Selling down the river trayn

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THE WAR paint is starting to blend with the sweat, the blindfolds are in place, and the hands are secured to trees jutting out of the Amazon River. The initiation of new American real estate agents into the ranks of their company's top achievers is in full swing. Later on, during "Commitment Night" - the highlight of a 10-day annual corporate winter junket - the initiates will pledge aloud their dollar gross goals for the following year and, having weathered their arduous rite of passage, join the president, the board of directors, and several dozen grass skirt-wearing corporate big cheeses at a party in the jungle outside Manaus, Brazil.

"The idea is to bring people together so that they can share ideas and feel more comfortable working with one another," explains the spokeswoman for the New York-based company. Her insistence on the company remaining nameless is doubtless due more to concern over letting slip valuable corporate initiation secrets than to embarrassment over the whole business. "It's a way of creating bonds among our people," she says. "We're a kinder, gentler real estate company." Tying the salesmen to trees, she goes on, "added to the drama of the evening," while blindfolding them heightened the tension. "Everybody was already there, and then when they brought in the new people, it was kind of, like - surprise!"

As rewards for corporate high-achievers, they're a far cry from the cruise to Bermuda with the wife, but incentive trips to exotic destinations are becoming increasingly popular. "If there is a good reward, people are going to work harder," says Nancy Metzger, of the Carlson Marketing Group, a "performance improvement company" in Minneapolis. Among expeditions she's arranged for car salesmen have been bear hunts in Russia, dove-shoots in Argentina and house-boating in Nepal.

The trips can be educational: "The idea is to do something that relates to the customs of the country," continues the spokeswoman. "On my first trip, we went to Egypt, and they'd set up an ornate tent, surrounded by torches, in the desert behind the pyramids. People from the company were wearing caftans; the new people were blindfolded and rode in on camels." Then the president, dressed in nomadic garb, welcomed each achiever by name, and they in turn barked out their next year's projected grosses. In France, on the other hand, "Commitment Night" was held in an imposing chateau, with hundreds of stone stairs leading to the entrance. "The new people were brought by horse and carriage - everybody from the company was lined up on both sides of the steps holding candles."

Back in the jungle, the salesmen may be hoping that if the faux-shamanistic ritual has been performed well, their souls will be able to leave their bodies and reconnoitre choice housing lots. But what if, at the end of year, the initiates haven't met their sales goals? Are they taken back down to a piranha-infested swamp and left there?

"Well, you know, some individuals don't reach their target" the spokeswoman says, laughing nervously; then adds, "They have to suffer through that a little bit."

Kinder? Gentler? It's a jungle out there. !