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by Leo Jakobson | July 28, 2015
Sandi Daniel (pictured), president and CEO of FIRE Light Group, and Incentive Research Foundation board chair
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The Incentive Research Foundation's Annual Invitational event in late May had record-breaking attendance, but that was only a sidelight to the real story of the year: the organization is in the process of breaking out of its niche to become one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and important voices in the incentive and motivation industry.

From its start 22 years ago as a gathering of 50 incentive travel industry insiders, the annual invitational has, historically, been the IRF's only event of the year. Until five years ago, it was largely a fundraiser and networking event, with a few sessions describing the results of its research interspersed with a golf tournament and auction. Now, it is widely acknowledged to be a "must-attend" event with a full day of education.

Fully 320 of the invitational's largest-ever crowd of 420 attendees participated in the educational sessions. This group included 205 buyers -- up 20 percent from 2014 -- representing 60,000 corporate incentive events and meetings. Seventy percent have director-level or higher titles. Even more impressively, there were 150 first-time attendees -- a clear sign that the word has gotten out.

Fittingly, this year's host property was the Trump National Doral Miami, which just completed a very impressive $250-million renovation. The site of the original IRF Invitational, it has also reimagined itself and impressed attendees.  

Nor is the IRF about to sit on its laurels. The IRF trustees discussed the group's Vision2020 blueprint for its next five years, including plans to double the number of research papers it produces annually -- it had completed 13 by the end of May -- strengthen the incentive community, and push its research out more aggressively to both businesses and academia.

To make this happen the IRF has brought in an association management company and expanded its staff to include a director of fundraising and partnerships, as well as a vice president and a director of events. It has gained certification to have its education provide credits towards the Certified Meeting Planner designation. Technology is being improved -- the first step was a vastly improved website -- and the organization will aggressively continue moves begun two years ago to turn its research into targeted, easily usable insights. Among other things, that means making its growing body of merchandise and gift card award research more user friendly.