As the former chair and CEO of the global hotel and travel company Carlson, Marilyn Carlson Nelson has spent a lifetime helping companies enhance relationships with employees and clients through incentive travel experiences. We spoke with her recently about the power of travel to build strong bonds. A lot has changed in the travel industry over the past several decades, but Carlson says in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
SMM: Our cover feature is about second-tier cities. Do you have any favorites yourself?
MCN: My role as a member of the Super Bowl LII Host Committee has made me more aware than ever of the exciting changes in our own tri-city area of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington. More and more people are looking for new experiences like some of those that can happen here in the winter like dogsled races, snowmobiling and the ice castle that is built in St. Paul. Other emerging cities include Nashville, Austin and Denver. Denver seems to be more popular than it has been before, particularly since they built light rail access from the airport to downtown.
SMM: Why is travel such an effective tool for companies to build relationships with employees and clients?
MCN: We have very few collective experiences anymore. There are virtual employees who often don’t meet each other until they participate in a meeting or incentive trip. There is no question that traveling together creates the kind of friendships and engagement that build stronger employee relations.
SMM: What are the ingredients of a great incentive travel experience?
MCN: Flawless execution is absolutely key. That hasn’t changed. How you interface with participants, from the first invitation to your follow-up afterward, is really important. Part of that flawless execution involves knowing as much as you can about the individual travelers. Even though you are providing a collective experience, it can be ruined if you aren’t aware of individuals’ food choices, allergies or other important details.
It’s also important to have emotional content and an experience that is exclusive or unique — something that people wouldn’t be able to experience on their own. If you provide a shared emotional experience, it strengthens the bonds with each other and with the company, and develops a sense of pride. We see that with the introduction of more corporate social responsibility activities into events. People feel good about working together on worthwhile projects. Relationships drive results. No matter how efficient it is to use the technology that’s available today, the kind of bonding that comes from a collective experience is different. It can change a team of employees into an extended family. “There is a quote from (French poet and philosopher) Paul Valery that goes, “Let us enrich ourselves with our mutual differences.” That’s really been my theme and I think it’s one of the themes of all of incentive group travel.
SMM: What is the tally of countries you have visited, and are there any left on your wish list?
MCN: I’ve been to over 60 countries. I haven’t been to Lapland, and I’m of Swedish heritage, so I’m excited, at some point, to go to Lapland. I haven’t been to Nepal and I would like to. I haven’t been to either of the Poles. I came close on the tip of Patagonia.
SMM: Do you have a favorite destination?
MCN: That’s too tough. When I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in. I particularly have enjoyed visiting some of the world’s historic sites, whether it’s Epidaurus or Machu Picchu. There is an amazing sense of being connected to the ancient world. We need to preserve these places so we understand our history. In order to create the kind of future we want to live in, we need to understand the past. I worry that we are creating new experiences in order to accommodate the millions of travelers that are coming into the global market. I encourage people to visit some of these historic places that may or may not be threatened over time.
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