Lip Sync Battle teams onstage at the 2022 AIC Showstopper Awards, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (photo by John Kirk)
Travel advisors work hard, but they also know how to party like nobody’s business. That’s what I discovered while attending this week’s AIC Hotel Group annual Showstopper Awards event, held annually (when there’s not a pandemic going on) to recognize and reward its top-producing North American travel advisors and tour operators.
This year’s four-day function, which ran May 1 through 4, played out at the glamorous Hard Rock Punta Cana all-inclusive resort. For members of the agent community, for whom the past two years have been an awfully long haul, it’s the ultimate opportunity to reconnect with their colleagues and finally just let loose. And, at least to this onlooker, there was the sense that “everyone who’s anyone” was in attendance.
Top leadership from AIC and Hard Rock International came together with nearly 500 advisors and agency professionals in this particular Dominican Republic hotspot to partake in a series of fantastic, fun and lighthearted events and exclusive activities—all of them conducted with signature Hard Rock flair.
Since this was the first post-pandemic awards gathering of its kind (cheers, COVID-19), 2022’s event showcased winners for the past three years, with awards determinations based on 2019, 2020 and 2021 production numbers.
Attendees dressed to the nines for the awards show, although Hard Rock eschewed the standard stage presentations with theatre seating in favor of a less conventional venue. Monday night’s awards show was held inside the casino’s state-of-the-art ORO Nightclub and featured cocktails and champagne bottle service, high-energy music mixes by DJ Huggies and strobe-lit performances by bedazzled dancers on stilts, punctuated periodically by confetti blasts.
The 2022 AIC Showstopper Awards presentation inside ORO Nightclub at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (photo by Laurie Baratti)
Once the winners in all categories for all three years had been announced and had their photos taken with AIC executives, a standard awards ceremony would probably have wound down. But, in true Hard Rock fashion, the celebration continued into the night with an ORO afterparty, which featured American rapper Mase performing live onstage. Of course, by the time the afterparty officially commenced, attendees had already long since let their hair down and started partying.
From the start, it was pretty clear that AIC pulls out all the stops when it comes to putting on this agent appreciation event, now in its fifth year. These award-winning advisors and tour operators are treated to the multi-day trip and all-inclusive resort stay with VIP access.
The whole affair kicked off on Sunday evening with an extraordinary banquet, complete with official welcome speeches and onstage introductions, plus a live singer. In a massive, beautifully adorned ballroom, hundreds of attendees, many of whom were dressed up as their favorite music legends, were up and dancing in the aisles whenever one of their favorite tunes came on.
Stage set for the 2022 AIC Showstopper Awards lip-sync battle at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (photo by John Kirk)
Next, the crowd proceeded to a custom-outfitted ballroom, where AIC executives and groups of agents battled it out onstage in a (hilarious) high-voltage lip-sync competition, encouraged by the cheers from an audience of their peers. Production values were obviously high, as the ballroom was decked out with a center bar, special photo booth setup, premium AV and stage lighting systems, plus confetti cannons and onstage pyrotechnics.
Ash Tembe, Vice President of Global Field Sales for AIC, who sported a few celebrity-look-alike costumes and wigs as his lip-sync team’s frontman, said that one of the reasons that playful competitions are included is for the sense of comradery they engender. “I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I find that sometimes suppliers think they’re better than travel agents,” he said. “We don’t believe that. We know we cannot survive without our travel agent partners.” He added laughingly, “So, we have this philosophy of, we have to embarrass ourselves a little bit.”
From the first night’s full-service dinner gathering, where proceedings were interrupted by surprise performances from live entertainers (including a couple of dancing human disco balls) as lighting and sound systems went wild, it was pretty obvious that the tone of the week’s events was going to be somewhat different than I’d expected.
Travel agents take on AIC Hotels Group employees for a volleyball game during a Showstopper Awards beach party at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (photo by Laurie Baratti)
And, of course, each and every happening was accompanied by musical mixes comprised of the choicest classic, contemporary and alternative rock. Things carried on over the next few days with a series of private pool parties, day and night beach bashes, friendly AIC-versus-agents competitions, nightclub takeovers and other fully-catered festivities.
On the overall importance of the Showstopper Awards, Tembe said, “Well, I mean the first thing—and, we always say why—we always want to recognize our travel partners and our tour operator partners, of course, throughout the year,” adding, “and, we’re Hard Rock. So, when you’re with the Hard Rock brand, that brand is always giving us the opportunity to get out of the mold that everyone does.”
“Last night was awesome chaos, if you want to call it that,” he commented on the unconventionality of the awards ceremony. “At AIC Hotel Group, all the brands that we have are fun brands, and luxury brands, within that genre.” He emphasized, “Our thing is to be different. We really push our entire company and our team to always think outside the box and, whatever anyone else is doing, let’s not do it that way. Let’s do it a whole different way.”
Main building at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (photo by Laurie Baratti)
“This was always the event that everybody wanted to go to,” James Berglie, owner of Be All Inclusive, shared with TravelPulse. A first-timer at the Showstopper event, Berglie’s agency took home Gold-level awards for 2019, 2020 and 2021.
“It was a great party…I mean, the fear of missing out is such a key component, right?!” he remarked, half-jokingly. Berglie observed that the FOMO created by the online sharing by attendees serves as extra marketing for AIC. “When all of these agents are going out on social media, and are posting all the content from last night and the last couple days, and other agents are seeing this, it’s giving them something to strive for,” he said. “I mean, it absolutely did it for me, and that’s why we set it as a goal to get here. I was like, ‘Well, I want to be a part of THAT party. You know, it looks awesome!’”
The event is held in May each year at a different AIC Hotel Group resort, so there’s no knowing where 2023 will take top-producing agents and tour operators. Those hoping for an invite to next year’s Showstopper Awards should make as many AIC property bookings as possible during the calendar year and register for Amplified Rewards status to earn extra commission on every sale they make.