Everyone has a different idea of a fun time, so what does a planner do with hundreds of people at an event? The answer: Do team-building exercises on the beach, surprise participants with a visit from burros at a nature/outdoors venue or take them tubing or zip lining.
Like everything in the meeting and events arena, incentive travel has transformed to meet the changing demands of the market. Twenty years ago, incentives were all about golf and spa, caviar and champagne toasts. Today, you’ll find zip lining, corporate social responsibility activities, artisan mixologists and custom juice bars.
“Clients are looking for new destinations, unique experiences and program content that resonates with their participants,” says Mindy Hanzlik, MBA, senior solution designer at BCD Meetings & Events. “Many clients have changing demographics and motivators in their incentive audiences, and as a result they are reassessing what a desirable reward looks like.”
As Hanzlik explains, modern incentive programs consider the personas with whom they are trying to connect, and build the incentive campaign and reward around them.
“Many travelers today want to step into the full, immersive experience of the destination. They want to feel like a local, not just an outside observer.”
“Communications and promotional materials are delivered in the format and style the audience prefers, destinations reflect their interests and ‘bucket list’ perceptions, and every element of the program — from check-in processes to room gifts to activities and evening functions — are designed to their tastes,” Hanzlik says.
Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, corporate meeting planner and president of PRA New Orleans, says everybody within the incentive, meeting, and events industry knows the current buzzword is “experiential.”
“With that said, what ‘experiential’ means is different to everyone, especially program participants,” O’Hara says. “A good planner will have dug into what will hit home for program participants and leave them feeling that they are truly special.”
Within the incentive travel industry, O’Hara says things such as group tours are definitely on the wane, with the exception of international groups whose participants are not as familiar with the area.
“But these, too, generally have some destination immersion experiences and then more free time or individually customized experiences,” O’Hara says. “You will notice that I use the word ‘participants’ rather than ‘attendees.’ The goal is to make people a participant in the destination rather than someone observing the destination. That is key to what people are looking for.”
Over the past decade, president and event strategist of Red Velvet Events, Cindy Y. Lo, DMCP, has noticed a significant increase in true local experiences versus tourist destinations as part of incentive travel programs.
“If you were to come to Austin, and the participants are mostly entrepreneurs, we would organize a dinner with a successful Austin entrepreneur in their personal home so the group of visiting entrepreneurs can get that true local Austin welcome,” Lo says. “And let’s say the incentive trip is to a Caribbean island that was recently affected by the hurricanes, we would organize a half day where the participants get to meet the locals that were negatively affected by the hurricane and then spend the rest of the time rebuilding parts of the local community. The key is participants want to leave feeling refreshed and feeling like they are a better person after their incentive trip, so why not combine the best of both worlds?”
It’s also important to note that today, incentive participants are more experienced, savvy travelers than in the past. As Caytie Pohlen-LaClare, meeting planner and founder of the LaClare Group, Inc. explains, there is usually more unscheduled time to allow the participants to relax, spend time with their travel partner, and pursue their individual interests.
“Both planners and participants are looking for destinations that are safe, a hotel that is upscale, and a variety of recreation and dining options on property,” Pohlen-LaClare says.
So what makes an incentive travel experience truly extraordinary? Quite simply, it should be one that leaves participants feeling they have experienced something they could have never created on their own, and that they feel truly rewarded for earning the incentive.
Hanzlik says extraordinary experiences should feel like they are built specifically for each individual participant.
“They are filled with unexpected moments of joy and unique, memorable experiences that give participants stories to tell,” Hanzlik says. “They bring the destination to life and give participants a chance to authentically connect with the world around them.”
Good incentives also help participants do things they might not be able to do on their own, or that they might not realize they wanted to do at all. They open a world of possibilities, make participants feel appreciated, and build loyalty to the host company and drive future performance.
“There are several attributes that can result in an extraordinary incentive travel experience,” says Terrie Rickard, meeting planner and director of operations at ADI Meetings. “These include authenticity and creating a unique experience. Also it’s important to find that magical blend of the company culture and the purpose of the event with a distinctive sense of the destination. And you must customize opportunities for participants to experience the most unbelievable ‘bucket-list’ moments that will give them new bragging rights after that trip.”
At a recent ‘winter wonderland’ incentive trip to Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, Rickard purchased exclusive use of a snow-tubing mountain for the first day of an incentive program.
“This built immediate camaraderie, acclimated those less apt to travel to winter destinations, and it was great fun for those who normally don’t partake in active winter sports like skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling,” Rickard says.
Lo recently orchestrated an incentive trip for a company that started with the pre-promote. When the destination was revealed, officials threw a party at the company office for everyone and then they made a special recognition during the party for those who qualified, so the participants got an early taste of what to expect.
“Beginning seven days before departure, each day the employees arrived at the office for another teaser leading up to the departure,” Lo says. “When they arrived at the island, each of them was welcomed as if they were the only important guests at the hotel. One evening was a special dress-up themed evening and instead of the participants having to worry about packing extra clothes, part of the preparation included getting into the theme at a ‘dress up bar.’ These special touches continued throughout the four-day reward trip.”
Pohlen-LaClare says “experience” is the key word when it comes to incentive travel.
“Many travelers today want to step into the full, immersive experience of the destination,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “They want to feel like a local, not just an outside observer. Of course, the specifics will vary based on the participants. For some people, it may be gourmet dining at a private location, for others it may be visiting a hidden spot only known to the locals. The key is knowing your audience and what will appeal to them, and then creatively making it happen.”
Meeting and event planners can utilize some key strategies to make an incentive experience something that goes above and beyond what participants expected. To do so, the key is to understand the group and research what will be a hit for them.
“We hear every day that the event has to be a once-in-a-lifetime, money-can’t-buy experience,” O’Hara says. “But of course every budget can’t support a money-can’t-buy approach, so instead of talking in platitudes, research the group, understand what their baseline of experiences are, and work with your local partners to create something that the participants won’t expect and that they will find value in.”
Indeed, research shows people are significantly more likely to remember things they did not expect than things they did expect, regardless of how high quality the expected event was.
“Providing the unexpected is a key to people remembering and cherishing the experience,” O’Hara says. “Unexpected does not have to equal expensive.”
Pohlen-LaClare suggests five steps for planners:
Work with top management to identify the “big goal” or the “why” of the incentive.
Get feedback from past participants.
Understand what has been done before, including the destination, hotels and activities.
Utilize the local experts — they can provide valuable insights and access to hidden treasures and advice on what to avoid.
Be brave. A planner must be willing to go above and beyond for the incentive experience to be above and beyond participants’ expectations.
“With participants spanning several generations, diverse cultures and the expectation of personalization the norm, planners must create once-in-a-lifetime experiences that leave their participants informed, inspired and ultimately ready to build on business objectives,” Rickard says.
Some key areas on which Rickard says meeting planners need to focus include:
Place — Discover unique locales and authentic experiences to draw participants into local culture and engage with the community.
Unity — Customize group activities to build better relationships between customers, employees and management.
Exclusivity — Arrange complete buy-outs of venues and hotels to maximize participant experience.
Individuality — Tailor experiences to individual physical adventure levels and cultural interests.
Brent Turner, meeting planner and senior vice president of strategy at Cramer, says the company recently partnered with a Fortune 500 insurance company on their large-scale tri-annual incentive conference. This weeklong event started with the basics: a beautiful, premium location filled with high-quality activities, food, drink, and entertainment.
To elevate the participants’ experience while connecting the conference to business objectives, the Cramer team added in three notable changes including:
An Innovation Zone. Through a hands-on, self-directed journey, the participants got to see, make, and experience the business’ historical accomplishments, current R&D, and external “new-to-them” innovations that will change their business, jobs, and lives.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Through self-selected activities, participants volunteered to give back to local and global communities in ways that aligned to the business’ core CSR focus.
Unique technology. By deploying Klik’s wearable technologies, participants could seamlessly network, pay, and — through heat maps of places across the expansive property — quickly find their friends and the most-popular activities.
Turner is seeing an increased focus and investment in five key areas for incentive travel:
Unique stories. From local history to local activities to local community engagement, how can our participants find, learn, volunteer, do, and leave with an only-at-this-one-place story?
Original design. From announcements and invitations to unexpected swag to onsite materials, how can design elevate the ephemeral prestige of this incentive trip?
Smart technology. From streamlining communications to gamifying their onsite experience, how can modern event technologies remove friction and add joy to the participants’ journey?
Brand alignment. From CSR to aligning brand values, how can the participants’ experience be rooted in the purpose and passions of their employer’s brand?
Wellness inclusion. From the expected mental and physical health retreats to experiential learning, how can we give back to and recharge the participants’ whole selves?
“With workforces more digital, diverse and distributed than ever, it is also harder than ever to build unique, retentive, high-performing cultures,” Turner says. “
The day-to-day workforce is losing the classic pillars of culture building such as storytelling around water cooler ‘campfires,’ modeling behaviors through in-hallway interactions, showcasing with on-message office space design, and more. This classic culture of building pillars still exists when employees attend events. And this realization has led to progressive and modern businesses now seeing incentive travel as a platform for culture building and ambassador training.”
Incentive travel programs have become a more tactical component in a company’s strategy for employee or customer recognition, reward and retention strategies. Rickard explains that planners and participants are looking for impact — namely how are these incentive travel programs providing an impact on participant performance and engaging them in company brand messaging and strategic objectives.
Hanzlik explains that tangible incentive results vary by program. They’re tied to the business objectives and behaviors that the host outlines up front in their qualifying period.
“It may mean increased sales or revenue. It may mean customer or brand loyalty or employee engagement. It may be tied to the overall satisfaction of the participant,” Hanzlik says. “Event success can be measured in return on investment, return on objectives or return on engagement. To effectively gauge the success of an incentive, planners must first work with their customer to understand what results they’re targeting, and then build out a plan for measuring these key metrics.”
While extraordinary incentive trips should also offer tangible results to all the parties involved, that is often easier said than done.
O’Hara explains that measuring ROI seems to be a tricky target for a lot of companies. Everybody knows it is important, but not everybody does a good job of determining how to measure it and how to document it.
“That is understandable because there are a lot of subjective factors involved, but setting some goals for each incentive program and communicating them to everyone involved is key,” O’Hara says.
There are several ways to measure the success of an incentive:
Financial return on investment. Did the employees or customers produce more profit for the company as a result of the incentive program relative to what the program cost?
Engagement return on incentive. Are the employees or customers more engaged with the company as a result of the incentive program?
Relationship return on incentive. This is harder to measure but takes into account the quality time your employees or customers spend with the key leadership of the company during the incentive program.
As a planner, Lo always likes to see which individual is a repeat qualifier year after year. For these special people, Lo likes to suggest giving them extra special recognition as it’s not easy to qualify and you want to make the incentive trip coveted by the entire team versus not being automatic.
“There should be higher performance post-trip by the participants and higher loyalty, which should in turn reduce turnover,” Lo says. “Overall, the biggest benefit should be that the company culture should be positively reinforced after a trip like this. Remember, people quit over bad managers and a toxic company culture. A well-planned incentive trip should reinforce the positives and help the team bond as a company, especially across departments.”
And O’Hara says while post event surveys are nice, the feedback often tends be, ‘I didn’t like the chicken’ or ‘My hotel bed wasn’t great.’ More telling insights that should be gathered are things such as the percentage of eligible people that declined the trip, the percentage of repeat qualifiers, and whether you can or should raise the bar on qualification for next year.
According to Turner, while measuring culture is still an evolving field of study, planners can partner with their human resources and internal communication colleagues to uncover the impact of incentive travel through litmus measurements (e.g., employee net promoter scores (eNPS)) and employee involvement (e.g., increase in job applications via employee referrals).
“Altogether, the best-defined and produced incentive travel programs drive value for the business — retention, motivation, and culture — while truly standing out as unique, memorable experiences for the employees,” Turner says. “When done well, it’s a win-win.”C&IT