Venues: Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa; Royal Livingstone International Hotel, Livingstone, Zambia
Attendees: 325 financial representatives and their spouses
Destination management: Dragonfly Africa
Travel: Carrousel Meetings & Incentives
Audio-visual: Wolfgang Films
Graphic design: Peloquin Design
Printing: GLS Companies
Entertainment: Russell Gamman
Event planner: Koleen Roach, director of meetings and conference management, Securian Financial Group
Although she didn’t set out to, Koleen Roach, director of meetings and conference management for Securian Financial Group, a financial services firm in St. Paul, changed the way her company thinks about incentive trips. Securian’s 2009 Leaders Conference, held in Africa last year, rewarded individuals who are top producers for the company.
Roach says Securian’s CEO charged her with finding “a way that we can give back.” She was thinking about making a contribution to one of the Cape Town townships in South Africa.
But while doing a site inspection at the Royal Livingstone Hotel in Livingstone, Zambia, Roach had dinner with Russell Gammon, a historian she hired to speak to her group. She told him she was looking for a way her group could benefit the community in which they were staying. Gammon told her of an orphanage and school that could really use the help and she agreed to check it out.
The Ebenezer Trust School and Orphanage was started for children ages two to 15 who have lost their parents to AIDS or are living with the disease themselves. “These kids come from some of the most dire circumstances. It’s almost incomprehensible,” Roach says. “They come to that school every day because that is the main focus of their lives. It’s the most stability that any of them have,” she says. Roach saw that the orphanage needed school clothes, shoes, and many other supplies. She decided that part of the conference should include volunteer service at the school and orphanage for interested attendees.
After months of planning, Roach, her team, and 325 Securian financial advisors and spouses landed in Cape Town, South Africa. At the hotel, each couple found a child’s backpack along with a note from Roach saying that instead of room gifts, they would receive school supplies every night for the kids at Ebenezer. Each couple was instructed to pack each night’s gift into the backpack to give to the kids upon their arrival in Zambia. Supplies included dictionaries, notebooks, rulers, and pencil boxes.
The next day, the group gathered in a tent. Roach says it was necessary to set up a tent because no hotel in the city had a room large enough to accommodate the group. The meeting kicked off with breakfast and a lesson in traditional African drumming from a local band. The CEO of Securian also spoke to the crowd. A guest speaker told stories of tracking and studying lions, including lions who have been violent toward people.
In the remaining two and a half days in South Africa, attendees chose from a range of activities. One group hiked to the top of Table Mountain, the flat-topped landmark that overlooks the city. Another group rode motorcycles equipped with sidecars on a scenic route through mountains and small seaside towns to Cape Point, the southernmost point on the peninsula. For the more adventurous types, there was shark cage diving in which a person in scuba gear is lowered into the ocean in a cage in the hope of encountering a shark.
A tour of South Africa’s wine country and Cape Town city tours were also available. One popular tour was to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for his part in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. On the last night in Cape Town, a dinner was held at the Cape of Good Hope, the oldest fortress in South Africa.
The group then flew to Zambia and were greeted at the airport by 320 kids from Ebenezer. Each couple gave their backpack stuffed with supplies to a child. “It was an incredibly emotional experience for everybody,” Roach says. The kids loved their new backpacks and wouldn’t take them off.
The group then settled in at the Royal Livingstone International Hotel on the river at the base of Victoria Falls. The next morning, an outdoor business meeting was held. The president of Securian spoke and then Russell Gammon, the historian, talked to the group about David Livingstone, a Scottish man who “discovered” Victoria Falls. Roach says she uses local talent whenever possible for speeches and entertainment to give attendees a better feel for the culture.
After the meeting, some kids from Ebenezer sang a thank-you song to the group. Securian presented Ranji Chara, the orphanage director, with a check for $25,000. “What we ended up doing is opening up an account for Ebenezer Trust School and Orphanage through United Way International,” Roach says, which provided a safe place to deposit the money.
Many attendees opted to volunteer at the school where they spent time with the kids, played, and did some maintenance such as painting and working in the garden. In one classroom, volunteers read to the kids, and in another, the kids could ask questions about world history. For many attendees, this was the highlight of the trip, Roach says.
That day and the next, attendees could choose to go on a riverboat excursion along the Zambezi River at the base of Victoria Falls, bungee jump off of a bridge crossing the falls, experience a lion encounter, or go on a local elephant safari. About 100 people chose to take a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana—home to the largest elephant population in Africa. Many people chose to volunteer at the orphanage for a second day. On the final night, the trip ended with a farewell dinner at the Royal Livingstone.