Incentive travel is booming. According to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) study "2016 Trends in Incentive Travel, Rewards, and Recognition," budgets are up, lead times are growing, and the destinations incentive planners are using are expanding.
But while travel may be booming, airline travel seems to get more and more unpleasant by the day. Who would have ever thought it would cost $50 to check a second bag, $11 for a meal, $10 for extra legroom? Feeling chilly? A pillow and blanket costs $7. Then there are labyrinthine security lines, interrupted service, and delays, to say nothing of overcrowded planes.
In addition to these fees and inconveniences, airlines have cut expenses by abandoning some smaller airports, making it even harder to reach certain destinations.
So it's no surprise that some incentive planners are abandoning commercial air travel in favor of private charters. These charters set a tone that enhances an incentive program. The planner also selects departure and arrival points with the capability of landing at thousands of less-congested airports inaccessible to commercial planes.
Alison Taylor, senior vice president of the Starwood Sales Organization at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, says that during her career, "the most memorable incentives are those that had a private charter plane to go to different destinations across China and Europe."
She adds, "[Planners] charter a large private jet to go to multiple destinations, and when it lands, everything is taken care of. Immigration and security [is] on the plane, then they're whisked off to their hotels by a limousine on the tarmac. These are top-of-the-range incentives, which are usually no more than 75 to 100 winners and their guests. You can almost feel the buzz -- and that's what makes you very loyal to your company, because you can't buy that type of experience."
Once airborne, meals catered from favorite restaurants can be served, specialty liquors provided, and amenity kits and headrest covers can be logoed, says David Goodman, a partner in Private Jet Services Group (PJS), a corporate aviation consultancy based in Seabrook, NH.
"There have been times when the aircraft is waiting for the group at a private terminal where a gourmet meal is served before boarding," Goodman says, adding that for one group, PJS arranged to have the company logo emblazoned on the side of the aircraft. "A charter ups the 'wow' factor of an incentive program. If a winner has been to a destination before but is flying on a private aircraft for the first time, it impresses."
PJS recently worked with a technology company that brought 400 participants to the Bahamas on Boeing 767s. Noting that a group of this size would not have been able to access the location of their incentive trip easily using commercial carriers, he adds, "They had a terrible experience using commercial airlines for their last incentive program with missed connections and lost bags. The CEO of the company vowed never to put his top people through that experience again. Using a charter for their program this year was a resounding success. Everyone arrived on time, got their bags, and no one waited in an airport for hours."
Goodman adds that many companies have taken advantage of this time together to arrange for in-flight speeches or to broadcast taped messages from the upper brass.