Managing incentive programs isn’t new. Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of
businesses now have some type of non-cash rewards and recognition programs, a recent study by the Incentive Research Foundation found that managers in this field do not have the same benchmarks and resources to rely on as managers in other industries.
Researchers of the study, “Voice of the Market, Part 2: Engaging Program Owners in the Incentive Marketplace,” interviewed 50 program managers representing a wide range of non-cash rewards programs who “spent anywhere from $25,000 to millions of dollars annually on programs that included one or more of the following types of reward: travel, award points, merchandise, gift cards and branded items.”
Among the insights gleaned from the study: Incentive and recognition program design and management is not universally included in standard business school curricula. A career in incentive and recognition program management is not broadly visible or relevant to most people entering the workforce. Resources are hard to find on the internet, since new program managers do not know what industry-specific search terms to use. Networking is a critical and valued source of learning for program managers.
We asked six industry professionals from across North America for their insights on how their careers in the incentive industry have progressed, and what they see as important for the future and for those coming into the industry today. All of our experts agreed on a few things, including the importance of certification, and most relayed that the critical resources they depended on early in their careers to learn the ins and outs of the job were their experienced colleagues and industry partners.
Beyond that, our experts had a variety of insights to benefit today’s incentive managers. Philip Eidsvold, CIS, CITP, senior director of client services at Minnesota-based One10, and president-elect of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), has spent his entire career in incentives — at the same incentive house.
“I started as a travel director in 1999, overseeing onsite operations for a wide array of award and recognition group travel programs. I landed in the world of incentives by chance, but quickly learned the industry,” he says. “It was made clear to us in our training that we were integral to the reward experience and that our guests worked very hard to earn the travel reward; therefore, their onsite experience had to be flawless and extraordinary.”
Like other incentive professionals, Eidsvold learned his job within his company, and he feels lucky to have been with a group that provided solid training and support. What has changed today, he says, is the increased importance of research and data related to incentives.
“As our industry has evolved, and especially after the great recession, there has been a major focus on driving the right kind of industry research and advocacy efforts that truly demonstrate the value of incentives,” he says. “We now have data-driven case studies
and other proof points that clearly articulate that incentives drive better business results.”
Eidsvold says challenges often come from lack of education or understanding of the process. “From an agency perspective, our largest challenges often occur when our client-stakeholder isn’t properly trained in incentives or doesn’t understand the value of the program from an ROI perspective. This often happens when a meeting planner is assigned to oversee an incentive travel program,” he notes. “Rather than focusing on the winner experience or the work the attendee must do to earn the reward, they tend to focus their time on logistics vs. experience, and thus, aren’t optimizing the incentive strategy. We spend a great deal of time educating our clients to clearly understand the mechanics of the incentive so their organization can best benefit from the investment.”
Eidsvold traces much of the trajectory of his career to involvement in SITE. “As the only industry association focused on the advancement of incentive travel, SITE offers a wide range of education and networking opportunities through events at a regional, chapter and global level,” he says. “These events are full of CMP-certified educational opportunities that keep my incentive travel practice on its toes and allow me to bring that expertise and experience to our clients.”
“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the fruits of your labor come together and witness the positive impact of your work.” — Erica Gibbons, DMCP
Not surprisingly, Eidsvold recommends industry organizations as a good path for those starting out. “They provide foundational education opportunities and compelling data-driven research that will allow you to add value to your organization,” he says, noting that they also provide multiple opportunities for critical networking and relationship building.
To those starting out, he says, “Don’t be afraid to be assertive and ask questions! Find an industry mentor willing to coach you and offer advice on how you can maximize your career potential in the incentives space … because to be honest, it’s a great industry!”
Gabrielle Spanton, executive vice president of business development for Host Global’s alliance of DMCs, says she has seen changes in both programs and award achievers over the 25 years she’s been in the business. Two areas in particular are, “No. 1, a higher demand for CSR activities that are unique and authentic to the destination, and No. 2, interest in destinations that were once considered ‘off-the-beaten track.’”
Additionally, Spanton says, award achievers have become more sophisticated and well-traveled, and many achieve awards over multiple years. Like Eidsvold, Spanton points to the company she worked for early in her career as her source of education and training.
“When I started my career, our industry lacked professional recognition, and we didn’t have the benefit of resources available today. I was fortunate to work for a company that provided outstanding training and education coupled with a client that was willing to take risks to go outside the traditional incentive box to create truly outstanding programs,” she says. “In short, my main resource has been a combination of practical experience and surrounding myself with highly creative colleagues.”
One thing Spanton wishes clients better understood is the timing required for incentive specialists to do their best job. “Companies are always looking for something unique that has never been done before yet provide very little time for brainstorming,” she says. “The most interesting and creative ideas come from collaboration and require more than a few days to cultivate. I think clients would be truly delighted with the outcome if they afforded their partners more time in the process.”
As for her best advice for those starting out, she echoes Eidsvold. “Find a mentor who is truly willing to share their knowledge and takes a genuine interest in helping you expand. A great mentor will be with you for years, so choose wisely,” she says.
Erica White, CMP, an Iowa-based client onboarding specialist, event operations, with ITA Group, says she got into the incentive industry by “dumb luck.” A friend got her a job as an event planner at a local venue. “While there, I was working with a bride that was employed at ITA Group. She gave me her business card and told me to reach out if I was interested in making a move from wedding planning to corporate event planning. The rest is history,” she says.
Like our other experts, White says her colleagues were her educators. “When I started out in corporate and incentive planning, I was lucky to be surrounded by experienced planners. If I did not have an engaged mentor sitting beside me, I would not have even known where to start,” she says. “Now, 12 years in, I have access to many resources to help keep me growing and relevant in our industry.”
White believes her biggest stumbling block early on was, “getting into the tactical weeds too early. I wanted to dive in and start choosing entertainment, décor and menus. I didn’t take the time to review historical data and truly understand the objectives of the event and the demographics of the attendees. With experience and the evolution of our industry, I’ve learned to first step back and develop a master plan. From there, I made sure each tactical decision is tied into the overall theme of the event.”
Budgets and unrealistic expectations are her most likely challenges today. “Many times, a client goes to an event that another organization did and then asks us to duplicate. Often, their budget won’t allow them to do exactly what they saw,” White says. “Finding a way to meet their expectations, within their budget, can feel nearly impossible at times. I’m pretty sure there isn’t an event planner that doesn’t struggle with, ‘I want it all, but I also don’t want to pay for it.’”
And then there are the questions that White says keep her up at night. “How can I make sure that I’m upping the program year over year? How can I make sure I’m keeping up with technology and experiential trends? How can I incorporate these exciting new ideas and still stay in budget?”
White’s top suggestion for those new in the field is to find a mentor. “Not just a point of contact to answer questions,” she says, “but someone willing to invest themselves to be part of your professional growth. This is such a great job, despite the stress, and having an advocate for yourself is important.”
It’s also important to remain humble, White adds. “Listen to fellow planners, listen to your suppliers and listen to your clients. There’s always something you don’t know or have yet to experience. Allow yourself to continue to learn and evolve in this industry.”
Theresa Link, CMP, CMM, a Minnesota-based senior buyer, event purchasing and industry relations, with ITA Group, has been in the industry for 25 years.
“I started as an executive assistant working for the head of a sales division,” Link says. “When I initially interviewed with that company, they described to me what his role entailed: Administering incentive sales trips, which allowed him to travel to amazing destinations as part of researching each incentive. I jokingly said, ‘That’s actually the job I want.’ Within the year, I had taken on responsibility for incentive trips. Over the years, I’ve transitioned to third-party incentive houses, as well as managing an in-house corporate meetings department. Currently, I work within the sourcing and purchasing arm for ITA Group, which focuses on creating powerful results by inspiring authentic, lasting emotional connections.”
That, in a nutshell, describes what incentive programs are supposed to achieve. But when Link started, there were no formal training programs in place to help her achieve that or plot a career path.
“Intuition plays a strong part in the success of any good planner, and I was fortunate to be able to find my way through my first endeavors,” she says. “Resources were far less accessible. You couldn’t Google how to do something or look at a hotel property online or connect easily with people around the world. As my career progressed, so did the industry. As I discovered resources, I took full advantage of training that was available, pursued my CMP and CMM, participated in MPI and FICP, attended SITE educational events and subscribed to many industry magazines.”
Surprisingly, Link says that the lack of formal training wasn’t a stumbling block. “I learned through trial and error, which was incredibly strong and meaningful — you don’t forget those lessons that are hard-earned,” she says.
Link believes that career progression is often about learning on the job, too. “This industry is constantly changing and evolving. The world seems to have gotten smaller and our reach to have gotten larger. Through technology, we can accomplish more than we could ever imagine when I began. But doing ‘more’ isn’t always what’s most important; doing ‘greater’ is the key,” she says. “As our clients and their clients become more well-traveled, attend more events and become savvier, we have to raise the bar creating memorable experiences that will resonate for a lifetime. My role continues to evolve along with the industry. I learn more about events and how to create meaningful connections through events each and every day.”
There are challenges related to those savvy clients who also have access to technology and can research destinations. It means, Links says, that incentive managers must dig even deeper into options and possibilities and be ever more creative.
“While the greatest challenge today might be that our clients have gotten smarter, that actually creates tremendous opportunity for us to be better and to partner together on amazing and memorable experiences,” she adds.
Ever-evolving technology is a proverbial double-edged sword for those new to the industry, as well. “This is and always has been a relationships industry,” Link notes. “It might be easy with current technology to forget this. I encourage anyone starting out to reach out to as many people as possible who are in the industry in whatever capacity. I encourage them to read industry publications, subscribe to industry emails/blogs and to join a local chapter of a relevant association. All of these items will build on each other and help them to make the connections that will likely become lifelong mentors. As a more senior planner, I believe it’s important to ‘turn around and give a hand to the next one in line.’ I’ve been fortunate to have benefited from these types of mentors and know that my colleagues are always eager to help someone start in this industry that we all love so much.”
Rick Lambert, president and CEO, Destinations, Inc., in Utah, is the third generation of his family working in the incentive business. “I’ve always wanted to be in travel and am living my dream,” he says.
He believes the resources within the industry have been incredible. “Talented and knowledgeable vendors have helped me learn about destinations I have not seen personally,” he says.
As for a career path, he sees that impacting his personal development and his company. “I see growing our company to be the leader in Utah and beyond. I will need to be adaptable to grow. I will need to stay on top of technology available to us. I will need to maintain the focus on delivering wow experiences,” adds Lambert.
Challenge, he notes, often relates to budgets. “Many of our customers have had the same budget for 10 years, and costs have increased significantly, especially in the last five years. This means the pressure is on to deliver more for less. Another challenge is avoiding being cookie-cutter and finding creative new enhancements.”
Lambert’s top advice for planners coming into the field: “Always learn. Recognize you may not have the answers and that saying, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out’ is an OK answer.”
Erica Gibbons, DMCP, regional president, Hosts Washington DC, Hosts Baltimore and Hosts Chicago, says she has relied throughout her career on “an amazing network of passionate planners within our Hosts offices and consortium of Hosts Global DMC members. Catching up with these business owners and experience designers — whether at formal Hosts Global Best Practices meeting, in a casual phone call or seeing what they are up to on Instagram — keeps up the cycle of sharing and encouragement required for continual creativity and professional inspiration.”
Gibbons believes the job has changed and will continue to change. “Ten years ago, these programs had a more standard agenda, i.e., three days, welcome reception, offsite, dine-around, a room drop every night,” she says. “Now, the sky’s the limit, especially for planners who love to get out of their comfort zone. Everything can be tailored for the individual/couple participating in the program. Agendas and itineraries used to need to have ‘something for everyone.’ Now it’s something for you, the individual. Your day doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s, yet you have this incredible shared experience, too.”
There are some things Gibbons wishes she knew when she started. “I wish I knew that just because every logistical element went off without a hitch it doesn’t mean it was memorable. When you focus on the feeling first and details second, the details come together to support the emotional engagement ensuring guests are fulfilled and develop incredible memories,” she says.
And there are a few things she wishes clients better understood about creating incentive programs. “I wish our clients understood that if you want something truly ‘never been done before,’ you have to be willing to A) take a risk and B) provide the time needed to develop, vet and present what that program can be,” she says echoing Spanton. “When you need a proposal with a 72-hour deadline, the better course is to ask for something that has been done before (with great success) and customize it from there to fit the unique needs of your audience.
“Also,” she adds, “that the ‘never been done before’ experiences often can’t come with photographs! You have to be more open to collaborative brainstorming and visual storyboards that ultimately produce the experience you’re seeking. Most of our clients find this to be the fun part, and I’m lucky to work with so many awesome clients who are true partners in the process.”
To those coming into the industry, she says, “Be engaged. Be there onsite. Watch the guests and their interactions with the experience you designed. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the fruits of your labor come together and witness the positive impact of your work. Take time to take in the results.”
Our experts provided a multitude of insights and suggestions. Most of all, they made one thing very clear: The incentive industry is an amazing, creative and wonderful industry in which to work, learn and grow. C&IT