget, I would absolutely go back to Tahiti.”
— Barb and Ron Kroll are Toronto-based freelancer writers.