Incentive Travel Planning: Budgets Are Up, and So Are the Program Management Challenges

Incentive Travel Planning: Budgets Are Up, and So Are the Program Management Challenges

December 1, 2017
  Published: December 2017
Corporate & Incentive Travel
By Maura Keller


According to the 2018 SITE Index, optimism is high for incentive travel, with most incentive program buyers recognizing its consequential power to motivate and drive performance, resulting in increased company sales and profitability. Also important is the engagement component, which helps cement relationships between organizations and stakeholders — from employees to partners. Indeed, evidence that organizations are “all in” on incentive travel programs can be found in the Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) 2018 Outlook Study, which shows that incentive travel budgets are up with an average per-person spend of $3,915, an increase of 4 percent over last year.

But as every meeting planner knows, pulling off a successful incentive travel program is no walk in the park. First, the program has to be perceived as desirable and inspire people to do more to reach their goals. Participants also must have reason to believe that they can attain the reward, and that it will be worth the extra effort. Then, each participant — from employees, to customers, to senior leaders — expects to enjoy a flawless experience from the moment they find out they qualify for the trip to the time they arrive back home.

Of overriding importance is meeting the organization’s expectations for a return on the significant investment they’ve made in the program.

Program Stewards

Susan Adams, vice president of engagement at Next Level Performance and former board member and current member at Incentive Marketing Association, understands the planning challenges full well. “Managing an incentive program is both an art and a science,” she says. “While planners create a magical, memorable experience for participants at the destination, they are also the stewards of the program finances and reputation. In an increasingly regulated environment, and one in which there are increasing disruptions for reasons from weather to social media, planners face new challenges. They must balance guest experience with responsibility, and ensure that the company’s interests are served at every step.”

According Adams, end-user clients are very focused on the relationship between the organization and eligible participants, from initial communication to the post-program survey. Adams sees the most dramatic results when the audience has a range of communications — from video to print — at a fairly frequent cadence. This ensures that the program plays into decisions and efforts throughout the year.

“An amazing destination also helps,” Adams says. “It’s essential that the actual program experience is in line with everything the participants have imagined and wished for throughout the qualification period. When program participants can see themselves there, then have an even greater experience onsite, there is a tremendous emotional payoff for their hard work. That is a powerful representation of the company’s brand and the organization’s commitment to its people.”

This level of experience with incentive programs gives employees a reason to stay and to connect to the organization. Linking the anticipated experience to the actual experience amplifies the power of the program.

Inherent Challenges

The obstacles to a flawless incentive program are many and can pop up when least expected. As Adams explains, many incentive programs occur in the winter or early spring, just after program results are verified. This means that weather can have a significant impact, as airlines scramble to get people safely from the stormy Midwest to sunnier locales. Cultural differences or miscommunications also can create a host of challenges to even the most thoroughly planned event.

As a former planner, Adams has learned that careful, exhaustive planning not only results in a better event, it also gives meeting planners the bandwidth they need to react to challenges or emergencies. Just as important is effectively communicating the plan to the rest of the team. Because no program goes off without some surprises, it is essential that everyone on the travel staff knows what to do and has the information they need so that they can jump in and make good decisions when the unexpected happens.

“Planners face difficulties, which can include everything from guests who are unwell to motorcoaches with flat tires,” Adams says. “You just never know. And no matter how much planning experience you have, it always seems that there is some new, unheard of challenge on every program. The ability to react to the unexpected is what really sets a great planner apart.”

For Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president of AlliedPRA New Orleans, incentive programs offer a myriad of challenges for corporate meeting planners. One of the biggest is staying with the same theme. “As soon as we create and implement a brand new, out-of-the-box experience, it is all over social media and local websites, so it loses some cachet,” O’Hara says. “We have to work hard to keep things fresh, and sometimes keep a trick or two in our pocket to enhance future experiences.”

To make incentive programs work well, O’Hara stresses that planners have to know their group well. “Since we are designing hyper-local, unique experiences, they have to be the right fit for the group,” O’Hara says. “I can tell right away if a client knows their group well. When they don’t, it prolongs the proposal process and costs everyone money and time.”

Incentive travel continues to be strong. Businesses value rewarding and recognizing their top performers with group incentive travel. But, the challenges include the continued responsibility of providing unique experiences and elevating the elements each year, but on a flat budget — and also managing safety and risk concerns.

In fact, security and risk management are of major concern to stakeholders and planners today.

“Whether it be terrorism, weather or health-related outbreaks, it is important to have a crisis management or emergency response plan in place,” says Jill Anonson, manager, event solutions, ITA Group in West Des Moines, Iowa. “Even though we are unable to control everything, this can ensure that the team and their suppliers know what to do. A lot more time is being dedicated to determining best destinations and managing the disruptions.”

Mark Herbert, president of Incentive Solutions in Atlanta, Georgia, says that managing an incentive travel program can be a daunting task. One of the hardships planners face is avoiding having to pay any attrition fees. Avoiding attrition fees is one feat; getting attendees to register in a timely manner may feel nearly impossible.

“However, registration is a huge necessity so we can collect important data on attendees, such as dietary needs and restrictions,” Herbert says. “Once a planner has a way to get the attendees to register, be sure to have a registration system to collect and store that data. They are going to want to be able to access attendee information efficiently should they need it for any reason.”

Needless to say, stakeholders in the incentive program arena expect to see a healthy return on their investment.

“The incentive needs to drive a change in behavior and have an impact on profits and brand awareness,” Anonson says. It is important to develop a rule structure that drives those results and then be able to look at various metrics to determine success. Many businesses have data, but are unsure how to utilize it to truly measure the impact.

Enhancing Incentive Programs

And these days, planners are finding that they need to up their game in meeting or exceeding participant expectations.

“People are so much more well-traveled now, and see so much on social media, that you can’t slip a routine trip by them. In the case of customer incentives, most times your best customers are all millionaires themselves, so (they are) that much more experienced and hard to impress. They have choices on which companies to spend their time with on incentive travel, so yours must stand out in the pre-marketing but also be flawless in execution.”

Most important, the planner should understand the company’s goals and brand. Even seemingly small decisions reflect on the organization with an important audience — top employees or partners. By taking the time to inquire about the purpose of the event, the overarching messaging and the tone set by the client corporation, a planner can better integrate those threads into everything from how the welcome materials are written to the entertainment selected for the final night.

“Some brands are fun by nature, and others are serious in style,” Adams says. “Some clients want to encourage networking and mingling, while others are more interested in formal recognition for top achievements. The same cut-and-paste evening event will not appeal to both groups. Nor will the same tone of voice among staff at the desk. The best planners learn as much as they can about the style of the organization and the intent of the client contact, and reflect that in every decision.”

Asking questions and developing awareness of the brand — even if it’s gleaned from the corporate website and advertising — can go a long way towards a successful program.

And proper incentive program management is key to ensuring a successful event. By having each component of the program laid out in advance allows a meeting planner to see where the program may be lacking, giving them the opportunity to enhance those pieces.

“Also, there are many cases in which additional support staff are hired on a per-event basis,” Herbert says. “Without proper program management, it can be challenging for the support staff to fully grasp and understand what is needed from them — which, in turn, could affect the attendee experience and overall program satisfaction.”

When managing incentive programs, planners and companies are trying to provide unique and exciting programming that appeals to all the attendees. Providing experiences that showcase the location of the incentive trip, while also providing enough variety for all the attendees, can be challenging and budget-constraining.

“The more activities that are offered, the higher the budget, but at the same time, not everyone wants to have a spa day or golf,” says Emily Griesser, director of meeting management at Minneapolis-based conference and events production company metroConnections.

“Many attendees also will want to do something that will showcase the cultural and historical side of the destination they are in. With planning a multitude of activities, make sure that there is enough variety, but also that take into account attendee numbers as well. Many activities have group minimums in addition to maximum attendee numbers, and a meeting planner doesn’t want to have to go back to the group and make people choose something different, because there wasn’t enough interest in their activity.”

A growing expectation among participants is for events to have mobile options available, if not some form of mobile app.

“Mobile apps have started replacing paper on both the planner and attendee sides,” says Herbert. “Text messaging and mobile app notifications are now a must-have — attendees are starting to expect to be told where they need to be via some form of notification rather than look it up.”

On the Horizon

From the recent major weather events to new regulations affecting program rules, there is a great deal of disruption in the incentive marketplace. As such, the planner’s role as guardian of the client’s interest is more important than ever.

“The incentive program — rules, communications, results, reward — is far greater than the dates and location of the trip, and the planner’s work influences both the onsite experience and long-term success of the program year-over-year,” Adams says.

According to O’Hara, all of the recent surveys indicate incentive travel spending is on the rise. Companies realize the value that is created by having this quality time with their top customers or employees.

“As it is ever easier to gain knowledge about what is out in the world, selecting motivating destinations that are appealing to the type of traveler in the group and providing unique, personal and brag-worthy experiences becomes ever more important,” O’Hara says. “While some groups will still like to go to a resort, lounge around the pool and get spa treatments, more want to experience a destination and discover its unique offerings.”

Anonson says that there are many factors that will drive us to adapt and change. The political and global climate will continue to affect the industry and global events. Government regulations, acts of terrorism and natural disasters are factors which are difficult to predict, but will continue to be obstacles for planners and industry suppliers.

“We will see a growth in employee incentives,” Anonson says. “Companies need to build loyalty within their employee base to help with talent retention. Incentives will go beyond sales, and also recognize innovation and high levels of service.”

Incentive programs recognize the best of the best. As such, it’s crucial to have proper program management to guarantee a smooth, carefree and enjoyable experience for all attendees. “Planners are the ones charged with making sure everything is up to par and exceeding expectations — from the registration process, to the airport transportation, to the hotel check in and activity participation,” says Meredith Olson, program manager of meeting management at metroConnections. “Nothing should fall through the cracks on these types of programs.”

Incentive programs continue to grow and evolve in the meetings market, and it is important for the industry to evolve with the demand for these types of programs. Increasingly, companies are looking for new and authentic experiences for their incentive programs, while also being sensitive to company perceptions and budgets.

“Incentive trips aren’t going away,” Olson says. “There will continue to be demand for luxurious, and new and different experiences. The best way to guarantee success with future incentive program management is to stay on top of the trends and strive to continue elevating the experience so your clients continue to surprise and delight their incentive winners.”