Sports Incentives Bouncing BackJuly 1, 2013

How Popular Bucket-List Events Reward and Motivate By
July 1, 2013

Sports Incentives Bouncing Back

How Popular Bucket-List Events Reward and Motivate
Tiger Woods at a past Masters. Credit: Danny E. Hooks/

Tiger Woods at a past Masters. Credit: Danny E. Hooks/

Corporate sports incentives are bouncing back, rebounding and coming on strong say the experts. The need to reward top employees and customers along with a growing variety of budget-friendly sports incentive packages are fueling a resurgence.

What’s more, sports incentive groups are becoming smaller and more individualized as well, according to Bruce Rickert, president of Jamison, PA-based Peak Performance Travel Incentives. “Companies are sending fewer people and sending them to their preferred sport versus sending a whole group to the same sport. Not everyone is doing a big president’s club-type incentive anymore,” he says. Rickert wisely encourages companies to set the budget first, and then his firm creates trips to fit the prescribed amount.

Although the overall size of sports incentive groups is diminishing, the number of companies participating is edging higher. Sports incentive providers say the increase comes as financial and insurance companies remain mindful of controlling costs and flying below the public radar due to the residual effect of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) guidelines on incentives, meetings and events.

“Sports adds another layer of excitement around incentives. Not only do they go to a great destination but they add a bucket-list item that most people want to do.”

— Brian Learst, CEO, QuintEvents LLC & Quint Loyalty, Charlotte, NC

However, Brian Learst, CEO of QuintEvents LLC and QuintLoyalty, a Charlotte, NC-based full-service provider of sports and other incentives, claims sports incentives are more popular now than they were in the pre-TARP days. “We are seeing more financial institutions coming back into the market after years of not doing any kind of incentive,” he says. “They realize they have to motivate top people just like other companies. Sports adds another layer of excitement around incentives. Not only do they go to a great destination but they add a bucket-list item that most people want to do,” adds Learst.

Tighter corporate budgets are, ironically, contributing to a strengthening sports incentive market, says Adam Rauch, president of One Line Sports Agency, a Bayside, NY, firm, which offers sports packages for corporate groups. “We are hearing from meeting planners and others who are doing the jobs of a few people and have less time and resources. They are turning to organizations to manage these programs turnkey. We have had about a dozen calls like that so far this year,” Rauch says.

The Granddaddy of All Sports Incentives

One of the most popular sports incentive events of all time is the Masters, the iconic golf tournament held every April since 1934 in Georgia at The Augusta National Golf Club, which was founded in 1931 by golf legend Bobby Jones and businessman Clifford Roberts. There is high demand for tickets to the four-day popular tournament because of its mystique and tradition, and because many corporate executives and managers play the game of golf.

A national financial firm sent incentive groups to the Masters in 2010, 2012 and 2013. About 80 top salespeople and customers attended this year’s tournament in groups of six with each group staying for two days. Each group stayed in a rented house complete with private chefs, cigar rollers and other luxuries.

The top performers and customers attended the final days of the event. However, people who left before the final round of play still got a very special golfing treat by watching the practice rounds, says Fred Rodgers, vice president, corporate group, Premiere Global Sports, a Libertyville, IL-based provider of sports incentives. “A lot of people feel that watching practice rounds are some of the best days because you can do more as a spectator. It’s more laidback, you can take pictures, and golfers interact and joke with people a little. People tell me there is nothing like going to the practice rounds at the Masters and then flying home and watching the tournament on TV because you’ve been there,” says Rodgers.

The Super Bowl is another top draw for incentives. During this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, more than 224 sales agents for a large insurance company enjoyed the top tier of several incentive packages available. The group had a choice of several pre-Super Bowl activities including golf, sightseeing, dining and tours of areas such as the French Quarter. On Friday and Saturday nights, they had a choice of several Super Bowl parties, including those hosted by Maxim, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. On game day, they attended a pre-game hospitality party in the stadium with live entertainment, NFL players and cheerleaders. After the game, they were on the field for the trophy presentations.

Another highly popular sports incentive event is the United States Open Tennis Championships — the fourth and final tennis major comprising the Grand Slam each year. (The other three are the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.) The U.S. Open is held annually in late August and early September over a two-week period at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, NY. The Open is a high-demand incentive, especially among companies in the New York financial industry world.

The Kentucky Derby, because of its many accompanying high-society social events, is also a favorite event among insurance and financial firms hosting incentive programs that include spouses. Other popular sports events include the Indianapolis 500, Major League Baseball’s World Series contests and annual All-Star Game as well as college basketball’s NCAA Final Four.

Among international sports events, the modern Olympic Games remain the star with soccer’s World Cup, which starts in Brazil in June 2014 not far behind. Corporations, including financial and insurance companies, are already lining up packages, says Robert Tuchman, founder of Goviva Enterprises Inc., a New York City-based company specializing in sports incentive packages worldwide. “It will be the most popular sports event I’ve done in over 15 years in the business. More than 12 companies have signed up, and we could wind up with over 100. Packages include hotel rooms, tickets, a limousine bus to matches, dinners and meet-and-greets with players,” says Tuchman.

Tuchman notes there is also growing interest in the UEFA Champions League, a prestigious tournament of European soccer teams held every four years.

Planners also find the BCS National Championship, the final bowl game of the annual Bowl Championship Series (BCS) of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, attractive for corporate groups. “People usually care about which teams play, as opposed to the Super Bowl, which is an event unto itself regardless of who plays. This year’s BCS game between Notre Dame and Alabama was very strong,” says Rodgers.

Other popular events include the National Hockey League’s Winter Hockey Classic. Launched in 2008, the contest is a regular-season game between two marquee teams, which takes place at an outdoor stadium on New Year’s Day. Also, one of the newest events is the Austin Grand Prix, Formula One auto racing at the Circuit of the Americas, near Austin, TX.

The America’s Cup yacht sailing races offer an unusual and unique seagoing sports experience. A major financial company is sending a group of broker-dealers to the yacht races set to sail off the coast of San Francisco in September, says Tuchman. “Although we don’t get a ton of requests for the America’s Cup, it is very special. During their four days, they will watch the races from rented private yachts with a Cup expert who will greet them and explain the contest. They will have private dinners at top restaurants with top chefs we work with. They will also take in a pro football or baseball game,” says Tuchman.

The Benefits Last a Lifetime

Sports incentives, especially the big-name events, are powerful motivators with unique advantages. Learst cites the following benefits.

The incentives have short- and long-term bragging rights and “trophy value” that last a lifetime. “Every time somebody sees a Super Bowl, for the next 30 years they will remember the experience,” says Learst. “They will also come back to the office and say, ‘I saw the game and Beyoncé. I was at a party and met Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back).’ They will have pictures of it and share it with everybody in the office, which makes everybody else want to perform better and take the trip.”

The media mania and buzz that surround major sports events provide significant value for planners and corporations. “It’s like getting free promotional dollars. Every time the salesforce watches or reads the news, they see something about the event, which motivates them even more. You don’t have to spend as much to communicate the value of the incentive,” says Learst.

It’s relatively simple to create a theme that ties in with a sports incentive. “Sports offer a natural promotional connection because, like incentives, it’s also a contest, and you always have a winner. We have done programs with banks that use brackets like those in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to represent each branch and its accomplishments as they compete for goals,” says Learst.

In another example, a financial firm conducted a one-month sales incentive program in February 2012 prior to the start of the NCAA tournament in March. District managers conducted presentations for sales staff and gave them posters depicting the theme “Shoot for the Final Four” in New Orleans in 2012. Employees also received miniature basketballs and hoops. At the Final Four, winners did meet-and-greets with famous coaches and celebrities, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of New Orleans, says Rickert.

The Future Is Bright Despite Tight Budgets

The outlook for sports incentives is positive in part because firms offering the programs have reshaped their packages to fit slimmer corporate budgets. As a result, planners have a growing menu of individual, small-group and tiered programs, some of which come in the form of certificates that corporations can award to top salespeople and clients to spend on incentives of their choice.

A growing portion of Peak Perfor­mance’s incentives involves smaller groups and individuals who select their own sporting event within various price ranges. “We see a lot of that. We as a company have gone after the idea of budget what you want, and we will create trips around it,” says Rickert.

He offers an example. “One (financial) company awarded winners $3,000 to $5,000 each to spend on an incentive. They pick the package they want, and we build an incentive around it, book it and bill the client. If the winners want to spend more than $3,000 to $5,000, they have to pay the difference. We do it for sports like golf, football, baseball, the Final Four, Kentucky Derby and NASCAR,” says Rickert.

Another financial firm planned a budget-conscious sports incentive for 24 salespeople and brokers. They attended the MLB American League Championship Series last year between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. “We did a tailgate party program aboard a luxury RV,” says Rauch. “We had typical tailgate food like hot dogs and hamburgers. The RV had televisions, and we watched the pregame show. Former player Jack Clark, an all-star who played for both teams, came by to sign autographs. We got them lower-level tickets. This was something we were able to do for them because it wasn’t a budget-breaker,” says Rauch.

Corporate Sports Incentives (CSI), based in Fairfax, VA has also increased its number of incentive program choices for individuals and small groups, according to President and CEO Marc Matthews.

“We changed the business model in 2006–2007 when the economy started to go. We went from group to more tiered and individual programs. We changed the model to where companies had no upfront group costs, unlike a traditional group incentive where you have to sign a contract and pay for everything upfront,” says Matthews. CSI now offers several incentive programs and major sports packages with a wide variety of prices for groups and individuals. These include the Just Rewards Experiential Collection, Just Rewards Sport Collection, Just Rewards Travel Collection, Group Incentive Travel Sample Programs, and more.

Each program offers numerous options. For example, the company’s Just Rewards Sport Collection offers three levels of ticket-only programs; three levels with or without hotel-stay options; and five top-level packages: Iron Collection, Bronze Collection, Silver Collection, Gold Collection and Platinum Collection Sports Options.

New York-based Inside Sports & Entertainment Group (ISEG) also illustrates the variety of incentives available to planners. “We started getting more small group business,” says senior vice president Jim Zissler. “We started noticing that a lot of bankers, traders and Wall Street guys couldn’t do as much spending, but they still needed to take clients out. Some decided not to invite a group of, say, 25 people to the Super Bowl but do it personally and take fewer top clients,” said Zissler.

Thus, ISEG introduced more options. He notes that individuals and groups of 10 people or fewer, including many insurance and financial firms, now account for more than 40 percent of the company’s business. For example, the company now offers three different packages for groups of four to the Masters Golf Tournament. The packages range from three to seven nights at a private home and have optional add-ons, including meet-and-greets with golf legends. ISEG also offers individual packages for events such as the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, World Series and BCS National Championship.

Offering more incentive package options also makes it easier for corporations to deal with public perception about incentives. “When you move away from group travel, you no longer have signage and you no longer take over 400 rooms in a hotel, so it kind of flows under the radar,” says Matthews.

Some companies awarding incentives to large and small select the same sports experiences every year while others alternate events. It all depends on the objectives of each company, says Rodgers. “Every company is different. They change objectives going into every New Year, and they may want to target certain regions or goals. You have companies that do the Masters for years and years and even rent the same houses. Others create events around different sports,” says Rodgers.

Final Thoughts

Sports incentives ignite passion in employees, many of whom carry a lifelong allegiance to certain teams and sports. The passion combines with the competition of incentives to motivate employees to perform their best to win repeatedly. That’s why sports incentives will continue to be an indispensable part of rewarding customers and clients.

As Zissler puts it, sports incentives offer a unique “money can’t buy it” experience. “Anybody can go to a place like the French Riviera or get a ticket to something if they have enough money. But can they get on the field right after the Super Bowl or visit the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby? What makes it memorable is that you can do something special that other people can’t do,” said Zissler. I&FMM

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