To Truly Reward Employees, Go Beyond the Awards Catalog

To Truly Reward Employees, Go Beyond the Awards Catalog

July 15, 2016

Published: July 2015

By Leo Jakobson

Last year, an automobile manufacturer brought all of its top 45 dealership owners and their guests to a recognition event at the end of a year-long incentive campaign. After all the plates had been cleared at the end of the final night’s dinner, waiters came out one more time, this time wearing white gloves and bearing gleaming silver platters. On those platters were 45 clear plastic blocks, each holding an American $1,000 bill.

While still technically considered legal tender in the U.S., the $1,000 bill features President Grover Cleveland and was last printed during World War II. The Treasury has been destroying any bills it can get its hands on since 1969. They are currently available only through collectors and dealers, and can sell for several times their face value.

“The $1,000 bill is out of circulation and extremely rare,” says Chrissie Walsh, an account director at Minneapolis-based Aimia, a global loyalty and incentive firm. “These winners are extremely wealthy and have everything, so to be able to think outside the box, and to be able to come up with something they most likely do not have — something they have most likely never seen — is always a challenge. A Louis Vuitton bag? They probably have 12 of them. They may not have known the $1,000 bill even existed. They understand how rare this is, and the lengths to which the client went. It’s not a standard ‘thank you.’”

The goal of any incentive award is to excite program recipients so much that they are motivated to work incredibly hard to win it. That’s why brand-name merchandise like electronics, watches, cameras, sports equipment, luggage, jewelry, and luxury travel are so popular among incentive winners and make incentive programs so successful. Almost everyone has some item they want that is too much of a luxury for them to justify splurging on.

“The great challenge with the selection of rewards is the uniqueness of each eligible employee,” adds Susan Adams, director of engagement of New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing. “While a huge flat-screen TV might be a highly prized reward for one winner, it can be an unnecessary space hog for another. In order to leverage the power of personal aspirations and dreams for an incentive program, it’s critical to get the rewards right. The ability to select connects the individual’s desires to their professional efforts, making it a meaningful motivator.”

The Award Experience

Enough recipients are motivated by something a little different that most large and medium-sized incentive houses have a special buyer or concierge who specializes in unusual requests from winners.

The concierge service that Atlanta-based incentive house USMotivation offers in many of its programs has helped winners go “off-catalog” with prizes ranging from Botox treatments to a Harley-Davidson. USMotivation even managed to deliver a snow blower to a snowbound participant, says Scott Siewert, the company’s divisional vice president of sales.

“Tying the recognition or reward directly to the employee’s life and interests creates a deeper impact and increases their loyalty to the company,” Siewert says. “For one of our catalog programs, we actually set up a hot-air balloon engagement ceremony. We arranged for the employee to ask his girlfriend to marry him while soaring in a hot-air balloon. It was a marvelous occasion!” And, Siewert adds, it is something both the winner and his (now) wife will always remember.

Turning a merchandise award into an experience is a growing trend in the industry, thanks to on-site “merchandise bars” that replace traditional incentive trip room gifts with a single, higher-end award from a selection of different styles — such as sunglasses, watches, and even electronics. But this is not the only way to make merchandise awards even more thrilling and memorable.

St. Louis-based Maritz Motivation Solutions has been offering its Run Through the Warehouse reward experience for more than 35 years at the company’s Las Vegas distribution center, says Kathy Randall, the firm’s brand communications director. “In the past two years, Maritz has hosted more than 1,500 teams in this experiential award that participants often talk about for years to come,” she says. “As the adrenalin is pumping and the competitive spirit ignited, teams of two race up and down the aisles of a Las Vegas warehouse filled to the brim with brand-name merchandise. They load as much as they possibly can on their cart, limited only by the sixty seconds on the clock.”

The game show-style excitement of this event has consistently led to post-event survey results showing that the experience is “beyond the norm,” she adds.

Gift cards can also be a part of this one-off type of experiential award. The personal shopper at Maritz Motivation recently arranged a gift card for The Pickled Pedaler, an Indianapolis-based company that rents a 14-person contraption that can best be described as “a 14 passenger pedal-powered pub,” says Randall. The open-air vehicle, which has a driver and an electric motor in case participants get tired, tours the city while the peddlers, facing a central bar on their padded bike seats, are drinking and enjoying a tour of the city.

The Experience of Giving Back

One way to give cash awards that get around the many problems they create — notably winners coming to see these awards as part of their pay rather than something special and winners putting the money to non-memorable uses like paying the electric bill — is to provide funding for an experience of the recipient’s choosing. This isn’t to be confused with standard individual incentive travel awards.

One automotive client of Rosemont, IL-based Marketing Innovators ran a Super Bowl-themed incentive promotion for its dealers last year, says Cindy Mielke, the incentive house’s vice president of marketing. The fourth quarter 2014 program awarded one dealer principal in each of five regions $5,000 worth of funding for a Super Bowl party or any other event.

One winner hosted a party in the dealership for his employees, including a DJ for the pre-game party and a rented giant screen to show this year’s Super Bowl XLIX, Mielke says. Another used it to buy gift cards that were given to the sales associates. And a third used it to purchase laptop and tablet computers that were donated to residents of a Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of the United States.

He told Marketing Innovators that from 2010 to 2012, he had an economic development job in that part of the country, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. “While doing so, I came across numerous people on the Navajo reservation in need of technical assistance,” the winner said. “They lacked both hardware and training on how to utilize that hardware in order to improve their lives. The needs ranged from small businesses needing accounting assistance to individuals who had Internet availability but no reliable means of connecting to the Web.” All told, 20 new laptops, 12 used laptops, and nine new tablets were donated by the winner and his family, along with appropriate software and training.

Plan Your Own Adventure

Individual incentive travel awards take many forms, from hotel gift cards and airline certificates, to prepackaged trips, to truly customized trips created by incentive company specialists to the winner’s specifications.

“Travel rewards can be as unique as the imagination, but it’s the experiences that seem to stand out even more,” says Maritz’s Randall.

One program winner recently turned to Maritz’s individual travel specialists to help her use her incentive program points create a memorable weekend in New York City for herself and eight family members on her niece’s 16th birthday. Along with a dinner cruise and tickets to a Broadway show, Maritz helped the winner surprise her niece with a “Dance with the Radio City Rockettes” experience, a two-hour dance class taught by a Rockette that includes learning the choreography to the famous Christmas Spectacular.

Dittman Incentive Marketing’s Adams notes that her company arranged a two-week Hawaiian vacation for the winner of a client’s lifetime achievement award this year.

It was not for the beaches or resorts, Adams says. “He and his wife have close relatives who fought in World War II, and visiting Pearl Harbor was an important lifetime aspiration for them,” she adds. “Their personal connection to the destination made the trip deeply meaningful, and was made possible as recognition for the winner’s contribution to the company over time.”

Click here for the article in Incentive Magazine