The future looks bright for incentive travel. Each year, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) Foundation conducts an analysis of the motivational events industry and releases its projections for the future. In its most recent study results, the foundation reported that incentive travel continues to be on an upswing and is predicted to grow into 2016.
Kurt Paben is president, channel and employee loyalty, U.S., for the loyalty program company Aimia Inc. and also serves as president of the SITE Foundation. His company works with clients in a variety of vertical markets, including automotive, high-tech, pharmaceutical and health care. “We’re seeing the use of incentives as a business tool just continuing to rise,” he says. “We see more and more of them. I think our customers, along with our help, have gotten really good at understanding what the business value is and how to structure incentive programs so that by running them, they drive business results for the company.” He says that those results might be related to sales, service, employee retention or another company goal.
Paben noted a few trends that he’s seeing in incentive programs. “International travel continues to be popular and on the rise. That said, the length of programs typically has shortened by a little bit to anywhere from four to six nights on average.” He says the challenge is to figure out the best way to construct an incentive program when a shorter time frame is involved.
“The notion of a trip where everyone does the same thing has gone away,” Paben explains. “It’s now much more customized to the individual, and I think that’s a very big change. You have multiple generations in the work force, so how do you construct things in a way that really makes sense for the participant? I think what we see is a huge trend toward making business personal and how, although you’re doing group incentive travel, you create experiences that are meaningful on a personal basis that connect with individuals.”
“The notion of a trip where everyone does the same thing has gone away. It’s now much more customized to the individual, and I think that’s a very big change. — Kurt Paben
Paben says that creating a personalized program is a multifaceted process. “It’s how you create every touch point to be a more personal one, so it’s not just about activities. There’s a lot more work done on really understanding what the demographics of the group look like, so we look a lot at the different personas and types of folks we have on client programs and plan experiences so they can really connect in a very personal way. I think it can go all the way down to the kinds of gifting that you do on incentive programs as opposed to giving everyone the same room amenity or the same room gift. It’s trying to understand what they are interested in; what would be meaningful to them. The more we can learn about people and the more they’re willing to share gives us the ability to construct a whole experience — not just activities — in a way that I think is much more meaningful.”
The SITE survey also found that generational diversity needs to be considered in program design. According to the report, “There is no significant difference in beliefs about the effectiveness of motivational tools based on generation. However, it is apparent that it takes different rewards to motivate different generations. Boomers continue to be most motivated by extrinsic rewards. There is strong agreement that millennials are less motivated than other generations although traditionalists come close.”
The way in which incentive trip sponsors communicate with their attendees is also changing. “Most of that has moved to the handset,” Paben says. “Mobile technology allows you to have very individualized, personalized communication. It’s where you can drive personalized itineraries, drive personalized communications, right on their handset, about information that they specifically need to know versus what everybody needs to know. It can also be a place to have contained social media within the group. If you look at the way that consumers, in general, interact with brands, you can bring that similar mobile experience to events.”
Kristin Twombly, global event manager for Zynx Health, plans an annual sales incentive trip that ranges in size from 25 to 75 couples. She also is seeing technology playing a bigger and bigger role in her programs. “We’ve always done event registration, but we’re really into mobile apps right now. We have been doing those for different events to generate excitement before (the event) and to make the information and agendas easily accessible to people while they’re onsite. It’s great for incentives, because they kind of want us to be hands off and be able to do their own thing when they’re on these trips. It’s a way to keep in touch with everyone and provide them with updated information, but also not be calling or emailing them all the time.”
She says that her company has always created personalized itineraries, but that in the past, creating them manually was a very tedious process. “Using some of these technological tools that are available now makes it really easy from the planner’s point of view,” she describes. In the SITE study, 86 percent of those surveyed indicated that the use of smart/mobile technology is either important or very important in their program operations.
Laura Miller, CMP, holds the position of firmwide events and sustainability manager for McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, a law firm headquartered in Atlanta. Her company has offices in 15 cities, and it is her responsibility to plan an annual retreat attended by 300 partners. “It’s the only time each year that most of these people see each other face-to-face. While we do have business meetings during the event, the main focus really is bringing these people together to network.” While this is not an incentive trip (attendance is expected), Miller is tasked with planning a compelling annual event that the partners can get excited about attending.
In order to accomplish this goal, Miller took a novel approach. On the advice of several of her suppliers, she joined SITE so that she could learn how to take elements from successful incentive programs and use them to make her own programs more successful and appealing. “I’m able to borrow the ideas and compare my meeting with the incentive meetings more than I am to some of the other corporate meetings that really should be apples to apples but aren’t,” she explains. The strategy worked, so much so that her meeting planning peers from other law firms have asked her how she achieves such high attendance at her retreats.
“A lot of law firms have their meetings in the same location three and four years in a row,” she states. “I would have a very hard time generating excitement for people to go if we went to the same place over and over again.” So, similar to many incentive programs, Miller uses only four- and five-star properties and moves the event to a new destination each year to keep the interest level high.
In addition to the partner meetings that are part of the retreat, Miller makes sure she builds time into the agenda for recreation. “We offer golf, spa and local tours,” she says, adding that her group is usually more interested in high adventure than golf. “We always seem to max out the things like the ATV tours, and the paddleboarding and ocean or river kayaking.”
Another page she borrows from the incentive trip playbook is to present each attendee with a special welcome gift such as Maui Jim sunglasses when the group met at Terranea Resort in Southern California or a squall jacket when the retreat was held at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Maryland.
The SITE survey also reported that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is here to stay. “We certainly see a lot of corporate social responsibility being integrated into incentive programs,” Paben notes. “We see more and more of that.”
Miller also incorporates a CSR element into her programs. For example, her firm has brought the Clean the World program into hotels that weren’t already donating their leftover toiletries to the nonprofit organization, and her attendees have packed hygiene kits to be donated to those in need. Another year, the firm brought in a group of service dogs in training who needed to gain experience being socialized around different types of people in a hotel setting. “We had puppy petting, and people interacted with the puppies,” Miller explains. “People loved it.” She purchased a supply of large dog beds for the event and then donated them to a local shelter afterwards.
This year, when their group met at the Hyatt Regency Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, McKenna Long brought in the team from Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp. Partners who wanted to participate in the camp were divided into four bands that practiced together and then performed on the last evening of the retreat. The audience voted in this battle of the bands, and the winning band got to choose a charity to which the McKenna Long Foundation would donate. They chose Legal Aid of Washington, DC. The event generated funds for a worthy cause and provided entertainment for the group at the same time.
From a destination standpoint, traditional favorites continue to be selected, while new choices are being added to the mix. “From an international standpoint, certainly the major European capitals are always popular,” Paben notes, listing London, Paris and Rome as examples. “Italy continues to be very popular. We’re also seeing people going to more off-the-beaten-path places in those countries to explore them in a more intimate kind of way. The other thing that we see are destinations like Dubai coming on very strong. People have a very big interest in that. Cruising also continues to be popular. It’s a great way to travel internationally and see multiple destinations without unpacking.”
Food and beverage choices also are being given greater attention. “I think food and beverage has really changed,” Paben comments. “(It) has become much more an integrated part of programs now. There are so many different food trends that are out there. How you string all of that together is much different than it used to be. Destinations, whether it be through hotels or caterers, are able to make food and beverage an experience within itself. That’s the trend that we see more and more.”
Since Twombly’s company is in the health care business, wellness is an important focus when she plans her programs. “It’s something we’ve been doing increasingly throughout my time here, having programs and food and beverage that support that. When I’m looking for a destination or hotels to partner with, that’s definitely something that I think about.”
Another challenge that’s involved in designing a successful incentive program is finding the right balance between scheduling group events and giving attendees some much appreciated free time. Paben believes that the days of jam-packing a program full of content are a thing of the past. ”There’s definitely a blowback from that. They want to have that balance of being together with the group and interacting with fellow winners and the executives, but they also want to experience the destination in the way they want to do it.
“In the past,” he continues, “you might have scheduled every single night and every single day. It’s not unusual now for them to have a night on their own, a day on their own. You want people to be able to experience the destination in the way a leisure traveler might. It’s also about balancing that out. One of the great things about incentive programs is that you can quite often create experiences that a normal traveler couldn’t, so how you put the two together in a meaningful way is the trick.”
Twombly explains, “We have a couple of organized events for them, but we do try to give them a lot of downtime, too, because it’s supposed to be a vacation. We want to try to keep their commitment to a minimum so they can enjoy time with their spouse or their guest. There’s a little bit of an awards component, so we’ll do a dinner one night. We also have some optional things that they can participate in. For example, we’ll do a networking breakfast one morning.”
Incentive trips also can be used to motivate employees who aren’t part of the salesforce. “Certainly, sales continues to be the No. 1 reason people do incentive programs,” Paben states, “but it’s not the only one. We definitely have clients who reward other employees. They may be the types of employees that are in call centers. They’re the voice of the brand, so they’re the ones that make sure that customers have a good experience. There is definitely more of this notion of not just rewarding sales but also rewarding those that can provide excellent service to customers and that’s a really good thing.
“It brings a huge return,” he continues. “Quite often, those types of employees have not been the recipients of these types of opportunities, so it goes a long way. There are good results, but there is also good will that comes out of offering incentives to employees beyond the sales organization.”
Twombly also has had experience planning these types of programs. “In 2014, in addition to our sales (incentive), we also did a client service kind of award so people who were nominated by executive leadership could go on a similar incentive trip, as well.” She also shared a similar experience she had with a former employer. “We had a really large client that did an incentive every year for their on-the-ground teams. It was really outstanding, because a lot of them don’t travel as much as sales teams. For some of them, it was their first time ever going on a trip like this, so it’s really rewarding to plan. A lot of sales teams are used to traveling to all of these lavish places, but with the service teams, it’s really great to see their reactions to some of the prizes and excursions and things like that that they don’t normally get to experience.”
According to the SITE report, the requirement for companies to measure return on investment (ROI) or return on opportunity (ROO) will continue. “One of the biggest changes in incentive programs is making sure you have a clear way to measure the success and the business value of it,” Paben elaborates. “I think that’s really important. We work with customers to do that so that they can confidently articulate the business value of the investment in incentive travel.
“If the program was structured properly, you can normally tell whether it worked or not,” he continues. “I think when the incentive industry was probably unfairly attacked several years ago, companies weren’t in a position to clearly articulate the business value of what they were doing. Now, I think clients are in a much better position to say ‘we spent this amount of money on an incentive program and for that amount of money, we got X amount of incremental sales, or we grew our customer satisfaction scores by X or we’ve been able to retain a higher percentage of our top performers.’ I think if you can measure that and articulate what the business results of incentive travel are, that’s a really good thing.” C&IT