by Leo Jakobson | September 09, 2015

After a rough two years, the Incentive Marketing Association is back on its feet. There's really no other conclusion to be reached after the success of the IMA Executive Summit in Nashville earlier this summer.

The main incentive industry association has struggled since the retirement -- and subsequent untimely passing -- of its founding executive director, Karen Renk. It ran through two executive directors supplied by a new association management firm before reaching into its own ranks earlier this year for Donna Chrobak, a board member with a long history in, and deep knowledge of, the incentive business.

With record-breaking attendance of 356, great networking events, a strong education program, and support of important new research through a partnership with the Incentive Research Foundation, the IMA Executive Summit was as much a statement of "we're back" as it was a successful industry event.

The association's problem was threefold, says Richard Low, vice president, special markets of Citizen Watch Company of America, who finished up a stint as president of the IMA board of directors at the Summit. Those were the turnover in executive directors, getting used to a new association management company, and what Low calls "the fracturing" within the special interest groups (SIGs) that are part of the IMA and were "heading in different directions," he adds.

IMA President Emeritus Richard Low
While there was "renewed enthusiasm" at Summit, Low says, "we have work to do to get all the SIGs on the same page." He divides the SIGs into two categories that he calls award supplier SIGs (the Incentive Manufacturer's and Representative Alliance, Incentive Gift Card Council and Incentive Travel Council) and solution SIGs (the Performance Improvement Council, Recognition Council and Global Incentive Council). The latter three will merge into a single SIG that will allow the IMA to offer performance improvement companies a lower dues structure with fewer SIG dues and fewer membership requirements, Low adds. "They'll all have a common mission of growing the incentive channel, but now we'll have sellers -- the suppliers -- and solution providers," he says. "It's a much easier association to understand."

The IMA's new President, Spencer Toomey, CPIM, senior vice president of Luxury Lines by MMSC, agrees.

"Rick Low did a great job of laying the foundation for our growth, and my job will be to continue his work and help make IMA stronger than ever," Toomey says. "We are making the adjustments that will help us continue to grow and improve. We will have a new management company starting Jan. 1 that will improve our systems and administrative capabilities, and help the IMA build brand continuity, create a more strategic marketing plan, and bring us new ideas and changes that will help improve the IMA's value proposition to our entire membership."
Beyond working on the SIGs issue, Low says, the Summit benefitted from a better conference design, spearheaded by Toomey. "John Hornbogen [business development manager of RPG Card Services] who is not a household name in this industry, designed the best education we've ever had, without a doubt," Low says. "And the IGCC really stepped up and created great networking social events at night."

And of course bringing in an executive director -- Chrobak -- who is an incentive industry veteran, was key, Low notes. 

The result was that 65 percent of the IMA's members attended the Executive Summit, and 22 people signed up for the initial courses leading to the association's Incentive Professional (IP) designation. "That's a huge improvement," Chrobak added. "We did a lot of new things, and got all positive feedback. There was a really positive buzz in the air."

The Hilton Nashville Downtown, was the host hotel and gave great access to the main barbecue and music venues (and cowboy boot shops, which were also quite popular) the city is famous for.

Demolishing the Cash Myth

The most important educational session was presented by Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation, who gave a talk on the results of the joint IMA-IRF Participant Study (sponsored by the IMA and members including Canon, Hamilton Beach, IncentPros, and Rymax Marketing Services). The groundbreaking research offers what may be the best proof yet of the motivational power of non-cash incentives while refuting what Van Dyke called "the myth that if you give participants a choice, they will always choose cash."


IRF President Melissa Van Dyke
The largest and most complex study to date of how incentive programs participants really prefer to be rewarded, it found that as many as four-fifths of program participants would prefer non-cash awards as part of the "total award experience." [For more details, see "Study Shows Strong Preference for Non-Cash Awards"]

Another interesting talk was by Brian Dunne, managing director of SVM Global, who gave a look at the high-profile "Engage for Success" campaign the government of the United Kingdom has undertaken to convince top executives of the value of corporate engagement programs to the success of both their companies and the UK as a whole. The campaign, which include TV commercials and radio spots, a website with ideas for better engaging employees, and community events, was launched by the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street. The website,, is worth a look.

Circle Of Excellence Award Winners

The winners of the 2015 IMA Circle of Excellence Awards were announced at the Summit. They are:

Consumer Offer, Branding, and Customer Loyalty: CashStar and The Cheesecake Factory for "The Cheesecake Factory's e-Slice 2014 Holiday" e-gift card awareness and loyalty program.

Sales Incentive: MotivForce Marketing & Incentives and IBM for the "Know Your IBM" sales training and certification program.

Dealer Distributor Incentive: Dittman Incentive Marketing and Wesco Distribution for the "Wesco VIP Passport" program.

Recognition: Power2Motivate and Lumo Energy for the Lumo Energy "Luminosity -- Rewarding Excellence," an employee engagement, peer-to-peer recognition, and years of service program.

Employee Incentives: Maritz Travel and Cisco for the "Sales Champion Winners Circle" program.

Recognizing and Remembering

This year's IMA Executive Summit was also the occasion of the presentation of the inaugural Karen Renk Fellowship Award, named in honor of the late director of the IMA, who nurtured and guided the association through it's creation and first 14 years. She retired in 2013, and then tragically passed away less than a year later following a battle with cancer.

At this year's Summit, her daughter Kate Marie Renk remembered her mother before joining her father Tom Renk in presenting the award to a very proud Sean Roark, CPIM, vice president of incentive programs for PromoPros/IncentPros.


Sean Roark of PromoPros/IncentPros receives the IMA's First Annual Karen Renk Fellowship Award from Tom Renk and Kate Marie Renk
"Karen was blessed to actually hear what the Incentive Industry thought of her," said Renk, who is currently Manager, Corporate Accounts, for Amazing Clubs Gourmet Gifts of the Month, and spent nine years working with her mother at the IMA, where she served as director of membership. Thanks to Karen Renk's decision to retire before the 2013 Executive Summit, she was "blessed to actually hear what the incentive industry thought of her," Renk said, recalling "pre-eulogies that praised her career, praised her character and recognized and honored her hard work.  Not everyone that we lose too early is afforded that luxury.  And for that, we are beyond thankful."

Renk added that "to allow her memory to be immortalized with this Fellowship is an honor that I, my Father, Karen's family and friends, and I know Karen herself, is very proud of. We hope to keep this legacy alive and implore all of you to become involved. Nominate a new employee from your company, a new face you meet at a tradeshow.  Help bring new life into the IMA and allow the new blood to be taught and mentored by the best of the best here at the Summit."

In presenting the First Annual Karen Renk Fellowship Award to Roark, Renk said "the recipient ... Award could not be more deserving and could not exemplify the qualities outlined any better. He is a true model of the mentoring that Karen so advocated."

Roark first me Karen Renk when he attended a past IMA Executive Summit for the first time as a promotional products distributor, green in the world of incentives, Renk recalled. "He dove in head first after his first encounter with Karen," she added. "Together they forged a stronger relationship between promotional products and Incentives. They bridged the gap between distributors and the [incentive-oriented] special markets channel, while championing the power of incentives."

Roark has since served on the IMA board of directors and expanded his promotional products company to include an incentive program division, before spinning it off as a sister company, IncentPros, in 2009. He is currently executive vice president of the IMA board as well as a member of the board of the Incentive Federation, an incentive industry umbrella organization of which the IMA is a member.

The IMA's other major recognition, the annual President's Award, went to Brett Hatch, global senior director of corporate gifts, for Maui Jim Sunglasses. As a very active member of the IMA board for years, Hatch has sat on several important task forces and is a member of three IMA SIGs: the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance, the Incentive Gift Card Council, and the Incentive Travel Council. He is also a member of the IRF board of directors.


IMA President's Award recipient Brett Hatch
At Maui Jim, he is responsible for the creating the Maui Jim Experience -- providing a "merchandise bar" of various styles of sunglasses, complete with factory-trained fitter/style advisors, for incentive travel programs and meetings that want an incentive component. Now widely emulated throughout the incentive merchandise supplier market, Hatch's "model of merchandise experiences is the standard to which we are all held," said Low.