Incentive Travel: What Makes or Breaks a Successful ProgramOctober 1, 2013

October 1, 2013

Incentive Travel: What Makes or Breaks a Successful Program

VanDyke,Melissa-IRFMelissa Van Dyke is president of the Incentive Research Foundation. She previously was the managing consultant of the Employee Engagement Practice and held leadership positions in Solution Management, Product Development and Business Technology Solution Management at Maritz.,

Over the last 20 years, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has released more than 50 studies on incentives, recognition and motivational meetings. During that time, we have learned an enormous amount about the elements necessary to execute a successful incentive travel program. Many of these elements were initially discussed in our 2002 milestone study “Incentives, Motivation, and Workplace Performance.” They were confirmed again last fall when our Incentives Insights ( effort reached out to more than 40 industry executives in order to better understand what makes or breaks a successful program.

Five Keys to Success

Following are five keys to unlocking the most successful incentive travel program possible.

  1. Culture is crucial.  Above all else, recent efforts show that incentive travel events are most effective when they are the synthesized reflection of both the organization and the potential earners’ cultures. The amount of time spent in meetings, the level of interaction among key players, the inclusion of spouses and even the types of activities, communication and recognition that occur during the event must all be a distilled reflection of the desired organizational culture and the earners themselves. The program for a large family-oriented company with many earners who are nearing retirement should (and must) look very different from that of a small tech-centered start-up whose potential earners are on their first post-college career.
  2. Visible management is a must.  Top performers need to believe that their efforts are being seen and recognized by the management representatives who influence their careers most. However, this does not mean that all top performers want this recognition to culminate in a walk across a stage and a handshake with their president or CEO. In fact, IRF research found there are some cultures for which this type of recognition is the least important part of the program. It is most important to design visible executive and senior manager support at key points including when the organization announces the program, releases interim results and reveals the final winners. Senior management inclusion in an onsite event also should mean more than simply showing up. They should engage with each performer and reinforce how their individual and group accomplishments made a difference to the organization as a whole.

“The desirability of the incentive trip
location and experience either sparks
or repels the desire to achieve it.”

  1. Communication is key.  The primary feedback we received when we asked incentive travel executives what could break a program, was that the communications efforts for most group incentive travel programs are underfunded, untimely and often uninspiring. A few text-laden emails will not suffice to rally any type of emotion in potential earners. Communications must help participants know exactly what is required to earn the trip, how well they’re meeting the performance expectations, and how close they are to achieving their goal. But the communication  also must be inspiring. In an attention-deficit world, even the most expertly crafted onsite experience will be for naught if its potential is buried in unending black and white text. Finally, communications should remind attendees of the efforts that lead to the award. Attendees who cannot readily articulate what exact performance led to their earning the experience is a major red flag of poor communication design.
  2. Fairness is fundamental. Although not the flashiest part of the program, the importance of a well-designed and communicated rule structure cannot be stressed enough. It is crucial not only to the program’s metric success, but also to its motivational impact. Rules structures that are overly complicated or perceived as even minutely unfair will quickly derail even the best efforts. In fact, the perception of unfairness or loss of status registers in the same brain centers as a threat to one’s life. Likewise, feelings of fairness ignite the same brain areas as financial rewards. Program designers must craft rules structures that are challenging but fair, and communicate these rules effectively to eligible participants to gain ongoing buy-in.
  3. Lead with location.  As all skilled planners know, destination is key. The desirability of the incentive trip location and experience either sparks or repels the desire to achieve it. The destination and overall trip design must capture the hearts and minds of potential earners. Advances in technology and infrastructure mean that the world is collapsing and becoming more accessible to planners, but also to earners themselves. Planning the trip of a lifetime can therefore be difficult. However, all trends data seems to accentuate that authentic, culturally relevant experiences still resonate with almost all earners. When these experiences are coupled with trends in wellness, social media and social responsibility, the possibilities for a motivational event are endless.

No Single Answer

Years of experience and research have shown that there is no single right way to craft or run a group incentive travel program for all people, across all channels, in all situations. But research seems to show that planners who design programs that are culturally relevant, visibly supported, well-communicated and perceived as fair and execute these programs in authentic, inspiring destinations, will have greater success in creating a win for both their attendees and their organizations. C&IT

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