Redefining ExtraordinaryApril 16, 2024

Driving Brand Loyalty with Incentive Travel Programs By
April 16, 2024

Redefining Extraordinary

Driving Brand Loyalty with Incentive Travel Programs
Focus on a destination that is unique and include fun activities to keep attendees engaged. Photo by Marcelo Murillo / Courtesy of Joe Fijol

Focus on a destination that is unique and include fun activities to keep attendees engaged. Photo by Marcelo Murillo / Courtesy of Joe Fijol

It’s not a secret that amazing, personalized incentive travel programs lead to brand loyalty. When companies award their best employees with awe-inspiring destinations and memorable moments that redefine extraordinary or can’t-get-anywhere-else experiences, with exclusive access to venues, entertainment, events and more — this fosters team bonding and inspires productivity.

From off-the-beaten-path adventures to immersive cultural experiences, understanding the facets of creating unique incentive travel experiences to impress attendees in today’s competitive business environment is paramount.

Now for planners, choosing the right incentive travel destination involves a lot more than simply selecting the latest hotspot. For attendees who have seen it all, it’s about sparking their imagination and giving them something they’ve never seen.

For Shana Davison, CMP, founder and managing director at ASPIRE Event Management in Ankeny, IA, unique incentive travel involves destination diversification because she recognizes the importance of highlighting emerging and unconventional travel destinations that offer unforgettable experiences for corporate incentive trips.

“Our success as professional planners highly depends upon the perception of others and whether the experiences we create are perceived to be positive, enjoyable, valuable and unique,” Davison says.

“Unique incentive experiences capture attendees’ attention and spark excitement, leading to higher engagement levels,” she adds. When attendees are genuinely interested and engaged, they are more likely to participate actively and derive greater value from the experience. The attendees’ experience is a direct reflection of Davison’s planning services and ultimately benefits the companies she represents in many ways.

Specifically, Davison says that offering unique corporate incentive experiences can help attract top talent to the company and retain existing employees. Employees are more likely to stay with a company that values their contributions and invests in their well-being, including providing opportunities for unique experiences and personal growth.

“Also, providing attendees with unique experiences creates lasting memories that they are likely to associate with the company or brand. These positive memories contribute to stronger brand loyalty, increased satisfaction and favorable word-of-mouth recommendations,” Davison says.

“And sharing unique experiences fosters camaraderie, strengthens bonds and cultivates a sense of community, both within the company and with external stakeholders.

Recently, Davison set out to curate an incentive program for an event that showcased the best of Charleston, SC, while offering unique and immersive activities that would capture the essence of Charleston’s charm while offering an eco-friendly element.

Attendees embarked on their exploration of Mount Pleasant, SC, by way of beach cruisers, immersing themselves in the serene panorama of the Cooper River and the bustling Charleston Harbor. Guided by experts, this leisurely tour wove through iconic landmarks and historic sites, offering participants not only a sense of adventure but also opportunities for wellness and educational enrichment.

Attendees also were able to experience an authentic and nostalgic journey through the city of Charleston aboard horse-drawn carriage rides.

“This experience offered more than just sightseeing – it was a captivating exploration of Charleston’s architecture, culture and pivotal historical events. Through engaging storytelling, attendees gained profound insights into the city’s rich heritage, deepening their appreciation for its unique charm and character,” Davison says.

Attendees were whisked away to a historic venue, where they began a culinary journey through the heart of the South. They enjoyed a Lowcountry Boil, also known as a Frogmore Stew — a one-pot meal consisting of shellfish, crab, corn, potatoes, sausage, onions, and butter, which captures the essence of the region’s rich flavors and cherished traditions.

According to Taya Paige, CMM, strategic advisor at ITA Group, incentive travel can and should engage and motivate the entire audience it is designed for. “When a unique trip is properly designed for the audience with communications that tell the story of a unique trip, it’s aspirational and there is a sense of urgency, that if they don’t make the trip, they may never get an experience like it again,” she says.

No matter the destination, Paige finds ways to make it unique with a twist that will surprise and delight. One of her favorite incentives that ITA Group planned was to South Africa. They incorporated two nights in Cape Town at Mount Nelson and three nights at Sabi Sands in Kruger.

“In orchestrating an unforgettable incentive trip for a close-knit group of 50, we transformed a routine tour into an extraordinary adventure. Witnessing tears of gratitude, we defied expectations with unique experiences, such as a day tour to the Cape of Good Hope via jeeps and Harley Davidsons,” Paige says.

“From a picturesque viewpoint rest stop with hot coffee and treats to a private beach lunch, culminating in a speed boat tour around the Cape to see the penguins in their natural habitat on Boulder Beach, we converted a potential lengthy bus ride into a series of cherished memories. This was just the beginning of our creatively crafted, once-in-a-lifetime journey for our attendees,” she says.

“Distinct incentives and experiences create fond memories and foster a deeper emotional connection between a company and its employees, employees and their company’s mission statement, and finally, between employees and a destination,” says Rachael Signer, vice president of events and business development at Signature Travel Network.

“These novel experiences stimulate better employee engagement. It’s the most effective form of ‘team-building’ you’ll find,” she says.

Signer strives to provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for attendees at events. But, it’s equally important to leave a positive impact.

“We need to leave a place better than how we found it when hosting an event — especially a destination like Maui, where our support did and can still make a significant difference to a community facing adversity,” Signer says.

During the annual owners’ meeting, more than 450 Signature Travel members gathered in Maui at the Grand Wailea to celebrate the company’s progress in 2023 and look forward to 2024 initiatives. While they conducted their traditional business, most attendees identified the giveback opportunities as the event’s true highlight.

“The devastating wildfires happened in Maui on August 8, 2024, only a month before our event,” Signer says. “We continued with the event after careful consideration and in-depth discussions with our local partners and tourism authorities. An event like the Owners’ Meeting is crucial in supporting businesses of all sizes, ranging from drivers to hotel employees, photographers, audiovisual professionals and even family entertainers.”

The event was incredible with the backdrop of breathtaking Maui sunsets. As a special gesture, they delighted all attendees with a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses, which were met with tremendous enthusiasm. This not only brought joy to participants but also provided the company with an excellent opportunity to support a local business.

Each night held its unique charm, especially the pre-dinner event they had at the Andaz. Before dinner, they arranged a market pop-up featuring local vendors from the Lahaina area, providing them with an opportunity to sell their unique products.

“I came home with authentic jewelry, hot sauces, Maui clothing and my new favorite Aloha mug. Attendees not only enjoyed the shopping experience but also left a lasting impact on the artists, who were moved to tears by the end of the evening,” Signer says. “Their expressions of gratitude echoed the kindness and generosity displayed by all attendees.”

Ultimately, more than $2 million was infused into Maui’s economy from the Signature Travel event.

Notable Trends

Other destinations that Davison suggests are ideal for incentive trips include Jackson Hole, WY; Palm Springs, CA; Austin, TX; Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as international locations, including Greece, Italy, Costa Rica and Africa.

“Outdoor adventure destinations are gaining in popularity. I accompanied a group in 2022 to Jackson Hole, WY, and they had the time of their lives,” Davison says. “Sustainable and eco-friendly destinations are also seeing an increase in activity, including Costa Rica, Iceland and New Zealand.”

Paige points out that Formula One, Superbowl, and other major events are more popular than ever, motivating people to meet the requirements so they can attend.

“It can make a program interesting to mix in city and country, or luxury and culture. Turkey is a good example of the perfect mix of a bustling city with iconic sites and seaside escapes with unique getaways,” Paige says. “It’s a uniquely positioned location that allows you to visit Europe and Asia in a single day.”

Paige also points out that people are seeking more customized and unique experiences, and she doesn’t see this trend changing, especially with Gen Z in the workforce.

Depending on the size of the group, Signer says river cruising is an excellent option for a corporate incentive program. Last year, they did a full buyout for Signature’s Member Appreciation Cruise with AmaWaterways aboard the AmaMagna, sailing the Danube River from Vilshofen, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary.

“This experience was truly a storybook sailing, with breathtaking views as the backdrop, creating the perfect setting for our attendees to be inspired and create unforgettable memories together,” Signer says.

Being Strategic

ETHOS Event Collective Principal Joe Fijol says that experienced corporate planners know what works and what doesn’t, along with what’s feasible given local knowledge. Being unique doesn’t always mean spending more; it means being more considerate of attendees.

“Creating unique experiences boils down to asking: Why is this needed, and what can we do? Corporate incentive events can motivate, inspire and reward participants,” Fijol says. “When planners prioritize maximizing ROI for their clients, customizing unique experiences for attendees is key.”

Destinations offer their own distinct attractions. What the ETHOS team particularly enjoys is incorporating the local community into innovative ideas or themes, highlighting the significance of being in the chosen destination. By educating attendees about the purpose and importance of the event, they’ve found that they garner greater engagement and achieve more meaningful outcomes.

“We begin by focusing on the ‘why,’ encouraging planners to anticipate the unexpected elements that will bring extra excitement for attendees. Since the pandemic, tier two cities have offered new experiences that wouldn’t typically be considered,” Fijol says. Cities such as Santa Fe, Austin, Savannah, Asheville and others provide unique opportunities for attendees to live like a local.

To enhance a corporate incentive travel program, Fijol suggests incorporating a giveback initiative that supports the local community. As the competition for top talent intensifies, the significance of unique incentive travel experiences in attracting and retaining employees is growing.

“An experienced planner prioritizes understanding the preferences and interests of attendees by asking pertinent questions,” Davison says. “Not all planners personalize the planning experience to suit their clients. Some may rely on automated processes that fail to gather information necessary for crafting a successful incentive travel experience.”

Paige says it is also important that meeting planners consider audience engagement motivators. For example, when it comes to what motivates an audience to participate in an incentive trip, the Gen Z or millennial to baby boomer generations can be polar opposites.

“Gen Z and millennials tend to appreciate more free time to explore on their own and immersive cultural experiences while boomers enjoy the social aspect of group events and activities,” Paige says. “Your audience is thinking one thing: ‘What’s in it for me?’ And the more the communication for the event answers this question, the more engaged they’ll be and the more inspired they’ll be to do the work needed to win the trip.”

Deven Crane, director of travel services at Extu, says the future of corporate incentive travel lies in its ability to offer unique and unforgettable experiences. As the workforce evolves, with a growing emphasis on work-life balance and experiential rewards, the demand for unique travel experiences that offer more than just relaxation is increasing.

“These trips are a symbol of status, achievement and personal growth. They are about creating stories that can be shared, fostering a sense of accomplishment that extends beyond the workplace,” Crane says.

“In this context, the uniqueness of incentive travel experiences is not just important; it’s crucial. It’s about offering something that cannot be found elsewhere, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that echoes the company’s values and the attendees’ aspirations.”

In Crane’s experience, a common pitfall in planning corporate incentive travel is the lack of customization. Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach can result in experiences that fail to resonate with attendees, missing the mark on delivering a truly impactful and memorable reward.

“Moreover, underestimating the complexity of organizing trips to unique or remote destinations can lead to logistical challenges that detract from the overall experience,” Crane says. “Successful incentive travel requires meticulous planning, deep understanding of the attendees’ interests, and a keen eye for details that elevate the experience from ordinary to extraordinary.” C&IT


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