by Andrea Doyle | October 04, 2016

This article appeared in the October 2016 print edition of Successful Meetings. Read the cover story on the state of the incentive travel industry here.

Incentive travel is booming. According to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF)'s 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.

"Budgets are up to over $3,000 per person on average, with 30 percent of budgets being between $3,000 and $4,000," reports Melissa Van Dyke, president of IRF.

Compared to last year, incentive travel budgets are increasing, agrees Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management for marketing and loyalty firm Aimia. "This will not only spur increased supplier competition, but will also force suppliers to meet the heightened expectations of their clients." She points to a SITE survey, which found 70 percent of suppliers recognize they need to improve their incentive travel services and they are finding more creative ways to add value.

In this robust market, there are two key trends shaping incentive travel.

Wellness Travel
 Wellness travel and retreats, experiences that leave travelers healthier when they check out than when they checked in, are increasingly being used by incentive groups.

Wellness travel is far more than a passing trend. It is a $489 billion global market, according to the most recent research from the Global Wellness Institute (GWI). These global wellness tourism numbers will be updated in October, when released at the Global Wellness Summit, and GWI predicts this number will grow to $679 billion by 2017. That represents an approximate 10 percent growth every year from 2012 through 2017.

"Wellness travel destinations offer a wide range of group activities from yoga to rock climbing that are a perfect fit for teambuilding activities. And they offer ample opportunity to learn new skills, such as meditation, that will ultimately reduce stress and enhance performance," says Beth McGroarty, research director of Miami-based Spafinder Wellness, a marketing, gifting, incentives, and rewards company for the wellness industry. A retreat or trip to a wellness travel destination shows employees and clients that management cares about their health and happiness -- and it underscores the company's core values.  

There is no better place to do this than at a resort that focuses on wellness. Aimia recently planned an incentive program at the Calistoga Ranch in California that focused on health and wellness. Aimia reached out to Andrea von Behren, R.D., owner of Body Language Fitness & Yoga Center in Commerce, MI, to lead the group in yoga and Zumba each morning. Her ability to offer a holistic approach to wellness through her training as a registered dietitian, certified yoga teacher, and certified fitness instructor was just what Aimia wanted for the group.

"Participation in these events was outstanding, further illustrating that health and wellness should continue to be a top priority when planning incentive programs," says Tina Gaccetta, vice president of client services for Aimia. "Wellness and balance at work continues to be a growing trend."

This healthy addition to the incentive program was well received by the attendees. "Participants voiced a desire to continue focusing more on their wellness when they headed back home as a result of their positive experience with us," adds von Behren.

Luxury Transportation
 Who would have ever thought it would cost $50 to check a second bag, $11 for a meal, $20 for extra legroom? Feeling chilly? A pillow and blanket is $7. (A complete list of airline fees can be accessed at

To further cut expenses, commercial airlines have abandoned smaller airports, making it even more laborious to reach certain destinations. There are labyrinthine security lines, interrupted service, and delays.

Incentive planners are finding just the opposite is true with charter companies. With one phone call, a schedule is set based on the needs of the group, an aircraft type is chosen, as are the on-board amenities. The planner also selects departure and arrival points with the capability of landing at thousands of less-congested airports inaccessible to commercial planes.

Plus, the incentive starts the moment the group steps on the plane, sometimes even before. "There have been times where the aircraft is waiting for the group at a private terminal where a gourmet meal is served before the group boards," says David Goodman, partner, Private Jet Services Group (PJS), a corporate aviation consultancy, based in Seabrook, NH.

Once airborne, meals catered from favorite restaurants can be served, specialty liquors can be on hand, and headrest covers can be logoed as can amenity kits. For one group, PJS arranged for the company logo to emblazon the side of the aircraft.

Talk about a captive audience. Many companies have taken advantage of this time together and have arranged for in-flight speeches or have broadcast taped messages from the upper brass.

"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," says Goodman.

PJS recently worked with a tech company who had 400 passengers going to the Bahamas that they were able to accommodate on Boeing 767s. "We offered hot meal service, open bar, in-flight entertainment, and a VIP seating section," adds Goodman.

A group of this size would not have been able to access the location of their incentive trip easily using commercial carriers.  "Plus, 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," explains Goodman. "Using a charter for their program this year was a resounding success. Everyone arrived on time, everyone got their bags, and no one waited in an airport for hours."

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