The New Sales Incentive

People might still hanker after the old incentive travel experience, but the ways in which programs are structured have definitely changed. Here's how:

Shorter stays. Planners report that the typical incentive trip is now four nights/five days, which automatically skews programs in favor of a domestic, short-haul destination. Notes Linda Comb, senior sales planner, Carlson Travel Group: "If you're going to go to Hawaii, Europe, or Asia, you have to have a longer stay."

Shorter lead times for programs. Says Kim Hester, director of meetings and incentives for Travel Dynamics Group Inc., "It used to be, 'OK, let's work for a year towards this incentive.' Now they tell participants, 'Book the most business in the next three months and you're going to go on a great trip.' It used to not be possible; when you had to deal with paper airline tickets, everything happened more slowly. Now you have e-tickets, you have e-mail, you have e-everything! And everything operates at warp speed. Because you can plan an incentive in three months, they choose to do so."

Tailor made. Steve O'Malley, division VP, major accounts, Maritz Travel, says "We've introduced a multivariable analysis product that studies the effectiveness of up to 20 different variables, as far as product offering, for an incentive travel program. Now, instead of the company saying, 'We always do a five-night trip to Mexico, and we do 10 waves of it,' we can survey its individual participants and determine whether part of the group would be more motivated by a shorter trip to a closer destination, or different activities, or maybe a family program."

A la carte. According to Greg Malark, executive VP, HelmsBriscoe, clients are outsourcing the travel element, but doing everything else—planning, promotion—in house, and they are putting budgets under a microscope: "Full disclosure of what they're buying, line item by line item, is very important." Jeannine Strampel, JAS Events, agrees: "Our last group wanted an individual budget for every night of the group—which is unusual. But we did it."

Spa's the thing. Comb says, "We're seeing that spa is so important in every one of our programs now." Malark agrees, adding, "In some situations, it's almost a necessity, as golf was, five years ago.'"