Saving Face

A few years ago, a major telecommunications company added an innovative component to its incentive program called "lifestyle rewards," which allowed winners to submit invoices for nearly any expense. At the time, the company's incentive planner thought that people would use the new system to pay for home-improvement projects like bathroom makeovers and kitchen renovations—that is, until Louise Anderson, the consultant who had designed the program for the company, received an inquiry about another kind of makeover altogether.

"Someone called us asking if she could submit an invoice for a breast enhancement," recalls Anderson, CEO of Anderson Performance Improvement in Hastings, MN. A bit surprised, Anderson nonetheless checked with her client, who agreed to the reimbursement. But more importantly, she smelled new motivational potential: "As the winner herself said, 'What better trophy value could you have? You carry them around with you all the time!' "

As the popularity of TV shows like Nip/Tuck, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210 demonstrates, plastic surgery, once a taboo topic discussed only in private, has become mainstream. At the same time, thanks to medical advancements, cosmetic procedures that used to require complicated operations and weeks of recovery time can now be done in a few hours in a doctor's office (or even, in the case of Botox injections and chemical peels, in a day spa). So it's probably no surprise that some companies are offering facelifts, tummy tucks, and other enhancements as part of their incentive programs—or that some destinations are going after this market.

The Cutting Edge

For the past couple of years, Dr. Zachary Gerut, a plastic surgeon based in Hewlett, a town on New York's Long Island, has been offering a rapid- recovery facelift that he believes is unique. "It's a real facelift—not a mini-lift or a thread lift—yet patients don't have to be under deep anesthesia," he explains, "so they recuperate in just a few days, and without all the bruising and swelling, or the nausea that's caused by general anesthesia."

Some patients, in fact, recover so quickly that they can have a procedure done in the morning and head into Manhattan for dinner and a show that same evening. And because Dr. Gerut's office is located just 20 minutes from John F. Kennedy Airport, he's had quite a few patients fly in from California, Florida, and even Europe for some "freshening" combined with vacation time. "I have a woman coming in from Arizona who's planning to spend the weekend in New York, visiting Little Italy and sightseeing," he says. Many of these patients are business executives, he adds, as "people can go from the operating room to the boardroom in just a couple of days."

Whether or not they're incentive winners, though, is not known—and Dr. Gerut, for one, hopes they're not. "To my knowledge, no company has ever given my surgery as a gift," he says. "I wouldn't want that to happen, because that trivializes it. To make a gift of surgery is a little strange—I think it incentivizes someone to have an operation that they might not have otherwise."

Even so, this type of travel is booming. New York is hardly the only place receiving medical tourists, and in plastic-surgery-friendly destinations like Los Angeles and South Florida, some hotels actively pursue this niche. "Aesthetic surgery is a likely market for us," predicts Tom Parke, director of sales and marketing at the soon-to-be-opened Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. "There's a large number of cosmetic surgeries being performed in South Florida, and the numbers show that two-thirds of the people having those procedures are not residents."

Because the Hilton is an all-suite property with full kitchens and an array of customized services from personal shoppers to private chefs, and is located in an area with excellent airlift, Parke expects that much of his clientele will consist of wealthy Latin Americans who've journeyed north of the border for a nip and tuck and some post-surgery R&R. "What I'm hearing from my contacts in the medical world is that aesthetic surgery nowadays is less invasive and less obvious, so people can go on a holiday or an incentive and come back looking like they've been on vacation," says Parke. "For those getting more extensive procedures, our property will offer the services they need," he continues. "We can find them a doctor if they need one, or a personal shopper to buy them new clothes if they've lost inches off their waistline because of liposuction." The resort will also be able to cater to guests with post-surgery dietary restrictions.

Barry Podob, director of sales at Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood, CA, says that his property also appeals to this clientele—in fact, the hotel was even featured on a popular reality-television program (Podob won't say which one) in which people recovering from plastic surgery stayed there for several months at a time. "Our rooms are all suites, so they lend themselves to longer stays. Also, we're in a residential area so it's quiet and restful, and we offer exemplary service, including a restaurant that can accommodate special dietary needs," Podob explains. "In fact, we even used to do group sales for plastic surgery centers, but now the business is more on an individual basis."

In most cases, it's difficult to tell if clients are incentive winners who have come to town courtesy of a travel award that they're combining with some aesthetic enhancements. People making reservations at his property don't say why they're in town, notes Podob, although he adds that the hotel does offer preferred rates to patients from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and other nearby hospitals, and is on the recommended-hotel list of several plastic surgery centers.

Anderson reports that if an incentive winner traveled somewhere to get plastic surgery, the reward would be tracked in her company database under two categories: "travel" and "cosmetic surgery." For instance, "We had an incentive winner who used her award to pay for a trip to China and a fur coat," she says. "It turns out she bought the coat in China, but normally we wouldn't know that."

Skin Deep

Because of ethical and liability issues, very few companies offer cosmetic procedures as a reward to top performers, and even fewer advertise that they do so. (Controversially, the U.S. military does provide free elective cosmetic surgery to personnel and members of their immediate families, and according to news reports has even used this benefit as an enticement for potential recruits.) However, Anderson says that the number of people taking advantage of this perk at the telecommunications company was "in the double digits," although that number includes those getting LASIK eye surgery.

The companies that offer this kind of reward typically do so after the fact—that is, by reimbursing the incentive winner for an expense already incurred, notes Bill Grassie, president and founder of Strategic Incentive Innovators, an incentive consultancy in Pittsburg, KS. "There are probably liability issues involved in companies actually putting employees in touch with specific doctors," he notes. "I can't believe a company would want to get involved with selecting who would perform the procedure." Even so, Grassie says he "absolutely" would recommend this type of reward to clients looking to retool their incentive options. "An incentive winner might not be able to justify spending thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgery, but if it's something he or she wants and it's offered as a goal, it can become the most motivating thing out there."