They ate dinner at the Michelin-rated Chateau de la Chevre d’Or in France, gazed at the beauty of the Taj Mahal in India, rode motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, attended a lion safari in Africa and visited the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
This sounds like the makings of an awe-inspiring incentive, but it’s actually the places visited by Morgan Freeman’s and Jack Nicholson’s characters in the movie, “The Bucket List.” This movie is coming to life for many meeting planners who try to find that one special location attendees haven’t been to, or that one creative activity they couldn’t plan on their own. Incentives are getting more personal every year, and planners have a challenge to impress everyone—or risk impressing no one.
Bonnie Boisner, vice president of events management at Aimia, a company that launches loyalty programs all over the world, keeps three “Ms” in mind when considering how a program can incentivize each winner: meaningful, memorable and motivational. “You must first understand your audience,” Boisner says. “Facilitating an experience that cannot be replicated will extend the impact of your event and encourage participants to work harder to win that reward time and time again.”
To give a program that “never-been-done-before” appeal, John Crowe, president of Metracon Travel Group, based in Toronto, Canada, often ties his incentive programs to an entertainment or sporting event. “Participants feel like they are receiving VIP access to an event that they wouldn’t be able to attend on their own,” Crowe says. “Our 20-person incentive program in Los Angeles featured a trip to the American Music Awards. The entire group raved about it after the program.”
But don’t think programs with a surprise factor have to be expensive. Incentives are called loyalty programs for a reason. Recognition, of an employee or a customer’s brand, can be the single personal touch that’s needed to create a memorable experience. Marty Doyle, director of travel experiences at Dittman Incentive Marketing, looks for opportunities to let winners know they are valued and can be the face of the brand.
“We wanted to create a special and personal recognition moment at a resort. We used the property’s large, fish-filled aquarium and arranged for scuba divers to swim up to the glass during a dinner event,” Doyle says. “The divers were holding each winner’s name and a branded sign that read, ‘Thank you for all you do.’ It was unexpected and personal, and the cost was minimal.”
Doyle endeavors to incorporate the company’s brand and messaging wherever possible. This makes it easier for the attendee to identify with the concept and personalizes the idea even further. “Whether it’s a super hero party for a company using this imagery in their advertising or a Formula One event to communicate value of excellence and excitement, our surprise factor moments are linked to each company, its brand messaging and organizational goals.”
It might be easier to fulfill personal bucket lists if an incentive has a small group of attendees. But the challenge in making these wish lists reality grows with the numbers and becomes more complex when attendees are traveling from all over the world. Inevitably, the program will be located in someone’s homeland, and what may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for one person may not phase another.
One idea that’s appealing to a broad audience was suggested by several planners with international participants: an Alaskan cruise. “Even the Americans were excited,” said one corporate planner. “After all, you can live in the United States all your life and never be able to take this trip.”
Whatever the program, it is important to craft a personalized agenda. Boisner provides her attendees with a variety of options. “Free time is important. Gone are the days of jam-packed program agendas and a single program itinerary,” she says. “While scheduled events and activities are necessary, providing guests with enough time to explore on their own is appreciated.”
According to Boisner, it’s also important to provide activities based on the participants’ lifestyles and interests. But what happens when the program is new, there’s little history or the guests were not surveyed about their preferences? Appealing to the masses won’t work. Yet looking at the basics will give you a strong guideline. Attendees love to eat. And most people like the outdoors, or at minimum, fresh air and sunshine.
“Unique culinary strategies have been well-received, including chef demonstrations during dinner, sustainable food trucks and farm-to-table experiences,” Boisner says. “We’ve also used wineries, aquariums, outdoor tents and theaters for program venues, which fostered innovative thinking.”
Another back-to-basics incentive element is shopping, especially in an international location with a lot of local artisans. “Many of our programs include a personalized shopping element,” Boisner says. “We provide gift options that are culturally aligned with the destination, and participants can select their own gift as a treasured keepsake.” This now becomes a dual benefit as the memory of the event lives on post-event.
On a recent Dittman Incentive Marketing program planned by Doyle, the goal was to unify a diverse sales force. All guests received the latest GoPro Hero camera with built-in Wi-Fi as a welcome gift. “This allowed them to share images and video with other participants via a live, monitored social media feed,” Doyle says. “It was a great success because it not only energized the audience, but also created opportunities for networking and community building.”
Extending the life of a program is also a goal for Rhea Stagner, vice president of industry relations and sourcing at Maritz Travel Company. She starts this longevity before the program begins and looks at ways she can weave the memories leading up to the on-site dates.
Stagner gives an example where children of the winners were allowed to attend the program. Just before the children traveled to the destination, Stagner’s team encouraged them to write and mail a note to their parents thanking them for taking them on the trip. “When the families returned home, they received the letters, which served as a memory of the trip as well as a motivator to win again next year,” Stagner says.
And here lies the dichotomy: Finding the right destination for an incentive is more than meeting a personal bucket list. The locale should tie back to organizational goals. While the incentive is grounded in reward and loyalty, it’s also about meeting the bottom-line vision. It’s about incentivizing salespeople to sell more and igniting customers to buy more. The memory of a positive experience motivates; add a culturally educating caveat, and the memory can motivate much longer.
“We welcome a destination that provides a cultural and educational opportunity for participants,” Boisner says. “Every touch point before, during and after the trip should measure back to the company’s core objectives.”
From a logistical perspective, destinations that provide sufficient airlift and a range of hotel price points are at the top of the list. “The group size and airlift determine the viability of a specific destination,” Stagner says. “While the destination might not work well for a large incentive, it may be perfect for a 100-person incentive.”
Stagner says the most popular places for her groups continue to be San Diego, Miami, Orlando and Scottsdale, Arizona. The Bahamas, London and Rome top the international list. “These destinations continue to be popular because they are easy to get to, with multiple daily flights, a lot of hotel options within all price categories, and motivational value.”
Stagner says once people have traveled to Paris, London and Rome, they feel more experienced and are ready to try more unique destinations such as Costa Rica, Prague and Monte Carlo.
Doyle agrees that the ability of a destination to meet organizational goals is important. “Many companies are using incentive travel to inspire sales among channel partners and customers,” he says. “The desirability of the destination relative to those offered by competitors in their industry is definitely a consideration.”
Doyle says Arizona and South Florida have been popular U.S. destinations. “Both offer a wealth of great resorts, adequate flight capacity and exciting activities,” she says. “Fort Lauderdale, Florida, particularly has proven to be a favorite.”
Internationally, Doyle says Spain continues to be a top destination. “Both Madrid and Barcelona are dynamic, modern cities filled with history and culture that make Europe exciting to Americans. The opportunity to travel to a true bucket-list destination inspires participants to achieve their international goals.”
Getting back to those basics—fresh air and sunshine—Crowe says the Caribbean was the No. 1 destination he booked in 2013, specifically, Punta Cana, Mexico, and the Bahamas. “People love the sun, sand and ocean and really want to take advantage of this when planning activities.”
A study conducted by the SITE International Foundation in association with IMEX says the economy continues to impact incentive travel. In 2014, 50 percent of planners reported a reduction in the number of programs, and 47 percent of respondents said the duration of their programs was shortened and that they were using less costly destinations. The good news is that the majority of these respondents identified these changes as temporary.
“We continue to see budgets staying relatively flat,” Stagner says. “Airfare, room rates, and F&B rates continue to increase, which typically means less inclusions paid for by the company for the incentive guest.”
Stagner points to higher hotel rates caused by an attempt to compensate for past losses. “Overall hotel revenues are not increasing as much as RevPAR [Revenue Per Available Room] due to the lower occupancy levels,” Stagner says. “Hotels know the market is shrinking (i.e., more demand with no new builds), so they are pushing rates to make up the occupancy gap knowing undersupply in the future will cause a heightened sellers market.”
Unlike the U.S. market, Stagner says the global market is expanding its hotel supply due to readily available funding. “This funding in certain areas, such as Asia, has resulted in an oversupply pointing to the core fact that even in the global market variability is prevalent,” Stagner says. “A ‘build it and they will come’ strategy could result in reduced rates and low occupancy levels.”
Although Doyle is seeing an increase in incentive budget spending, he says it is not matching the rise of hotel room rates and airfare. As demand increases, he sees hotel and air costs significantly outpacing inflation and annual incentive budget increases. “During the economic downturn, program cycles shortened,” Doyle says. “Now it is increasingly important to book programs 16 to 18 months in advance to obtain the best rates and availability.”
Another trend Doyle sees is a change from seasonal incentive operations to continuous operations throughout the entire year. “In the past, most programs fell in the spring, as clients with annual contests rewarded winners as quickly as possible with their incentive trips,” he says. “Now we no longer have high and low seasons. We have a number of programs based on shorter sprints or fiscal years, resulting in year-round program operations.”
Crowe, on the other hand, is seeing steady growth of his program budgets. He notes another rising trend mentioned in a SITE Canada survey: the addition of business meetings as part of an incentive program.
Extreme weather issues in the United States last winter combined with the continued awareness of terrorism threats (both domestic and global) served to remind planners about the importance of keeping attendees’ safety top-of-mind. Sometimes the attendee demographic itself can add an extra layer of liability. For example, when children attend as guests of winners, they add a new set of issues. If the winner wants to bring a family member who is not their child, such as a niece, the planner has to make sure they are the child’s legal guardian, or have permission from a legal guardian. An extra rider may have to be added on the organization’s insurance policy to cover children.
When traveling to international destinations, planners are advised to take special precautions depending on the destination. Additional security may haveto be added to the program. Political uprisings or other crises may require cancellation and a quick shift to another location.
Stagner keeps briefed on security concerns by regularly reviewing global travel trends, weather issues and government advisories, from both the U.S. and regionally. “We will not recommend a destination that is considered high-risk,” Stagner says. “Communication with our guests is key. We want to make sure they are kept abreast of any situations so we can work together to make informed decisions.”
As we look at Morgan Freeman’s and Jack Nicholson’s characters, their list of places to visit and extraordinary activities don’t seem out of reach. The idea of creating the unexpected, personalized dream trip can be a reality. However, you might reconsider one activity: An attendee riding a motorcycle along the Great Wall of China might not fit into the risk-management plan.
Photo credit: Aimia
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As Vice President of Travel & 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.