by Terri Hardin | October 04, 2016

Having seesawed between bloated excess and sour-puss budgets in years past, the size of today's travel incentive program has finally gotten "just right," according to planners.

"Five years ago, when things were pretty tough, I would say that the average incentive was probably shorter, with activities that would have been at [attendees'] own expense," says Joanie Miskowiec Phillips, SMMC, director of purchasing and industry relations for Minneapolis-based MotivAction, LLC. That was then. Now: "They're maybe a night longer, with higher-end entertainment or higher-end activities, which are included in the budget," according to Phillips.

Another difference is that, in the past, "programs were very active, with a full day of activities and evening functions," according to Mark Graber, vice president of strategic accounts and business development for New York City-based Madison Performance Group. "A lot of people in this day and age are looking for a little bit of downtime, to reconnect with the guest or the spouse they've brought. They really appreciate the free time available, and not just jam-packing the incentive with minute-to-minute activity."

Today's incentive is more bespoke than ever before. "Personalization is key -- how to take your activity or event group dinner and make the theme and events weave in your corporate message, logo, and team structure," says Kelly Parisi, senior manager of solutions development for Spear One in Irving, TX.


Rhonda Brewer, Maritz Travel

Rhonda Brewer, vice president of sales at Maritz Travel, in St. Louis, MO, strikes a similar note: "The change from a few years ago is that there needs to be some customization to an individual and to a group."

The Way of the Millennial
While incentive programs extend to a diverse multigenerational workforce, Millennials are having a tremendous impact on what's being offered. "Millennials are not looking for tried and tested," says Kevin M. Hinton, CIS and chief excellence officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) International. "They want to be challenged. It is important for planners to uncover Millennials' distinctive passion points, and engage them in a way that speaks to their personal drivers." He notes Millennials' preferences for personalized workouts, healthy foods, and holistic wellness as behaviors that are shaping the travel industry.


Kevin Hinton, SITE International

Phillips agrees: "A lot of clients are incorporating a fitness instructor or a 5K run."

In today's incentive travel program, she adds, everything is interactive, even the tour. She points to a speedboat ride down London's River Thames to give groups a James Bond experience.

Frank McVeigh, president and CEO of McVeigh Associates Ltd. in Amityville, NY, says his company is seeing an increase in such adventurous activities as zip-lining, hiking, and mountain climbing. But these activities are not so much about adrenaline as providing attendees with new experiences.

"'Impact travel' is a new buzz phrase -- a blend of past CSR [corporate social responsibility] activities and 'go local' movements," McVeigh says, giving the examples of "a Native talking stick ceremony and dance during an Alaskan cruise, or a private tender from the ship to a motu in Bora Bora for a gala dinner in a thatched-roof venue."

Touring London's local markets
provides incentive winners with
a memorable culinary experience

  Hinton agrees that new experiences are key. While "sun-and-fun types of destinations" are always popular, they are having to make room for destinations "where groups can get more involved with the community and culture, either in the form of CSR activities or dining experiences that include local food, wine, or beer." For example, instead of a restaurant dine-around, attendees may get more out of being hosted at the home of locals.

Whatever the circumstances, says Phillips, "It's not just handing over a check -- it's building a park or cleaning a park or painting a school. People get the most out of CSR when they see or interact with the person who's benefiting from it."

In fact, SITE research suggests that seven out of 10 incentive programs include a CSR activity. While all experts agree that corporate social responsibility is now a fully integrated element of the travel incentive program, they also warn planners not to include it on the fly. CSR programs, says Hinton, "need to be planned well in advance and carefully selected."

Come to the Table
The importance of memorable experiences extends to the incentive travel F&B as well. "Quality food has always been important," says Phillips, "but now it's important to have an interesting meal, to expose people to new things."

Wine tastings and craft beer demonstrations are also popular. "We have groups that want to truly embrace the culture and experience the destination through local cooking lessons, mixology, and dance lessons," says Brewer.

Interactive classes -- particularly cooking classes -- are especially popular. For McVeigh, it's banquet chefs who demonstrate a spice rub for the group or a catch-of-the-day lesson. Mixology classes, creating your own mac and cheese, and customizing your dessert are also well-received options.

The Bucket List
"A few years ago it was sometimes hard to get companies to consider something out of the ordinary," recalls Wayne Wallgren, principal of Dallas-based WorldWide Incentives Inc. "A lot of our repeat clients have become more interested in offering new or less-conventional activities."

Indeed, for incentive travel participants who get to check off a "bucket-list" item, there's no better way to build loyalty and help someone feel motivated, according to Hinton. For this reason, he adds that incentive planners are seeking new and unique ways to immerse participants in the local geography and cultures with more educational opportunities and networking experiences.

Brewer agrees that incentive travelers want their experiences to be different than what they can do on their own.

"Personalized and customized experiences will continue to grow, along with such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities as cooking with a celebrity chef or golfing with a pro," she says. Of course, planning such creative experiences means that corporate and third-party meeting planners are "pushing DMCs hard to come up with the next greatest idea."

Finally, luxury -- or as close to luxury as the budget will allow -- has made a return to incentive programs. According to Wallgren, "We are getting more interest in what I will call premium or more upscale properties, all-inclusive (depending on the destination), and suite levels."

Merchandise Runs the Gamut
The experts have varied opinions on the current trends in room amenities, pillow gifts, and merchandise.

"In the past, brands might have been important to winners, but the younger generation prefers to choose more personal gifts, often set up right at check-in," says Hinton. "Companies can offer a wide range of choices, including anything from beverages and flowers for the room to custom goodies."

Wallgren agrees that the new tendency is to "consider things that are more thoughtful or personal."

For incentives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, McVeigh gives the example of designing a personalized tile design to be created at a local ceramic tile factory. He also offers a "merchandising experience" where Bose, Maui Jim, and Nike have vendors on site, so attendees can select their gifts in person.

For ease of use, Parisi suggests using hotels offering "inclusions that feel value-added for the program, such as complimentary afternoon tea, fitness classes, or room amenities." For example, at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, chips, guacamole, and beer magically appear in the room in the afternoon, which Parisi calls "great for attendees and great for planners."