In 2018, a network marketing group asked meeting planner Brittney Skinner to book an incentive trip for its top sellers.
The incentive: a four-night, all expenses paid trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., with park passes for guests and meals included. As it turned out, not only did the sellers have their eyes on the prize, but their children did too.
“Once they found out they had a chance to go to Disney, they were pushing their parents to earn the trip, which we had not seen with previous incentives,” said Skinner, principal and owner of Selective Meetings & Incentives in Dallas, Tex.
About 900 attendees took the trip, which Skinner booked through Disney Meetings & Events, the division that designs meetings, trips, and social events for corporations, associations, and groups.
“I’ve done incentives on every continent, but there was a different kind of excitement surrounding Disney,” Skinner said. “It’s not your typical three days down in a Mexico resort where you just hang out on the beach. There’s a lot more to do.”
As planners start searching for creative ways to get their meetings and events back on track, some may be looking to Disney to work a little magic.
With Walt Disney World’s parks and resorts continuing their phased reopening, Disney Meetings & Events is offering planners access to a suite of properties, resources, and options, ranging from in-person meetings with safety protocols to virtual training sessions with Disney thought leaders.
“Now more than ever, we realize how important it is to stay connected with your members, employees, and customers, whether you’re meeting virtually, hybrid or in person,” said Amy Pfeiffer, director of convention sales and services for Disney Destinations.
‘A story to tell’
For meetings and events, the Disney experience is all about creating a narrative.
“Everyone has a story to tell, and Disney Meetings & Events helps bring that story to life,” Pfeiffer said.
Event locations aren’t limited to the indoor confines of hotel meeting rooms. Planners can arrange to have their event’s opening and closing galas or networking events at one of the theme parks. That might include an African-themed dinner at Animal Kingdom, followed by dessert at Pandora – The World of Avatar. Or it might be a private viewing of Disney’s Fantasmic! pyrotechnics stage show at Hollywood Studios.
“One great advantage is that theme parks offer dozens of elaborately themed locations, which can be an enormous cost saving,” Pfeiffer said. “And for incentive groups, nothing says ‘special’ and ‘VIP’ to attendees like having a world-famous Disney attraction or an entire theme park privatized for them.”
Victoria Ascione, chief event strategist for V Event Management in Orlando, has planned corporate and association events of all different sizes at Walt Disney World.
“As a planner, I love that almost any theme can be brought to life,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s the experiential events that make for those unforgettable experiences in programs.”
Ascione recalls one client who needed to come up with a creative event to promote a French product. They decided to rent out a French restaurant in Epcot for the occasion.
“It was an attentive, French dinner in perfect Disney style,” she said. “The serving of dessert was timed with the Epcot fireworks. It was just incredible.”
For another client, Ascione helped plan a corporate teambuilding event at one of the Disney hotels. Each guest received a cookbook autographed by Mickey Mouse, who made a special appearance for photo ops. The event was so successful that the company ended up replicating it for its other divisions.
“These are the kinds of programs and experiences that result when you sit down and brainstorm with a Disney event team,” Ascione said.
Disney’s creative resources help make those experiences happen. Those resources include themed content development, teambuilding experiences, custom décor, and opportunities for branding and sponsorships. There are also entertainment options including face painters, stilt walkers, magicians, and other talent. For its meetings, Disney offers creative digital production experts who can assist with graphics, video, photography, and audio/visual technology.
Another creative resource is the Disney Institute, the professional development and business consulting division of Disney’s parks and resorts. The institute offers online and in-person professional development courses, keynote speakers, coaching, and business advisory services for meetings and convention groups in any industry, sharing best practices on leadership, employee engagement, and service.
“The Disney Institute, which I’ve worked with many times, is the best-kept secret every planner should know about,” Ascione said. “They are an invaluable resource.”
Disney’s creative resources can help facilitate virtual and hybrid meetings and events.
“No two programs are alike, so we use a customized approach to enhance the digital experience through ‘Disney at Home’ touches, professional development, and content from Disney Institute and National Geographic [which the company bought in 2019], shared interactive experiences and even gamification,” Pfeiffer said.
To streamline all its resources, Disney provides meeting professionals with a consultant who can assist them in each step of event planning.
“Meeting professionals have the luxury of a single point of contact,” Pfeiffer said. “Their Disney creative consultants will guide them through the process and available resources while staying focused on overall goals and budget.”
The wide world of Disney
Planners say the sheer amount of space Disney’s parks and resorts offer make Disney World an attractive site for meetings and events.
Teri Anticevich has been planning meetings at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort since it was first built more than two decades ago. One of her events is an international conference of municipal government employees that has brought in as many as 2,000 attendees.
Disney’s ability to accommodate such large groups easily and comfortably is one of the main draws for Anticevich. The convention center offers up to 30 breakout rooms, and her event uses all the space.
“Disney is always very popular,” she said. “For all of my clients, their largest meetings are usually when they’re at Disney.”
Being a convention enthusiast comes with some big perks, and Disney’s drawing power is one of its main advantages for meetings and events, said Aaron Wolowiec, president and CEO of Event Garde, a Dallas-based events management and professional development consulting firm. Wolowiec has planned large-scale association meetings and annual conferences at Disney World.
“There are people who won’t go to an annual conference ever. But you say ‘Disney,’ and they’re there,” Wolowiec said.
Central Florida’s warm weather and accessibility are part of the appeal, too. Bob Schuster, national director of conferences and events for CMP Meetings in Texas, has planned Disney conferences for about a half dozen national associations over the past decade, with events ranging from 300 to about 1,000 attendees.
“It’s an attractive destination that’s easy to get to by air or car,” Schuster said.
Fun is essential
A big selling point for attendees is the opportunity to bring family to visit the Disney parks.
“Obviously, it enhances the attendance, and then people will end up bringing family,” Schuster said. “Their family can go to the park while they’re in meetings. It just opens up everything.”
Planners say Disney is ideal for groups that would benefit from a more family-friendly environment.
Brett Jarvis, partner with ISA in Laguna Beach, Calif., plans an annual incentive and training trip for cosmetology students, most of whom are between 18 and 25 years old. The group held its event in Las Vegas for years but needed a venue change to accommodate the young students. They switched and held their first Disney event at the Coronado Springs Resort in 2018.
“They just have so many amazing things at their disposal, from characters to park access to properties you can utilize,” Jarvis said.
The 2018 arrangement was the first Disney event Skinner had planned, and there were a lot of moving parts to consider. However, she said Disney provided plenty of guidance.
“The Disney event planner was around the entire time, which was really helpful,” she said.
Skinner learned it was worth paying a little extra so the attendees could get passes that allowed them to go to multiple parks in a single day. The group took a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the parks, with a staff member taking attendees to the front of the line to experience certain rides and attractions.
Designing fun into the schedule is essential when planning a Disney meeting, Anticevich said. She recommends designing the meeting’s agenda with the thought that people might not want to be sitting in seminars until 5 p.m. She’s also a fan of holding after-hours events at the parks and has held events starting as late as 10 p.m. to give attendees VIP access.
“People still came, because it was their chance to go on rides they’d normally have to wait in line for,” she said.
It’s also a good idea to build extra hotel days into the event contract in case attendees want to extend their stay and spend more time at the parks. “You want to make sure you negotiate that into your contract so people can stay at the same rate,” Anticevich said.
Disney works whenever possible to expand group rates and discounts, and Ascione said that can be a big plus for attendees.
“In most cases, when you have a program somewhere, when business is over people just want to get home,” she said. “But Disney is one of those locations where when it’s over, they don’t want to leave.”
Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of New Orleans. For over two decades, she has covered everything from small-town government to Fortune 500 companies. When she isn’t on deadline, she likes to hang out at home with her husband, their two daughters and their very needy Labrador.