Susan Adams is Vice President of Engagement at Next Level Performance, where she is responsible for Marketing and Communications. With over 20 years of experience in incentive travel, she works actively in the industry to promote understanding and adoption of incentives, engagement and recognition. She currently is serving as an Incentive Research Foundation trustee and as chair of the Research Committee. In her spare time, Susan is an avid traveler who recently tried glacier hiking for the first time and lived to tell the tale.
Early in my career, I was a conference and incentive planner. I worked with clients from pharmaceuticals to international financial services, delivering programs that helped organizations meet their goals, stay on budget and reflect the values and culture of each company. It was a tough job, but I loved it. And I particularly loved seeing the results onsite, where guests or attendees experienced the level of service and individual attention that a well-crafted program can provide.
These days, my work centers on employee engagement, connecting the hopes and aspirations of individuals with the needs and goals of an organization. Research shows that companies with highly engaged workforces do better across a wide array of metrics, from profitability to customer satisfaction ratings. Business leaders know this and are committed to investing in the human experience to improve performance and inspire great results.
I thought it would be a big career leap to shift my focus to engagement, but it turns out that recognition and incentive programs are built on the same foundations as — you guessed it — hospitality.
Here are four engagement essentials that travel planners know by heart:
Every arrival to the hotel, every person who steps up to the registration desk, is unique. No matter how many programs you’ve planned, there’s always someone whose story stands out or who asks a question you have never heard before. Providing great service onsite requires addressing each guest as an individual, remembering the nuances of their needs and concerns, and providing the information and interaction needed to put them at ease.
Employee engagement is much the same. The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) set out to understand recognition and reward preferences, since these are key to motivation. Amazingly, the research showed that out of 452 survey respondents, 99 percent were completely unique. Some employees prefer public recognition, while others are embarrassed by it. Some people are highly motivated by travel while others would rather receive gift cards.
Just as in a group travel program, it is important to keep in mind that no two people are alike in an employee engagement program. Technology tools such as social recognition platforms create the framework and a home for the program, but the interaction is still a human one. Just like hospitality, the experience must be welcoming, personalized and put the participant at ease.
Because of their visibility in the company “fishbowl,” senior leaders’ involvement in the program is important. Everyone in the organization keeps an eye on how managers and executives talk about the program, and whether or not they participate in it. Day-to-day actions become symbolic of how important the employees and other stakeholders are — or are not — to the company.
In fact, a recent study revealed something interesting about the importance of leaders. The IRF looked at top performing companies and found that, “Perhaps the strongest differential between top performing and average businesses was the executives’ belief in the value of these tools as differentiators. Respondents at top performing companies were 35 percent more likely than those at average companies to agree that their executives believe non-cash rewards and recognition are a critical tool in managing company performance.” Most successful companies now use noncash recognition and rewards, but the key differentiator was found to be belief in the program.
That’s because people look for authenticity. Senior leaders’ participation in and support of engagement programs is extremely important. When they champion a program — whether it’s sending recognition through an online recognition platform or spending the evening with their high achievers at a cocktail reception during the annual incentive trip — the message senior leaders send is that the program and the employees are important to the organization.
Engaging communications not only drive that message home, they also extend the life of the program. As incentive travel planners, we know that the travel experience really begins with the announcement of the program rules and the next destination. Participants envision themselves enjoying the rewards of great work, in a desirable location, with the other top performers of their organization. Imagining themselves there engages a “bird-in-the-hand” feeling, so that eligible program participants will actually fight harder not to lose the trip.
Communication is key for all kinds of engagement initiatives from travel to points programs. People need clear information, fair rules, and achievable goals. They want to know what it takes to win, and what it will be like when they do. The milestones in any engagement program are just like the signage at an event — they make the path forward clear. And when they know what to expect, participants can focus on what they need to do to reach their goals.
Just as we do in hospitality, by setting expectations, providing a clear roadmap for what to do next, we free people to put their attention on other things, whether that’s truly experiencing a destination or hitting big company goals.
Finally, as every planner knows, you can put the best possible plan in place and somehow, somewhere, something doesn’t go as expected. As a planner, I had to be able to shift from one venue to another, handle force majeure crises, and jump in to help an injured guest. That’s what we do, after all — whether we are conference and incentive planners or engagement program owners. We plan so that we have the ability and capacity to handle whatever comes up. We plan so that we can adjust as market conditions or weather patterns change. And in the words of the inimitable Tim Gunn in “Project Runway,” we “make it work.”
In every engagement program of every kind, you have to be willing to take an honest look at how things are going and adapt as needed. It’s the end results that matter. And if it was that easy to attain them, anyone could do it. I&FMM