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This Year’s IRF Invitational Surprised and Delighted Attendees

Updated: Jun 13

By Barbara Scofidio - June 3, 2024

IRF VP of Content & Communications Andy Schwarz and President Stephanie Harris with Prevue Editor Barbara Scofidio

"This year’s IRF Invitational at Baha Mar in the Bahamas was a series of touchpoints, all thoughtfully orchestrated to bring the concept of “Unreasonable Hospitality” to life.

At the foundation of the event’s design was the bestselling book by Will Guidara, former co-owner of Eleven Madison Park. Under his leadership, the restaurant received four stars from the New York Times, three Michelin stars, and in 2017 was named #1 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and his story has served as an inspiration for hospitality leaders looking to “surprise and delight” their customers.

ETHOS Event Collective’s Joe Fijol accepting his award for Volunteer of the Year

“Instead of standing on stage and telling people about Unreasonable Hospitality, we actually wanted to live it here at the Invitational, almost like an experiment to see if we could prove how it works,” said IRF President Stephanie Harris. So, months before the event, the IRF had asked attendees questions about what milestones they were celebrating, and what their bucket list aspirations were. “We also started looking around on our own for things to celebrate,” Harris said. “We got volunteers from across all our committees and we assigned them to different individuals to call family members and friends, and even look them up on Facebook, to find ways to surprise people. This was about possibilities, whether it was about making Unreasonable Hospitality possible, or making someone’s bucket list item come true.”

This year’s Invitational brought 544 attendees to Baha Mar.

And the IRF did exactly that for a number of its 544 attendees—publicly—throughout the event. One attendee had mentioned that this would be her last meeting before she was set to have her baby, so when she arrived, her hotel room was set up as a “baby shower” with onesies, blankets and other gifts. Another attendee, Nicole Fry of Canada Life, had mentioned that she wanted to take her mother to Hawaii; she had spent her honeymoon there but had lost her husband and was now having her health struggles of her own. So with the help of Meet Hawaii, Air Canada, Hilton and MC&A, the IRF awarded her with a surprise trip to Hawaii for Mom.

Live actor at the final night’s James Bond-themed event

I was personally touched to be honored for my 20+ years of loyalty, along with a group of other attendees. But what made it so special is that the organizers had researched my background, knew I was an art lover, and gave me a gift of art.

The IRF also awarded its volunteers, including Joe Fijol, DMCP, ETHOS Event Collective, who was named 2024 Volunteer of the Year Award, and Bich-Lien Kaldahl, recently retired from United Airlines after 31 years, who received the Outstanding Service Award.

All of this celebration was set to a backdrop of warm Bahamian hospitality, the awarding of $2,500 grants to front-line Baha Mar employees through the Above and Beyond Foundation, and socially conscious gifting of Fill it Forward water bottles, which help to eliminate single-use waste.

Tying it all together with a bow was an inspiring keynote by Ben Nemtin (author of “What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?”), who, along with his band of four friends, had decided after high school to make it their mission to complete a list of 100 things before they died (and for every item they accomplished, they would help a total stranger do something on his or her own list). The crew ended up with a reality show on MTV, The Buried Life, which led them to the chance to fulfill their dream of playing basketball with President Obama, along with other things like appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show (where they helped a young girl conquer her fear of heights), setting the Guinness Book World Record for the biggest speed dating event in history and organizing donations for dozens of worthwhile organizations.

The annual auction raised just over half a million dollars for the organization.

The annual auction raised just over half a million dollars for the organization.

There were also delightful surprises in the design of the IRF meeting itself, from gifting opportunities interspersed over the three days, to live actors body-painted so perfectly that they blended into the James Bond posters decorating the final evening event, to an exclusive fireworks show for the VIP group.

And of course, the focal point of this fundraiser was the annual live auction, with highlights including a trip to the Kentucky Derby that went for $10,000 and a bucket-list trip to Australia that netted a whopping $27,000. Combined with a silent auction, the event raised just over half a million dollars for the IRF’s research and operations.

Next year’s Invitational will be held June 1 to 4 at the new AVA Resort Cancun.


Additional Insights from ETHOS Event Collective

The Incentive Research Foundation's work is invaluable, which is why ETHOS Event Collective has committed to supporting it. Understanding the industry deeply is essential to revolutionizing the way events are planned, executed, and experienced, and the IRF plays a pivotal role in this.

Joe Fijol, DMCP, Principal and Founder of ETHOS Event Collective, was named the 2024 Volunteer of the Year Award by the IRF. His commitment to the IRF over the past year truly reflects ETHOS's mission to support the incentives industry purposefully.

At this year’s IRF Invitational, ETHOS also included a giveback initiative with Fill it Forward, providing reusable water bottles and bags for attendees. Each item featured a personalized QR code that, when scanned, donated money to a nonprofit organization. This initiative raised approximately $3,000, thanks to the generosity of all who participated. These efforts highlight the commitment to sustainability and the importance of giving back to the community, making the IRF Invitational a memorable and impactful event.

The ETHOS Event Collective team would like to thank the IRF for their remarkable work and Baha Mar for their exceptional hospitality.

To learn more about our participation in supporting the industry and our CSR initiatives, please visit our website.


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