If you’ve been around since 1977 and run by the same family like my company MEP has been, it is all too easy to get set in your ways, get complacent, and even jaded. Stick to a model that works; change content, sure, but not your approach to or understanding of business.
Why fix if it ain’t broken, right?
Well, things eventually break — if not by you, then by global conditions. The trick, we’ve learnt, is to transform before it does, adapt and master the new realities. This holds for the stories shared here, as examples of the kinds of extraordinary travel experiences incentive travelers, too, will come to expect.
Having served the world’s biggest tour operators and almost every Fortune 500 company, hosted countless world-leaders and billionaires, we thought we knew what luxury was: it was decadence, it was grandeur, it was perfection.
We’ve come to recently find out that these are no longer valid assumptions, acceptable norms or needs. What the 1% look for are now truly never-been-done-before experiences, going on a journey with us, and enriching content with a twist of adventure.
Our motto “dedicated to perfection” doesn’t serve us well these days — perfection isn’t even a goal.
This ultra-creative journey we go on with our clients comes with many faults and risks. These are wholly accepted, as long as we are seeking an extraordinary experience together.
Most of the time it works out beautifully. Risk aversion, we now realize, had dampened our creative spirit. In working with select individuals from around the world, associations or special interest groups, we were pushed to create a brand-new niche for ourselves that has infected us with new joy and zest for our industry and our beloved destination.
Here are some lessons we have learnt in the process:
1. Internalize the changing nature of luxury events
We had a famous business leader come to us to create an 8-day event for 80 global billionaires around Turkey. Thrilling, right?
We went on countless site inspections and created what we thought was a beautiful itinerary. We would close museums, offer good speakers & authentic cuisine and entertainment. He came, he saw, and he hated. He said: “Why aren’t we seeing the erect penis statue?”
Urfa, where we were is the cradle of religions and one of the most conservative cities in Turkey. We hadn’t dared ask the Museum Director to display the statue that had inadvertently led to the discovery of Gobeklitepe — the world’s oldest temple (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). We hadn’t dared to ask him to open Zeugma Archaeological site for a private wine-fueled luncheon during visiting hours on the shores of the Euphrates, 32kms from the Syrian border. We hadn’t asked because we didn’t think we could make that happen, and because we didn’t think we needed to go that far to impress.
Apparently, we did. Apparently, if we don’t go after “never been done” or “impossible,” it’s not satisfactory. We then asked and found out what we could offer in return (publicity for the region, in this case) to create a mutually beneficial agreement. That day in Urfa was one of the most memorable days of our careers.
2. Find crazy collaborators & yes people
We all know the saying “salespeople are yes people and ops people are no people.” Well, new luxury — whether leisure or incentive business — cannot be served this way.
You need yes people period, people who will find the dares exhilarating and do their utmost to make things happen.
We once found a Cappadocia man, for instance, who we have come to adore and who is so passionate about his region that he’s willing to go the extra mile, find valleys never been reached by events, carry luxury wines on mules, clean cave churches with his bare hands, and organize electronic music afterhours in hidden caves.
We found another Cappadocia native willing to organize the world’s largest hot-air balloon DJ party (yes, we applied for the Guinness Book of Records!) when others won’t even guarantee two balloons can go up and come down together. The client knew there was a chance we couldn’t make this happen. He was fine, as long as we tried.
Sometimes yes people even come from your competitors, and collaborating is key; one time we had flying ballerinas on balloons at the Göreme Open Air Museum. To make the out-of-this-world happen, you need to expand your network and drop your judgements, we learnt.
3. Strive for authentic content and true storytelling
Find causes to believe in, connected to an incentive program or beyond. We now do luxury fundraising trips for Turkish Underwater Archaeology with special dive permits to access the world’s oldest wrecks in exchange for supporting a cause.
We also work with nomads to support their way of life through sustainable tourism. We back countless excavations through respectful events, providing them with infrastructure in exchange.
These events aren’t ultra luxurious: guests sit on floor cushions, and even use chemical toilets. But they are part of something big, and a first. In an ancient Greek city, we did an event called “Gods and Goddesses” where the whole evening was themed after the story of the site.
I recently decided to sell an event at an ancient island without water or electricity. Even our own team tried to sway the client off, but I knew that luxury is a matter of ego. The trip was called a “Pirate Trip” — this was the island where pirates hid, in the birth place of Santa Claus! Of course, the client went for this option.
In another version of this Pirate Trip, a client was seeking a true Pirate hide-out for a party night. I entirely jokingly suggested the illegal bar of a once-jailed smuggler in a hidden bay. Their mouths dropped. We took 25 billionaires there for a barefoot party and raised quarter of a million for charity.
Authenticity has never been more sought after — so how will we as incentive and event professionals respond?