by Deanna Ting | October 01, 2013
As the U.S. economy swings upward, and incentive travel programs continue to make their slow but steady comeback, new incentive travel trends have taken hold this year. These trends reflect the changing demographics of the U.S. workforce as well as the new economic realities that face businesses on a global scale. "I think we've moved beyond the rhetoric of the past few years and as event and incentive planners, we've become more focused on having programs that deliver more value overall," says Dahlton A. Bennington, senior meeting planner for Coral Gables, FL-based A-Plus Meetings & Incentives. 

For many programs, delivering value means offering family- inclusive programs, or traveling to adventurous, off-the-beaten- path locales. Here's a closer look. 

Family First
One emerging trend, says Bennington, is the resurgence of family-inclusive itineraries. "In the past year, three of my clients have looked at adding families to their itineraries for 2014," she says. Tony Wagner, vice president of CWT Meetings & Events, sees a similar trend. "Some companies, I think, are having a younger salesforce or workforce coming in now that wants to include their families on the incentive trips." 

Lifestyle Itineraries
By extension, Wagner sees more organizations crafting their incentive travel programs to appeal to a variety of lifestyles. "There are multiple generations now," Wagner explains. "You might see a track of activities who are more suited for Gen Y and Millennials, or another one for the Boomers, or one for less-experienced travelers and one for those that have traveled extensively. There's a different blend of activities because motivators differ for every person." 

Rather than adhere to traditional incentive travel components such as golf and spa, many groups are opting to forge their own paths in creating programs that work best for their attendee mix, says Jim Ruszala, senior director of marketing for Maritz Travel Company. 

Adventures Abound
Increasingly, more attendees are seeking adventurous itineraries. According to Lincoln, NE-based incentive house TenDot Corporate Travel, nearly 65 percent of its clients' programs included such activities as mountain biking, whitewater rafting, cultural tours, and photography lessons. "A lot of our demographics are looking for adventure activities," says CWT's Wagner. "They're heading to places like Colorado and Idaho where they can do things like hiking and rafting." 

Cruising Along
Cruises are also becoming a more popular option for incentive travel groups. Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), and former CEO and president of Maritz Travel, says that the variety of ships and itineraries to choose from make cruising particularly attractive for incentive groups. "There's a product for everyone, from large to small, and very often, it's a very all-inclusive type of experience," she adds. "Our cruise lines are doing a lot more to educate incentive and meeting planners about all the opportunities that are available in the cruise segment." 

Duffy says that larger groups will find plenty of space and activities onboard some of the newer mega ships, from lines such as Royal Caribbean International. For smaller groups, she says the option to charter luxury small ships like those from Paul Gauguin, SeaDream, Seabourn, and Silversea, is highly desirable, as are European river cruises. 

Renew Those Passports
While many organizations opted to travel closer to home in the wake of the recession and, there are signs that more companies are opening up to the possibilities of international incentive travel programs - and heading to some unexpected, non-traditional locales. "International travel for us is still huge," says Aofie Delaney, director of global sales for Ovation Global DMC, based in Dublin. "Many clients still want to go abroad, whether for long-haul or short-haul trips, and it's those unique experiences that you can have that are still key." Susan Adams, director of special initiatives for New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, echoes Delaney's observations. "There is greater interest in international programs than there has been in some time." 

Maritz Travel's Ruszala says that more companies are realizing that long-haul destinations are not a deterrent in motivating incentive winners. "I think it's an assumption among many people that the longer the distance you travel, the more the motivation value gets diluted, but that's not the case." Ruszala cites Maritz Travel's April 2013 whitepaper, "Making Destination Choice Go the Distance," which found that as long as the chosen incentive destination aligns well with attendees' preferences, perceptions, and appeal, longer travel times will not devalue the overall experience.

Luxury Is Relative
Traditional notions of luxury no longer apply to incentive travel. "Luxury needs to be something much more authentic for our clients these days," says Delaney. "It's doing what the locals would do. It's about luxury in the sense that you can't organize it on your own - that's what people are defining as luxurious today." 

Today, a luxury experience might be something like having a private dinner on the Great Wall of China, or cocktails on an iceberg with surprise encounter with whales, according to Ruszala. "The inspiration and meaningfulness of unique activities should always align with the local culture, theme, and destination." 

"Luxury is a relative term," adds Dittman's Adams. "Companies are slowly returning to known luxury brands, but they definitely are looking for a great guest experience at good value, no matter what hotel or destination they choose." 

While perception issues are not as weighty as they were just a few years ago, they still exist, which is why many organizations continue to make the ROI of each incentive program central to any major decisions. "Perceptions of grandeur are always a consideration, and often contemplated with each organization's need to recognize and reward their talent," says Bennington. "Fiscal responsibility is still a good rule of thumb."