by Leo Jakobson | June 24, 2010
UPDATED Oct. 29, 2010: Name of company studied released to the public

The Incentive Research Foundation's 17th Annual Incentive Invitational last month took another step on the path from being a good fundraising and networking event known for its golf and the high-end auction that finances the organization, to being a key industry show by stepping up the quality and quantity of the research undertaken during and presented at the event. 

The next step, says Melissa Van Dyke, who took over as president of the IRF three months before the May 19-23 event at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, is for the organization to increase the amount of education it does, both at future Invitationals and at other incentive industry events. “We are hearing a call for more directed educational content at the event, targeted at the prior year’s research,” Van Dyke says.

“The event is evolving and moving in the direction of more education,” agrees Rodger Stotz, the IRF’s chief research officer. At the same time, the IRF is evolving from its incentive travel roots—it was the nonprofit arm of incentive travel organization Site until a few years ago—to cover the whole industry. “Historically, the IRF focused on travel,” says Stotz. In 2009 and 2010, “we broadened our perspective, to non-travel as well as travel research,” he adds. “This is not a redirection, but an expansion.”

This year, the Invitational had two research roundtable sessions on the afternoons of Thursday, May 20, and Friday, May 21. They grew out of an informal roundtable held five years ago, at which participants were invited to offer suggestions about the direction of the IRF's research for the coming year, Van Dyke says. That proved so popular that the scope and then number of the roundtables grew, at first more by popular demand than intent.

This year, some 150 of the attendees participated in first of the voluntary roundtables. On Thursday, participants were asked to give their own answers to questions posed in the IRF’s May 2010 Pulse Survey, which tracks industry trends. On Friday, the responses were compared to the answers from 89 incentive planners, suppliers, and corporate buyers who participated in the national survey.

The Case for Case Studies
This year, the first day's roundtable began with the presentation of a travel incentive case study the IRF was working on. This was an in-depth study of every facet of a long-running incentive travel program held by Fort Lauderdale, FL-based strategic workforce solutions firm SFN Group, a well-established firm with several thousand employees and clients that range from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, and whose name was withheld by the association. The program is open to all employees, not just sales, and has strong management support. The company agreed to participate in the study and give the professors hired by the IRF full access to the program, its results, its program managers, executives, and employees on the condition of anonymity.

The result of that case study, the 106-page “Anatomy of an Incentive Travel Program”—which is available on the IRF’s Web site,, along with a four-page white paper summary—has several purposes, the most obvious of which is to show how the 18-year-old incentive program benefits SFN Group, and what makes it a success. It is also a blueprint for how corporate planners can demonstrate the economic value of their incentive programs and why they should.

Dahlton Bennington, director of business meeting services for SFN Groupis theplanner who convinced the firm's CEO to approve the case study. She told IRF attendees that management reaction to the study “was overwhelmingly positive” and has helped both the incentive program and her own career. “They felt the program was validated,” she says. “They felt the money they spend has a high ROI, and they appreciate what goes into our program.”

More tangibly, the company is increasing its incentive program budget, and executives told Bennington that if the number of participants goes up, the budget will rise correspondingly, whereas in the past extra winners had to be shoehorned in. Bennington adds that the high-level scrutiny of the program that resulted from the case study has helped her career: “I am now seen as a thought leader in the company,” she says.

Another goal of the case study is spelled out in the white paper. With incentive travel widely maligned in the press, by politicians, and by the general public, the goal is to provide evidence that incentive travel is a good investment for the corporate bottom line. To do that, it seeks to define what a successful incentive travel program entails; what its impact on employees, executives, and the company is; and how to evaluate the qualitative and quantitative factors that make it a success. It even seeks to identify the program’s value to the host destination and to the service providers that help plan and run it.

The case study aligned perfectly with one of the two overarching benefits the roundtable participants said they want from the IRF in the coming year, which is for it to start using the research it produces to educate the industry and make the case that incentives are not a wasteful boondoggle but an important business tool. By doing that, the arguments went, the incentive industry can get CEOs to start standing up and defending incentive travel programs the way that the head of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain did so prominently but solitarily last year.

That's something the IRF has begun focusing on in the last few months, says Van Dyke. Her goals for the next year include making its research “more actionable and usable,” she says, as well as ensuring that it reaches the industry buyers, suppliers, and incentive program managers who can use it. The research grid that the IRF handed out at the Invitational is one example of this; in one or two sentences it describes many of the IRF’s research projects, what their purpose was, and how they can be used by planners in their day-to-day jobs.

Indeed, if there was one criticism of the roundtables by attendees, it was that the organization focused on the goals and uses of the case study and directing the research of the IRF, rather than detailing findings from the case study itself. Which is to say, they wanted more actionable and usable research.

The IRF's May 2010 Pulse Survey
While still lower than the high point in October 2008—shortly after AIG’s infamous incentive program hit the news—the number of respondents who say sensitivity to public perception of extravagance is affecting their incentive programs has been rising since last summer. A poll of IRF roundtable attendees found that 74 percent felt the perception problem effects—almost as bad as in October 2008.

Respondents who felt sensitivity to perception of extravagance is affecting incentive programs, in current and past IRF Pulse Surveys:

Oct 2008 -- 75%
Mar 2009 -- 63%
July 2009 -- 52%
Nov 2009 -- 61%
May 2010 -- 64%