Each year, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) looks across all of the studies they have conducted throughout the year, and consults with industry leaders to identify trends in recognition and rewards. With end users, incentive houses, and supplier partners in mind, they recently released this year’s report.

You can find the complete IRF 2018 Trends Study here, but here’s a sneak peek of what they identified:

1. Building a Brand Asset Culture Becomes a Business Imperative

Increasingly, a company’s value is in its brand. And employees are the living embodiment of the brand in ever interaction with customers, and with each other. What’s more, our competitive environment means that employees are doing more with fewer resources, often across the organization and outside of their core roles. Recognition and rewards are essential to keeping people connected to the brand and its goals, and to inspiring extra effort beyond the job description.

2. Market Optimism Leads to Budget Growth and Continued Consolidation

Among travel, merchandise, and gift card providers, optimism is up and so are program budgets. Looking forward third party providers and vendor partners alike expect to see growth over the next year. The thriving economic conditions are bringing about large-scale mergers in our sector.

3. Regulatory Pressure Drives Changes

They say, “the only thing constant is change,” and that certainly applies to the regulatory environment. With on again, off again regulations, program owners are challenged to keep up, and there is notable uncertainty about compliance. IRF recently published in important primer on U.S. Federal Regulations and Non-Cash Rewards to keep everyone on track.

4. Cost and Time Tensions Continue

Costs are out pacing budget increases for incentive travel programs, but for the first time since 2011, luxury hotel supply equaled demand. Even with the increase in inventory, occupancy of luxury hotels is at 74% year round and even higher in the peak seasons. It’s important to keep this seller’s market in mind when budgeting travel programs.

5. Increased Focus on Managing Risk and Ensuring Safety

From mitigating disruptions on travel programs to protecting data, there’s a lot to think about to keep incentive and recognition programs secure. Organizing companies are looking for thoughtful, proactive ways to  minimize risk.

6. Expanding Capability with Increasingly Predictive and Intelligent Technology

Data is allowing better insight into programs of all kinds, and into the motivation and behaviors of the people in those programs. And every year, technology from mobile apps to artificial intelligence changes the landscape of our industry.

7. Wellness Hits a Tipping Point: Expectations for Comfort & Healthy Options

Not long ago, I attended a meeting where a wellness speaker was followed by a cookie break. The irony was lost on no one. More and more people are interested in healthy options, in life, at work, and at meetings and events. The recognition and rewards industry is responding to those concerns.

8. Unique Destinations Gaining Popularity

Incentive travel programs have always set out to awe and inspire. But how can you top a program year over year? Service and creativity have a tremendous impact, but so does the destination. Many planners are turning towards unique destinations, many of which can provide a more authentic and personal experience, unlike any that guests can achieve on their own.

9. Merchandise Awards Move Towards the Meaningful

Well-designed programs tap into the individual aspirations of every participant. A wide array of choices helps to make non-cash or tangible rewards meaningful. And program participants are no different than consumers in our economy – they are seeking personalized, meaningful experiences.

10. Gift Cards Gain Momentum

For sales incentives with big rewards, travel programs rule. But for on-going recognition and engagement programs, or smaller sprint campaigns, gift cards remain a popular reward. Relatively easy to administer and desirable to program participants, almost 70% of large organizations have gift cards in the mix for their rewards program.

For more information and links to the studies on these trends, be sure to check out the report here.

At Next Level Performance, we’re proud to give of our time and resources to advance the research in the field through our work with the IRF. If you have any questions about this or other research, we’d be happy to help you.


About the author

As Vice President of Engagement at Next Level Performance, Susan serves on the board of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), and chairs the IRF Research Committee. She has also served on the board of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and is a past president of the Recognition Council, and a past member of the Performance Improvement Council and the Incentive and Engagement Solution Providers (IESP). She is interested in the strategies and benefits of employee engagement, incentive, and recognition programs. An avid traveler, she is also passionate about the art and science of incentive travel. Favorite travel destinations: Costa Rica, Iceland, Switzerland, and Maine.

Susan Adams
Vice President of Engagement