The demand on people’s time is higher than ever, so if you want to get them to leave their desk, their home or their many various obligations to attend an event, you need a strong reason. Well-designed incentive programs are the solution.
“In a post-pandemic world, it’s even more competitive for people’s time when it comes to getting attendees to participate in an event,” says Heather Odendaal, CEO and founder of WNORTH and Bluebird Strategy. “Incentives need to be more creative, innovative and truly ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences. You are competing with people’s free time or family time; the offer must help them achieve an objective in their personal and professional life.”
Not all incentives are created equal. One of the trends Odendaal is seeing in the industry is offering attendees quality one-to-one time with subject-matter experts, thought leaders and mentors. Expertise and people time is one of the most valuable resources out there.
“The most rewarding experiences are not necessarily the most expensive ones. I see so many planners make the mistake of trying to get into the fanciest restaurants, the most prestigious hotels or splurging on elaborate gifts that break the budget,” Odendaal says. “Try to find the smaller, unique restaurants — and get the restaurateur to join the dinner. Focus on the location and proximity of the hotel to the activities so they can walk everywhere if they want to, source gifts from local entrepreneurs who have a story to tell, and invite the entrepreneurs to your gala dinner to share their story.”
One planner with decades of experience planning incentive events says he thinks the No. 1 incentive factor is the reputation of previous events. “If it is an incentive trip — especially a customer incentive — if people participated before and it was high quality, plus it hit home for them personally, they will look forward to the next year’s event and spread the word that this is an event people won’t want to miss.”
To motivate those in attendance, the planner says insurance and financial event planners have to make attendees feel they are part of something special. The destination, of course, plays into this, but it also comes down to how the destination is presented. “You make the activities special, and not things that they would be able to do on their own. The element of surprise is a great addition,” the planner says.
Valerie Bihet, meeting planner and owner/director at VIBE Agency, says incentive meetings and events are great tools because they keeps employees motivated to hit their goals, particularly sales. It can really boost morale, get them invested in the overall goals of the company, and help with employee retention long after the event.
When it comes to getting people interested in participating, an add-on or big-ticket gift also is very effective. Bihet says the key is to make it as relevant to the attendees as possible. For instance, if they are into fitness, you could give away a Peloton bike. If they like wine, gift a wine-tasting event in their home or a really expensive bottle of wine as part of a raffle.
“I have also made their participation on-site into a game,” Bihet says. “They earn points for going to certain — or a certain number — of sessions, downloading something if it’s a virtual meeting, engaging with sponsors, etc. Then it adds up to a large prize similar to free travel or tickets to the event next year if you don’t want to do a gift of some kind.”
Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events, says incentives are great to differentiate tiered pricing or help drive awareness if used as part of a competition. But if you’re using them to motivate registration, then she thinks planners need to reconsider the event design and program.
“While they absolutely do have a place in the promotional mix, if you believe you have to incentivize people to attend, I would recommend taking a step back and asking yourself why you feel it’s necessary,” Park says. “What is it about your content, messaging and marketing that isn’t resonating on its own?”
Meet and greets, photo opportunities, personalized signed books and access to an exclusive party or networking event with a keynote speaker are examples of things that can help sell higher-tiered tickets. “It needs to be something, usually an experience, an attendee couldn’t access on their own,” Parks says. “The ‘value’ doesn’t matter in that case, because it’s the exclusivity of the offer that is the appeal. From a planner’s perspective, the examples shared are very easy to negotiate into speaker contracts at no additional cost.”
Another route based on the same premise is to offer a strictly limited-capacity show feature and hype it up to create a “fear-of-missing-out” atmosphere around it. “Let’s use stress management as a topic area that your target audience struggles with because who isn’t stressed and overwhelmed?” Parks says.
If you want to include a health and wellness activity into your program, look for a brand that has an inspirational, well-known founder or face of the brand, such as Robin Amelia Arzón from Peloton. Work with Peloton to create a unique experience such as bringing a certain number of bikes onto the show floor for a class instructed by Arzón. On arrival, participants will get an assortment of branded gear needed for the class such as a towel and water bottle. After the class, Peloton can sponsor a healthy break where Arzón can present on the topic area and do an attendee Q&A, followed by a meet-and-greet photo opportunity.
“Whatever the topics of need and interest are, if you find your version of this, it’s an experience your attendees cannot buy, so to speak,” Parks says.
According to Susan Stafford, corporate meeting & incentives planner and co-founder of The Event Architects, offering attendees a place or activity they would likely not be able to access on their own is a great incentive for today’s meetings. “Also, be sure there are activities included that are only accessible to exclusive groups, such as dinner in a castle in France, or an NFL locker-room chat and ball toss with last year’s Super Bowl winners,” Stafford says.
Small group interaction with company executives is also a good motivator for driven employees. As much as wanting the face time, they also do not want to the be the ones who miss out on the opportunity to form or strengthen meaningful work relationships.
“Consider giving a tangible gift that is special,” Stafford says. “It could be something brand new that is not offered through general retail yet, or something the attendees wouldn’t usually spend their own money on. Be sure your gifts have mass appeal so if the attendee chooses not to keep it, they can excitedly share it with a significant other, child, etc.”
Companies using incentive travel are becoming more creative. They recognize today’s employees want more than a paycheck, and are looking for meaningful experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives. Offering these experiences not only rewards past performance, but increases employee retention.
“Long gone are the days of the company chicken dinner in a ballroom where plaques were passed out. Incentive travel trends are leaning toward unique places and experiences,” Stafford says.
Additionally, companies are looking for venues where attendees are encouraged to remain on-site, thus increasing the time attendees spend together enhancing the company culture. These would include sites with plenty of activities and amenities that take place at an international venue or even a cruise ship.
It’s important to note that in the aftermath of COVID-19, international incentives are still slow to return to 2019 levels Therefore, companies are focusing on domestic destinations because there is a feeling that not everyone is ready for international travel.
“The challenge that presents is that people have already experienced a lot of the United States. So, an effective incentive program has to be really well designed in order to give people experiences that they wouldn’t find on their own and to really create the unexpected, the ‘wow,’” the aforementioned experienced planner says. “This is where a strong local partner becomes crucial. The local knowledge and contacts open up a lot of doors that visitors would not get on their own.”
Right now, Bihet is seeing more incentive travel trends moving to smaller groups of just 50 to 80 total attendees, such as the employee and their plus one, instead of the former incentive events as large as 250 or 300. It really varies from one company to another.
For some insurance and financial companies, incentive trips are based on objectives, so if more people hit their objective and join the “President’s Club,” for example, then that is how many get to go on the trip. For other companies, the qualifications to earn an incentive trip may be different.
In addition to the smaller groups, Bihet is seeing more luxurious incentive trips. “Participants want a true experience in a nice place. They are looking at influencers and what they are doing for travel and experiences and using that as inspiration for what they want to do when they come to us,” Bihet says. “I think right now people are looking for amazing experiences. So, it’s not necessarily a trip or an item, but think more broadly — a concert, a spa weekend. If people are into sports, look at a big-ticket event like the World Cup or Super Bowl tickets. If they are big foodies, maybe a celebrity chef comes in to cook for them.”
Odendaal says it’s refreshing to see more departments and divisions — other than sales — utilize incentive travel to motivate their remote/hybrid workforce. Roles that previously had zero reason to travel now have the opportunity to be a part of incentive trips at their organizations.
“Incentive travel has evolved as a tool to aid organizations in their quest for optimal retention. Other trends include regional incentive programs that are closer to home for individuals who do not wish to travel as far or even fly,” Odendaal says. “As flight costs increase, companies are also opting for drive-in locations for their incentive trips.”
When it comes to developing programs and events that incentivize employees, one of the biggest mistakes to avoid is not knowing your audience well, whereby the program design is not properly targeted to the attendees, and, as a result, people skip events and it defeats the purpose of getting them together.
Another big mistake Bihet sees is when the incentive isn’t what the people actually want to do. You can plan a great trip to New York, but if they would prefer to be at the beach or a warm destination, then it’s not much of an incentive for that group, and they won’t work for it in the same way.
“Survey those who have the potential to qualify, and design a program that is truly of interest to them rather than guessing what you think they would like,” Bihet says. “I did this recently for a sales destination trip we are planning now. We provided options for them to vote — Mexico, Dominican Republic or Costa Rica — and we are planning accordingly.”
Other key mistakes Stafford recommends avoiding include:
Do not assume everyone has the same motivations. A good incentive program is multifaceted to ensure all employees are attracted to at least one component, whether it be the location, venue, activities/itinerary or tangible gifts.
When planning a trip, be sure to offer agenda options. For example, a trip to New York City could include a food tour, a sporting event with pictures on the field/court, a Broadway show and/or a private shopping tour. While someone might be interested in the hottest ticket on Broadway, someone else might be drawn to the food tour. Offering options is key.
If you are offering a family trip, be sure to have planned appropriately for all ages. For example, instead of having a late-night formal dinner, have a reception with a fully stocked kids’ buffet and offer a movie room in an adjoining space with ample kid care and company logo blankets for all the younger attendees to utilize and then take home.
Most companies offering incentives recognize a significant part of the reward is offering the employee a unique and memorable experience to be shared with the guest of their choice. Don’t assume your employees only want to spend time with each other. Be sure to set up a program that allows the attendees to bring the guest of their choice, otherwise it is just work in a different setting.
If attendees will be flying to the meeting, do not give gifts they might have trouble packing for their return flight, such as a big-screen TV. If you do, be sure to let them know you have made arrangements for shipping. Gifts should enhance, not be a burden.
Do not make the incentive too difficult to obtain. If people think they can never reach the goal, they will simply not try at all. Be realistic and consider levels. Perhaps earning a trip is fairly doable, but earning the ability to bring the family is a little more challenging. First-class airfare and a car to/from the airport is another level, and a special private activity is available once the highest level is reached.
Post-COVID, more companies are starting to utilize incentives to motivate employees and to combat the “quiet-quitting” trend. Employees are looking for positions that enhance their lives and unique incentives are enticing. As such, companies realize the more unique and special an opportunity, the more likely the employees are to strive to be a part.
“Unique destinations, curated experiences and bespoke gifts have all become important factors for companies separating themselves from the competition for a competent and motivated workforce,” Stafford says. “As employees look for more meaningful employment, these offerings are becoming more and more important.”
With borders reopened and everyone eager for a long-overdue adventure, the delivery of company-hosted trips that have been set aside since 2019 are in high-demand. Parks says the main difference that will likely continue into 2023 and beyond, is that prices are currently extraordinarily higher than they were pre-COVID, and with fears of a U.S. recession looming, companies are reducing spending. These two factors obviously contradict one another.
“The trend I’m seeing is that travel agencies, DMCs, event management companies and/or the in-house lead are having to get more creative than ever before to find a ‘wow’ factor location that ticks all of the program requirements and meets a steady or declining budget,” Parks says.
Indeed, as the cost of travel continues to rise, Odendaal thinks incentive travel will continue to play a major role in retention strategies, especially when the travel delivers a “big bang” or “money-can’t-buy” experience. “I am also seeing a trend for more social purpose-driven incentive travel, where attendees can not only check a bucket-list item like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but also volunteer with children at a local orphanage,” Odendaal says.
And the experienced planner points to a number of studies from Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) that show a strong future for incentive travel. “People are motivated by experiences more than material goods,” the planner says. “And the ability to make those personal connections is something that cannot be replicated. If anything, incentive travel will become even more prevalent as a motivating tool.” I&FMM