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INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN ROBERTSON, PRINCIPAL AT DOCHERTY INCENTIVES & MEETINGS

Posted On: October 20, 2017

There is so much to love about Susan Robertson. 

Not only is she a leader in the incentive industry (co-owner since 2003), but she knows where the best wine is in the world (and you have to fly there to enjoy it), she’s been diving with sharks and if she could only pack five things for a trip, two spots would be taken up with a suit and a beach towel (which tells you a lot). And even though she’s still perfecting the art of packing for her trans-global adventures, what she has nailed is the necessary creativity and organization when planning travel rewards for teams.

When did you realize that working in the travel incentive industry was your passion? I grew up with my Father in this business. He began his career in the incentive world in 1963 and was considered an icon in the business. In my teen years I helped out with special mailings, inputting passenger lists in the computers etc., yet after college I worked for the Toro Company and had never given the incentive and meeting/hospitality industry a second thought. A few times in my early years in the business world, my father asked, “Do you have any interest in the incentive and meeting industry? Have you given ANY thought to joining my company?” I then began to think about a career change after my second child was born. I made the move and have now been in the hospitality industry in the account management position for 22 years! I sure wish I had made the change before that. I am passionate about my career and love the people I meet and the places I am fortunate enough to visit.

What is your title and what does a typical day/week/month look like for you working at Docherty? My title is “Principal,” however, no one ever gets sent to my office, I don’t hand out detention and rarely have to call parents! What “Principal” boils down to is my sister, Jeanie Docherty Seehof, and I co-own the company together (since 2003). I can’t ever say my day is typical. From writing proposals and costing out programs, to operational duties as we build programs and meetings, to being on site with programs and eventually final billing. I love the variety and can be working with my nose in an Ireland file, then receive a phone call from a client and switch gears to Jamaica. What I really like is handling a program start to finish, so I am aware and involved in every aspect of each client’s program I handle.

You travel for Docherty...what is one destination you're always excited to return to and why? I am often asked, “Where is your favorite place you have ever been?” Without hesitation I say South Africa, bar none! I have been there three times, for both pleasure and business. I love the city of Cape Town. From the history and cultural side (District Six, the Townships, Robben Island [you can even go in the cell Nelson Mandela was held captive in for 18 years!]) to the beauty of Cape Town. Standing on top of Table Mountain with its commanding views is incredible, as is the coastline as you make your way to the “Cape of Good Hope” otherwise called “Cape Point” where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, in the southwestern most point of the continent. A visit to South Africa would not be complete without a visit to “The Bush.” I am an animal lover and the game drives in the bush are awe-inspiring and life changing, and the high-end accommodations and dinners in the “boma” add to the incredible experience that sums up the bush. I have been to a few different bush areas: Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve, as well as my favorite, Krueger National Park—one of Africa’s largest game reserves. Whether on a morning or afternoon game drive, each time is different as you never know what you’ll see. Imagine waking in the morning hearing a lion’s roar off in the distance, to sitting under a jacaranda tree with a leopard draped over a high branch feeding on his kill of an impala he has dragged up the tree. There are no words to describe it. South Africa is a must-see place and one that should be on everyone’s bucket list!

What is your secret to getting through long flights? I love this question. Long flights are probably our biggest hurdle in selling destinations such as Asia, Africa and Australia, to name a few. Me personally? I would not mind how long the flight is and would even go in the luggage hold to get to some of these incredible places, but clients often differ when it comes to flying times, and often discount the destination due to flying time. As I am sure many experienced travelers can attest to, the long-haul flights are easier than say an 8-hour flight to Europe. By the time one settles in on the plane for a trip to Europe, have a meal, watch a movie and just begin to doze off…the lights come on, breakfast is served and you arrive in the early morning (tired and bleary eyed) and have the first day of the trip to endure before going to bed. The long-haul aircrafts are much roomier and have many more personal electronic options than a domestic US flight. After a few meals, movies and a sleep, you arrive more refreshed and at varying times throughout the day or early evening, thus making it easier to adjust to the time difference. Aside from movies and meals, who doesn’t enjoy a good book?

Food is an enticing part of world travel...what is a meal or a dish or a dessert (or all of the above!) that you will never forget? While I consider myself an adventurous eater, there are certain places and dishes presented that I cannot bring myself to sample. Frog legs and rabbit come to mind, yet I have tried kangaroo meat (just like a good ol’ American steak but with a sweetness to it) and I love escargot, but I try not to think of them as snails when eating them! To answer the question, some of the very best meals I have enjoyed have come from South Africa (Cape Town, in particular, which is another reason I love the destination). There is a place there called “The African Café” where the menu incorporates a combination of spices, and more of the tasty mix of flavor rather than hot spice. I could not name a particular dish, but remember how wowed I was at the flavor of many things I ate when there. Perhaps it is time to go back?!

When you're not traveling, what does the perfect weekend look like for you? Being a Minnesotan, I prefer summer the most and my perfect day is spent on Lake Minnetonka, floating in my inner tube on one of the many bays. That is my happy place!

What is one item you've picked up during your globetrotting that is a special treasure to you? I buy something special, typically for my home, from each destination I visit. My favorite piece is a long, narrow tile with ceramic faces in the middle that I bought in Santorini. In fact, I liked it so much, I bought one vertical and one horizontal.

How do you know a destination is a good place to travel? In other words, what do you assess first? The people? The scenery? The food? The cost? Obviously all of it, but first and foremost is budget followed closely by infrastructure of the destination itself. And then:

  • Is it beautiful? 
  • Is it historical?
  • What is there to do? 
  • Activities? 
  • Tours?
  • Cuisine? 
  • What is my client’s objective? 
  • What are the needs or wants of both participants and client to appease all? 

Most destinations have 4- and 5-star hotels so where to stay is relatively easy and we have our tried and true favorites all over the world. I liken it to a puzzle—putting it all together, on budget, while making it something people want. A true incentive should give you an experience you could not necessarily buy on your own.

Any tips for overcoming language barriers? Body language says a lot! But in this day and age (makes me sound old, doesn’t it?) English is so widely spoken around the world that we rarely have any communication troubles, and if we did, there’s a translation app for that.

You must be an expert packer by now...do you need to make packing lists or can you pack and leave in 30 minutes and remember everything? I am not an expert packer when it comes to my own/personal travel. In fact, I am an over-packer! One day when I grow up I will learn not to bring half of what I pack and don’t wear. The best part of travel when working a program, I need a lot fewer me-clothes as I spend all day in my “uniform” which consists of a comfortable polo shirt, blouse, pants, shorts and skorts, depending on the event.

That being said...if you could only bring 5 things with you on an international trip besides the clothes on your back, what 5 things would you bring? Personal trip?  Husband, kids, sunscreen, bathing suit and towel. Work Trip?  My file, cell phone, uniform, laptop and a smile.

In your opinion and experience...

...where can the best wine be found? Switzerland! They have NO PRESERVATIVES in their wine and it is fabulous! It also goes very well with cheese fondue or raclette (Swiss meal of melted cheese, typically served with potatoes). The downside to Swiss wine is you have to go there to enjoy a glass as they do not export their wines, but consume them. Maybe I should give some thought to moving there?

...what was the most relaxing location you visited? Any beach destination. When my kids were little our favorite place was Turks and Caicos. It still holds a special place and I would happily return time and time again. Now, could someone stop the hurricanes devastating my go-to beach destinations PLEASE?!?!

So many people have world destinations on their bucket list...do you? Are there places you want to visit but haven't, yet? Definitely. In no particular order, I have never been to and would like to visit:

  • Egypt and the Pyramids
  • Petra in Jordan
  • Norwegian Fjords
  • Banff & Lake Louise area of Canada
  • Chengdu, China for the panda and mountain experience
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand for the elephant camps
  • Vietnam
  • Bali
  • Ushuaia, Argentina
  • The Amazon
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Kenya
  • Seychelles
  • Venice, Italy
  • Krakow, Poland
  • St. Petersburg, Russia
  • (so many more!)

If you could only relive 5 minutes from one of your travels, which 5 minutes would they be? I could not truly pick just one, but probably not surprising, most are memories that were created in South Africa. Sitting under the jacaranda tree in South Africa watching a leopard eating an impala. You could hear the bones crunching—which sounds ghastly—but was an incredible moment in nature that was a rarity to see. Or watching a mother cheetah who had just taken down an impala and by the time we came across her, she was still panting from the chase and was keeping watch while both her cubs were feeding off the impala. Or maybe the shark cage dive I did when in Gansbaai, South Africa. Next to having children, I think that was the coolest thing I’ve ever done! And most recently; snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. I don’t take things for granted and greatly appreciate the clients we have, the programs I plan, the experiences this career has provided me, the people I have met and the places I will never forget.