How to Plan an Incentive Travel Program

How to Plan an Incentive Travel Program

May 31, 2018

It’s been a while, but they say it’s like riding a bike – you never forget how to plan an incentive travel program. And because of a late-in-the-game staffing challenge, I landed on the Big Island of Hawaii after six intense weeks of working side-by-side with my colleague, Travel Experience Producer Heather Graver. Together, we planned and executed a program to be proud of for nearly 1000 people at the Fairmont Orchid, my new favorite hotel. I admit it took me a few days to get in the groove, but there were some principles that got me through:

Start with the Big Picture

It’s easy to forget the point of it all. A planner can get so focused on how many hors d’oeuvres per person are included in the Banquet Event Order that they forget what the program is all about.

The program is about the client’s goals, and about celebrating the people who have achieved them. That’s a big accomplishment, for the company and for the individual guests. It is essential to understand how the program fits into the company’s broader business strategy and to plan every experience and every event to live up to the expectations that inspired a year of hard work and commitment.

Only by understanding the relationships between the company and the guests, and by making the client’s priorities your own, can you really craft an experiential reward that lives up to the hype and represents the brand.

Smiling tourist sitting on a beach chair in Hawaii drinking coconut water from a coconut

Write It All Down

When I’m planning, I start with the agenda. This operational document can easily run to over 100 pages. It’s the only way that I can see the gaps in what we’re planning. It also automatically highlights decisions that need to be made or details that need further thought. It’s how you work out where to station the photographers or what time your team will need to advance the VIP reception. Heather and I used the agenda to communicate to each other, adding and answering questions, making sure we had it all covered.

By capturing all of the thinking in one place, you provide the on-site operational team with everything they need to know to execute the program as you intended. And, most importantly, you free yourself up to deal with challenges as they arise because everything else is taken care of and delegated.

Check Your Data

Most programs have a lot of data flying around – registrations, dietary preferences, optional activity selections, tax information, guest changes, and VIP invitations. It gets complex very quickly.

It’s important to commit time and resources to making sure that changes are making it through all of the lists. The implications of one guest name change can reach far and wide, from printed materials to seating charts. And when we’re striving for perfection, it’s worth it to stop, take a moment, and be sure that we’ve thought things through.

Just as important is being sure you understand the numbers. When working with nearly 1000 guests, even a small change in cost gets large quickly. Miss a $1 addition to breakfast and over six days, that becomes a $6,000 loss. We check, double-check, and negotiate to obtain what our clients need, on budget.

Rely on Talented People

Particularly with large program, one person really can’t do it all. This is tough to take for many planners, who tenaciously prefer to remain in control of every detail through the life of the program. But with all of the moving parts – flights, people, guest rooms, meals, activities, special requests, emergencies, weather, and even volcanos (yes, volcanos) – it’s just not possible to avoid delegating.

As a full-service incentive house, we can rely on our colleagues. In the weeks leading up to our program, 17 people in the office worked with us to bring the event to life, from IT to Marketing Communications. On site, we brought in our best trip directors, each of whom was assigned a role and responsibilities. All together, it took nearly 40 people from Next Level to deliver the program, not to mention the local vendors and talent we brought in for their expertise. It really does take a village.

A few months ago, we wrote an article on The Top Five Reasons You Need an Incentive Travel Company. This was #5: Depth on the Bench. It’s an absolute essential for a successful program.


We had a great program. Amazingly the volcano blew on the night we had a lava themed event, but we were otherwise not impacted by the seismic and volcanic activity 70 miles across the island. Guests went exploring every day – snorkeling, riding ATVs, taking helicopter excursions, and playing rounds of golf by the ocean – on this gorgeous island. They came back to the Fairmont every night to tell us of their adventures, often a little sunburned, but always excited about the experience. Two weeks later, they’re still adding updates on the event app, sharing pictures, thanking the client for the opportunity, and extending the networking at home.

I’ve gone back to Marketing, where, as a colleague once told me, “There are no Marketing emergencies!” (Thank goodness!). I’ll miss the thrill of working so hard on the planning and seeing the event come to life. But mostly, I’ll miss the happy people, enjoying a well-deserved reward and being treated with more care and thought than they’ve ever experienced before. It’s pretty awesome to be able to give that kind of joy to 1000 guests.

If you’re planning a program, do yourself and every person attending a favor: bring in an incentive travel specialist. They can take on the hard work and the stress, anticipate the challenges, tap resources, and treat every person on your program like the important individual they are. It’s worth it.