This Year’s IRF Invitational Surprised and Delighted Attendees

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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.

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.

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Barbara Scofidio is Editor of Prevue and heads up the Visionary Summits, our exclusive conference series targeting senior-level meeting and incentive planners. In her 30 years in the industry, she has become known for her passion around greening meetings, growing awareness of human trafficking and promoting CSR activities as part of business events. She is currently a member of SITE's Women IN Leadership committee and the media liaison for FICP's Education Committee. She was the first member of the media ever to be invited to sit on a committee by GBTA, where she spent three years on the Groups and Meetings Committee. She has also been an active member of SITE for 30 years, chairing its Crystal Awards committee and acting as a judge. Before joining Prevue in 2014, she served as Editor of Corporate Meetings & Incentives (MeetingsNet) for more than 20 years. She has a BA in Literature/Rhetoric from Binghamton University. Barbara is based outside Boston, in Groton, Mass.