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Free Spirits Find Unusual Ways to Spice Up Their Business Meetings

Who needs to wear a helmet and goggles for a PowerPoint presentation in the conference room?

For businesses that want to add a little glamour and adventure to their typical corporate confab there are options to the standard meeting venues. Some examples: A tour of the countryside in a private rail car, a lofty ride in a 1920s-era biplane or a retreat aboard a cruise ship.

Still, some purveyors of nontraditional corporate travel venues see a lot of room for growth.

“There is a lot of untapped potential,” said Dean McCormick, general partner and owner of the Scottish Thistle, a private rail car whose home base is at Los Angeles Union Station.

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McCormick figures that he does about a half-dozen corporate events a year for the San Diego market.

“I talk to destination management companies in San Diego and I always say, ‘If you have a function in a hotel, the walls are all the same. This is a way to do something different for clients,’ ” McCormick said.

Telling the same story is Stuart Cohen, vice president of group travel at Massachusetts-based World Travel Holdings Inc., which markets to San Diego.

“The biggest challenge is reaching out to meeting planners and CEOs of companies that traditionally have their meetings in hotels,” he said. “Maybe they keep going back to their favorites, but they do the same thing , the format, the agenda, the big dinner every year.”

The flagship of World Travel Holdings is called Cruises Only Meetings at Sea, designed for a variety of business events.

“There are so many different menus and entertainment you can introduce on cruise ships,” said Cohen. “You can accomplish your task , to have a meeting and motivate people , but, also, you want them leaving feeling great.”

But there is a learning curve about business cruises that has to be addressed, he said.

“It’s actually still something brand new, a concept that companies had never thought of,” said Cohen. “If under 20 percent of the American public have ever cruised, I imagine that the meeting planner or CEO would be very hesitant. They don’t understand what happens on a cruise ship, and they don’t think that we can deliver all of their needs. But the majority of cruise ships have built meeting facilities, with totally state-of-the-art audiovisual systems.”

It’s not only about corporate meetings, he added. There also are companies that book cruises to reward their customers or provide incentives for their top salespeople.

“We’re working with a beer distributor, but they are not interested in having meetings,” said Cohen. “They want to build their brand, and have a theme where customers all over the world can book into a special cruise event where their brand of beers are featured.”


Flying High

Not all unconventional venues are set up to replace the traditional business event. Some, such as Barnstorming Adventures, based at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, can provide an additional perk.

Corporate events make up about 15 percent of Barnstorming’s business, according to Travis Daniels, company president. Clients, which have included BMW, Toyota, Pfizer Inc., the Boeing Co. and AT & T;, get to choose from three types of air adventures, which also offer a “you fly it” feature for the strong of heart and stomach.

“We do a lot of group activities,” he said.

About half of his customers are locals, with the rest coming from outside the region , Orange County is especially fertile , as well as around the world. Some of the business groups are served at Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa. “Our biggest growth area,” he said.

Biplane rides , what Daniels considers to be the “meat and potatoes” of his business , are given in any of three 1920s-era models, including his latest purchase , a refurbished 1928 Travel Air biplane.

“It’s a brand new 1928 airplane,” Daniels joked, explaining that the previous owner had taken it back to the basics, adding a new engine and interior. “It’s like it’s right off the showroom in 1928.”

But the fellow who owned it , a collector , had to part with it for financial reasons, and Daniels got a real deal. While he wouldn’t disclose the actual sum, Daniels conceded that the seller “took a loss.”

Consider that it can cost anywhere from $140,000 to $180,000 to refurbish these vintage planes, said Daniels.

“If you don’t use them commercially, as we do, it’s hard to recoup the costs,” he said.

While the airplane market is “a little depressed right now,” Daniels said that he recently got a call offering a vintage plane for $180,000. The typical range is from $120,000 to $150,000, he said, but that’s only part of the expense.

“We insure each of them for $150,000,” said Daniels. “If we lost one tomorrow, we’d have to replace it.”

So far, so good.

“We’ve had a perfect safety record , never had a plane or person damaged,” said Daniels. “I have a full-time mechanic who maintains the six airplanes. I never defer maintenance.”

In addition to a dispatcher, who handles the calls and reservations, Daniels also has about 20 “top-notch” pilots on call, from the commercial airlines and the military, some retired, others on active duty.

Along with the biplane rides, Barnstorming offers two other hair-raising options:

– & #8201;The Warbird Adventure, involving the SNJ-4 “Texan” warbird, billed as the advanced trainer for World War II aviators. The pilot sits in the front cockpit while the passenger has the option of experiencing loops and rolls, among other daredevil diversions. And, for the truly adventurous, the pilot will let them take the controls for a time , no license or lessons required.

– & #8201;The Air Combat option is described as a “hands-on, heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping aerial combat mission,” all under the guidance of the pilot.

Prices range from $177 for the “cadet first flight” to the “Lucky Bastard” package, which includes a 60-minute ride for one passenger, a leather jacket and SNJ T-shirt and cap, all for $1,075.

A sluggish economy isn’t usually a boon to businesses that tap into disposable income. But Daniels said, “For the economy, we are doing great , considering that the housing and stock market have people freaked. In 2007, we are on an even keel , not dropping off, but not going up either.”


Market Forces

McCormick’s business has been chugging along, with high points marked by such perennials as the Del Mar horse racing season as well as the occasional blockbuster event such as the Super Bowl.

“I’d like to keep it busier than it is,” said McCormick, who has four limited partners. “Every trip makes money, but it varies. This summer, during the racing season, we were doing three a week. But, then, we can go three or four weeks with nothing.

Then there are those occasional celebrity bookings, as when best-selling writer Tom Clancy and his family came on board, or when Playboy patriarch Hugh Hefner arrived with his bevy of blondes in tow.

“It was for his ‘The Girls Next Door’ show on the E! channel,” said McCormick. “One of the girls, Kendra, is from San Diego, and in this episode they were going to San Diego to meet her mother and grandmother.”

In fact, McCormick had just caught a rerun of the show the previous night. Has it been good for business?

“I can’t say I have gotten business,” he joked, “but I have gotten an interesting reputation.”

McCormick, a veteran of the transportation business, in both trucking and trains, bought the private rail car 14 years ago for about $125,000.

“I was unaware that there was such a thing as private cars that were owned other than by railroads,” he said. “I ran into a man, who started telling me about people who owned private cars. So, I started riding private cars for a number of years and it was a fantastic way of traveling , more fun than any person should have. People would say, ‘McCormick, when are you going to buy a car?’ ”

Then, a couple of cars were put on the auction block.

“I bid too high and ended up with a car,” said McCormick, who lives in Tustin.

While he declined to discuss how much he has invested in his car over the years, McCormick observed, “It depends on so many things. You can buy one for $200,000 or $1.5 million on the auction block. It’s across the board, and depends on their configuration and how they are decorated.”

How do nontraditional venues such as private rail cars and a ship’s sleeping quarters compare to the cost of booking a hotel room? It all depends on what you’re looking for.

McCormick’s rail car, for instance, runs $4,000 a day, but includes everything, he said.

“It’s a turnkey operation,” he said. “The food, liquor and crew are all taken care of.”

The 85-foot-long car previously had been reserved for senior executives of the Canadian National Railway Co., said McCormick. It includes a lounge, two bedroom suites, two baths with showers, a full dining room and bar, and full galley, equipped with all of the modern conveniences.

For longer treks , which can extend cross-country , and larger parties, McCormick charters a second car to shore up the sleeping quarters.

Cohen also believes that his cruises venue can offer an “extraordinary” value, compared to the more traditional hotel accommodations.

“You can stay at a hotel and pay $149 a night, which is a good rate,” he said. “But what you are getting is a bed and a bathroom. You can pay $149 on a cruise ship and get a bed, bath and every meal, plus free room service 24 hours a day and a show every night.”

Of course, it all depends on the season and the ship, said Cohen, and the passengers’ expectations. He recalled a recent meeting with a potential client who requested 60 state rooms on the Queen Mary 2 for a weeklong transatlantic voyage that will carry a corporation’s board of directors.

“It’s the highest end , $6,000 a person, not including air,” said Cohen. “It’s super-deluxe, with two levels, a private veranda and butler service, and access to the finest restaurant.”

But, he added, “The majority of meetings and employee incentive events are geared to the mass market.”

Either way, Cohen figures that it’s worth it.

“A cruise ship is a very unique venue , a floating hotel never stays in the same place for very long,” he said. “We do incredible cocktail parties on deck, under the stars. We have meetings or team-building exercises at the port of call , at the beach, where you can rent boats for everyone.”

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