Ask a recently returned incentive travel winner to describe his or her trip to you, and it usually starts with a plane ride to an exotic destination, a greeting by smiling trip directors, a welcoming drink, and a deluxe double room. It continues with cocktail parties and poolside buffets, beach parties and dine-a-rounds, tennis and golf, and it concludes with a farewell banquet, abundant thanks, and kudos all around.

It’s a pretty picture of pleasant recollections, and every time you hear a description like that, you’ll know that someone has set the incentive travel profession back 20 years.

Was there not a single moment that burned itself in the mind forever? One event so unusual and uncommon that the guests knew it was created just for them?

Was there not anything they did that they couldn’t have done on their own?

Does the mind radiate, do the passions stir, at the recollection and the recounting of the experience?

If these questions cannot be answered with resounding affirmatives, then someone is guilty of creating a “typical” incentive travel program.

There Should be Nothing Typical about the Typical Incentive

Picture it. You’ve just asked someone . . . a salesperson, a dealer, a distributor . . . for a 20-percent increase in the next six months over what they did in the same period last year. Do you really think that people will work 20-percent harder for a trip that they saw on the internet for $699? Would you? I think not.

What then will drive people to work the equivalent of an extra day every week for six months? The answer is not a trip. The answer is an experience . . . filled with surprises and special moments and personal touches and extraordinary events. An experience they could not duplicate on their own no matter how wealthy they might be.

The incentive travel program is very much a contract between the company and its employees and/or customers. It says, in effect, “You achieve this, and we’ll reward you in a fashion you’ll never forget. The “typical” incentive trip can be quickly forgotten if it is simply a blur of pleasant experiences.

Every single destination in the world is a unique piece of earth because of what has preceded today, what has happened to it and its people. There is history and culture to be drawn out and transformed into magical moments. Into pillow gifts. Into theme parties. Into stories to be told with flair and sparkle. Places to be seen through the looking glass that only imagination can provide.

Smarter People in a Smaller World

The people we are trying to motivate today are not the same people that we aimed at 15 or 20 years ago. They are more sophisticated, more aware of a world that’s shrinking daily, so the faraway places with the strange-sounding names aren’t so far away or strange-sounding anymore. Program participants are more mobile and have traveled more on their own, so the mystique of travel is evaporating. They’ve likely been on an incentive trip before, so their level of expectation is higher.

In short, good isn’t good enough anymore. In the beginning, newness, novelty, and opportunity to travel were sufficient. The future calls for imagination and daring . . . for excellence in the creation and delivery of extraordinary programs.

A Matter of Self Interest

“Why should I bother with all these custom events and special touches?”, you ask. After all, your programs are first class, well run, and successful. There are several reasons. First of all, “first class” is a given. It is assumed that an incentive trip will be done first class, much like a diner has a right to assume that the soup will be hot and the utensils clean. So, first class does not set you apart from the crowd.

“Well run” is as implicit in incentive travel as first class. Remember, we’re dealing with a winner whose expectations are high. He/she expects and deserves a well run program without flaws. So, again, your program is no different than any others.

After you have operated your first incentive travel program, the participants will have lived through the award, and they’ll know exactly what they’re competing for. Simply because they left your last program with smiles and thanks and a tan doesn’t mean that they’ll kill themselves to do it again. (When was the last time you left a party at someone’s house and told the host that the evening wasn’t worth the long drive?) First class, well run programs have an insidious way of creating a false sense of security, of letting you think that you’re succeeding when you’re not. It’s what goes on in the winner’s mind but never gets said that does the damage. Like termites eating away at a beautiful home, you don’t see the damage until it’s too late.

The program is successful only if its impact is so strong that it creates a lust in the participants that drives them to resolve that nothing will stand in the way of their participating in future programs. You owe it to yourself and to your company to do the uncommon, the exceptional, or you’re wasting your money. It will cost a little more to execute the dramatic touches, but the result is the difference between a passing interest in attending and a passion to be there. And that translates into higher production to earn the trip. And that is the real reason to do it in the first place.

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About the author

Jim Dittman founded Next Level Performance in 1976. In his career, he has been named “Incentive Executive of the Year” by the Motivation Show, one of the “25 Most Influential People in the Travel Business” by Business Travel News, and the organization was named one of the “five most innovative incentive companies” in the U.S. by Successful Meetings magazine. Favorite travel destinations: Ireland, Australia, and Turks & Caicos.

Jim Dittman
Managing Director
jdittman@nxlperformance.com

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