Traditional incentive programs are exceptional ways to provide rewards, but today’s corporate meeting planners and the companies for which they work are turning their attention to high-end incentive experiences, and for good reason.
Lincoln Smith, chief strategy officer for HMI Performance Incentives in Norwood, MA, and current board member of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and Incentive & Engagement Solutions Providers (IESP) in Minneapolis, MN, recognizes the impact high-end incentives can have on attendees. Smith has turned to the Incentive Marketing Association and IESP as resources while planning his client’s high-end incentive travel trips. HMI Performance Incentives strives to provide high-end incentive trips, offering deluxe accommodations at stunning iconic destinations.
“We often reference their data and utilize other members and partners in planning,” Smith said. “While luxurious accommodations are the baseline, we put a steep focus on providing one-of-a-kind experiences. We pride ourselves on offering personalized options for top-producing earners.”
These incentive travel trips go beyond the ordinary by offering experiences that align with attendees’ passions and interests. Smith strives to plan trips filled with memorable experiences that are meaningful for each participant.
High-end incentives that illustrate this level of personalization demonstrate a deep understanding and appreciation for each reward recipient. It also creates a sense of value and recognition that goes beyond an earned vacation and provides the sponsoring company with an opportunity for an incredible investment return.
Danielle Focarile, CMP, events manager at Admiral Insurance Group in Mount Laurel, NJ, agreed that high-end incentive programs should be a reward for top producers.
“While talking about business is important, it should not be the main focus of these trips,” Focarile said. “Getting to build a true relationship and knowing your customers as people is sometimes even more helpful in producing business. They’ve worked hard all quarter, year, etc. and should be appreciated and able to enjoy that accomplishment.”
Last year, Admiral Insurance Group began a semi-annual high-end incentive program focused on their up-and-coming producers.
“We all know that insurance is an aging industry, and we’d be remiss to not focus on nurturing some of our existing relationships into our future top brokers,” Focarile said. “Many of our attendees had never been invited to an incentive-type trip like this, and they were so appreciative to be included.”
According to Focarile, Admiral Insurance Group worked hard to show their attendees that success with their company could lead to great rewards. As it turned out, a quarter of those attendees qualified for their semi-annual ‘premier broker’ program this year, proving that rewards posed a great incentive. “No guests were invited to this program, so we could really focus on building these relationships and allowed for true bonding time between brokers and underwriters” she said.
What motivates attendees at high-end incentive programs?
Smith and his team recently put together an infographic compiling the most recent statistics on incentive travel. They gathered resources from the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) from last year and Trends Report from the current year’s Incentive Travel Index. It showed that 72% of participants in last year’s IRF Trends Report cited relationship building as an important indicator of a successful program. Additionally, 89% of participants crave downtime.
“Along with providing choices for downtime, we also include carefully curated experiences, such as Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives (CSR),” Smith said.
Integrating CSR events into high-end incentive trips allows organizations to enhance their brand reputation while fostering a sense of purpose and unity among employees and trip recipients.
“By engaging in activities that contribute to the welfare of local communities or the environment, participants develop a deeper understanding of social issues and gain a heightened sense of empathy and responsibility to the location and its people,” Smith said. “This fosters a sense of sustainability and enables HMI and the trip sponsor the ability to give back to people and places in need.”
CSR activities also promote teamwork and collaboration as individuals work together toward a common cause, building trust and a personal connection.
Focarile recommends that planners should strive for memorability in high-end incentive experiences.
“Having a ‘wow’ factor, like the mermaids in the pool at our Florida Premier Broker event, keeps your company top of mind in your attendees’ heads.” Focarile said. “Great communication is also a key. Our attendees are busy people, so we understand the importance of providing answers before they even ask the questions. We introduced an event-specific app this year, as well as a landing page with all of the ‘Know Before You Go’ information they would need, including a link to our Pinterest board for some outfit inspiration.”
Kathy Roche, director, meeting planning and travel & events for Western & Southern Financial Group in Cincinnati, OH, said that as a meeting planner for a large financial/insurance company she looks for unique and memorable destinations that are easily accessible and offer a variety of amenities and luxury.
“Our top producers work very hard to earn these prestigious award trips and we look for resorts that offer upscale accommodations, outstanding food and beverage, spacious ballroom and meeting space, a variety of indoor and outdoor function space and a spa, golf and a variety of activities native to the destination,” Roche said. Because of Western & Southern’s partnership with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, they’ve been fortunate to book several of Fairmont’s resorts for their top incentive trips and sales conferences.
“From Bermuda to Vancouver to Scottsdale, we’ve been able to negotiate favorable rates and offer upscale accommodations and unique meeting and function space,” Roche said.
Recently, The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess was one of the top-rated sales conferences for the Western & Southern Life division this year.
“We have brought approximately 200 attendees to enjoy five-night stays at this amazing resort. From the moment our attendees arrived, they felt welcome and special,” Roche said. “That is truly important!”
According to Linda Quental, CMP and senior meeting and events planner at Voya Financial in Windsor, CT, high-end incentive programs are events that need to be top notch. “The attendees are normally high-end performers in a company or your senior leader executive team,” Quental said. “This event should have white glove service from the start to the day they land back in their home city. You need to make sure all vendors are on board and have the same end result as you do. The reason is that they are an extension of your team.”
Each year, Quental plans her company’s external sales incentive trip, and there are some that stand out. “One was to Cannes, France, and another one was pre-Covid in Sintra, Portugal,” she said. “It was the second time the group went to Portugal and they would go back year after year if they could.”
When configuring a high-end incentive travel program, Smith recommends planners have a deep understanding of the demographics of the audience that is traveling. This allows the meeting planner to seek out destinations that will make trip-goers feel recognized and special.
“High levels of personalization are essential in helping create a lasting memory that participants associate with the sponsoring company,” Smith said. “Meeting planners should create events that feel personalized to the intrinsic and extrinsic values of travelers. We typically find the profiles of high-end incentive travel participants call for destinations that feel ‘new’ to the audience.”
One way of doing this is to survey potential program participants for their preferred style of travel, bucket-list travel ideas and travel history. As Smith explained, gaining insight from travelers and the sponsoring company’s culture can help make it a more memorable experience for everyone.
HMI recently sent a leading research and advisory company’s top achievers to the Puente Romano resort in Marbella, Spain, for an incredible incentive program. The participants were treated to an elegant and private experience at a historic Spanish hacienda, exposing them to the essence of Andalusian gastronomy, music and culture, including an equestrian performance. The group experienced a memorable journey into the mountains to The Plaza de Toros de Ronda, which is the birthplace of bullfighting, to explore the magnificent views and attractions.
Local artisans shared samples of olive oil, locally made wine and custom-made ceramic crafts as part of the memorable shared cultural experience. For participants who were looking for more downtime, they were invited to take a shuttle to explore Old Town Marbella. With relationship building being a primary focus for many attendees, Smith believes it’s important to also provide opportunities for meaningful connections.
“When planning a trip that has a CSR element incorporated, the sponsoring organizations can be as involved or uninvolved as they want,” Smith said. “The most successful CSR initiatives have a level of coordination with the company’s own brand values paired with the needs of the location.”
For instance, food insecurity might be a big problem in the destination. Researching and finding local nonprofits in the area that help combat that can be more impactful than a donation.
After connections are made, it can be easier to help organizations support other causes as well. “A lot of the time, a nonprofit will understand what’s possible with different group sizes. Planning can be a very collaborative effort between the planner and the nonprofit in this way,” Smith said. “Donations, speaking engagements from the nonprofit, or supporting the nonprofit through structured activities are all ways to build deeper connections and provide needed assistance to bootstrapped charitable organizations.”
Focarile recommends avoiding over scheduling attendees, giving them time to do the things they want to do between meetings and agendas so they don’t feel like they need a vacation from their vacation.
Focarile loves seeing the end result of the high-end incentive programs.
“These programs are a lot of work and highly logistic, but once you get to see all of that hard work pay off, it’s worth it,” Focarile said. “Receiving thank you notes from your attendees or hearing them talk about a program years later is the best. The beautiful destinations and amazing experiences we get to enjoy doesn’t hurt either.”
Orchestrating high-end incentive travel for corporate attendees can be challenging. For Quental, the biggest challenges are trying to find places that the group hasn’t visited and that fits into the company’s taste and budget.
“As budgets are remaining flat, finding that unique venue becomes challenging as the industry prices have inflated due to many reasons,” Quental said. “We try to see where the company can get the most ‘bang for their buck’ even if it is a high-end incentive. During this economy, all corporations are looking to cut back and we all know it is usually meetings. It is hard to plan a meeting on a budget, but many of us are, so we need to plan differently but we need to be just as effective.”
Although high-end incentive programs are challenging to organize and plan, Focarile believes these programs will continue to be a necessity for the insurance and financial industry.
“A majority of people are continuing to crave the face-to-face contact and interactions that in-person events provide,” Focarile concluded. “It’s important to continue to reward your well-performing partners, and avoid the mindset that even without these events, they’ll continue to produce. If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will. These trips are an investment in them and continue to have great ROI because they fulfill their needs and wants.” I&FMM