by Leo Jakobson | October 01, 2012
When the attendees of Lactalis American Group's spring national sales meeting arrived in Austin last year, they did more than just mingle over cocktails and conversation at an afternoon reception. The 130 attendees of the Buffalo, NY-based cheese distributor's conference stepped up to a small display kiosk set up by Maui Jim sunglasses staffed by specially trained stylists.

"They come on site, set up a booth with a dozen or so styles, and they have enough sunglasses to accommodate everybody for whatever style they choose," says Patricia Kazmierczak, executive assistant/meeting planner for Lactalis.

"Attendees liked that it was a compact gift and easy to take back. They were impressed. A pair of Maui Jim sunglasses is not something everybody can go out and spend that kind of money on," Kazmierczak adds.

This addition of a high-end, branded merchandise product is becoming more common in incentive travel programs, says Scott Siewert, vice president of sales for USMotivation. The traditional T-shirts, caps, and small gifts with company logos have been phased out, allowing planners to spend their budgets on one high-end, branded item, he adds.

"If a gift is done well - it's a quality product and it's nicely presented - it really puts a smile on a participant's face," says Siewert. "What used to happen years ago was that  companies would give room gifts every night. Now, it's pretty much relegated to the first and final night, due to budgetary constraints."

Gifts are often something that can be used on the trip itself, like the binoculars that one of Siewert's clients gave out the night before a whale-watching cruise. Choosing something local to the destination is also common, says Maria R. Bravo Gonzalez, business development manager with Impact Dimensions, a Maritz holding company and preferred supplier.

Maritz, she adds, is also trying to move clients toward a pick-a-gift format. This can be something like a Maui Jim kiosk, or simply a choice of items such as jewelry, electronics, or luggage.

Pamela Payne, senior regional director of groups for AMResorts, uses Tumi luggage to thank planners who book incentive trips at the company's Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts. One planner was so taken with the idea that she is devising a plan to "package the winner's notification inside a piece of Tumi luggage, and ship it to the winner's house," Payne says.

For any gift on a trip, keeping it small and light is essential to avoid overweight luggage fees. Mike Landry, Tumi's director of special markets, says smaller items like leather passport cases, sunglasses, and compact international outlet adapters are popular gift items.

"Awards add another dimension to the program," says Bravo Gonzalez. She adds, "Merchandise helps complement the experience. Every time the attendees see or use the gift, they remember the incentive trip they got through their company."