by Leo Jakobson | June 03, 2014
It's hard to say which was more impressive -- the substantial growth in attendance and education at the 21st Incentive Research Foundation Annual Invitational show held in Mexico from May 29 to June 1, or the level of optimism on display by the attendees.

Looking at attendance numbers alone, the 2014 invitational was impressive. It was by far the organization's best-attended show ever, said Melissa Van Dyke, president of the IRF. "We have [about] 400 attendees, " she said in an interview on May 29, the show's opening day. "That includes 183 buyers -- up 48 percent." 

Of those 400 attendees, more than 70 percent have titles of vice president or higher, and 90 percent have titles of director or higher, added Mike Ryan, the IRF's vice chair and senior vice president of marketing and client strategy for New York-based Madison Performance Group. Fully 35 percent of those were first-time attendees. 

The invitational was held at the new Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort, an all-inclusive resort with more than 16,000 square feet of meeting space and 500 ocean-facing suites with features like on-balcony hot tubs and swim-up pools. There were also dinners at the Hilton Los Cabos resort, Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf & Spa Resort Los Cabos, and Secrets Marquis Los Cabos. 

Optimism on the Rise 

A sense of optimism was palpable at the invitational, in part because more supporters were on hand than ever before, and also because of growing signs that the incentive business, as a whole, is improving. 

 In the as-yet-unreleased IRF Pulse Survey industry trends study completed in May, 55 percent of respondents said incentive budgets are going up, compared to just 12 percent who are seeing declines, said Rodger D. Stotz, chief research officer of the IRF. 

Beyond that, the IRF gave attendees a sneak peek at a study done in partnership with The Aberdeen Group. That study focuses on what best-in-class organizations are doing with their incentive offerings. 

"Last year, 98 percent of best-in-class organizations said cash was one of their three top motivators," Van Dyke said. "This year, it was only 76 percent, and 31 percent consider non-cash incentive programs a 'must-have.'"

That result "shows a decline in the reliance on cash incentives," said Mike May, an IRF trustee and president of Irving, TX-based incentive house Spear One. 

"More people are having substantial conversations with clients in the marketplace," added Ryan. "I think more executives have now bought into the fact that non-cash rewards and recognition really have their place in the compensation mix, and they're open for people in our industry to talk about how they can improve their business. And that is not only a source for optimism, but also a challenge for our industry, to be better prepared to do that."

Education Day

One of the most impressive signs of the invitational's growth was participation in the Education Day. Held on May 30, it drew an overflow crowd of 275 attendees this year, more than double the 130 who attended last year. "This speaks to the need and the thirst for education in this industry," said Sandi Daniel, chair of the IRF board and President of the Madison, WI-based Fire Light Group.

For the past five years, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has transformed the invitational from a fundraising/networking event for an industry association by adding a serious educational component that is fast making it a "must attend" for incentive professionals. The show is the primary source of support for the organization's research -- last year it released a dozen professional research reports -- looking at all facets of the incentive business including gift card, merchandise, and travel awards. 

"To say this is a think tank for the incentive industry is not an overstatement," Van Dyke said. 

This year, the Education Day took the form of a series of a dozen short, TED-style presentations, beginning with a morning full of outside speakers on topics such as using big data, gamification, and wellness. 

Dylan Bolden, managing partner of Boston Consulting Group, kicked off the day with a discussion of how the travel industry has been an early adopter of digital technology, and provided a look at the technology trends coming in the next three years. He was followed by Stephen Nold, president of Teccsociety, who gave an introduction to big data -- the growing field of effectively using the vast amounts of consumer data captured by businesses -- and how it is relevant to the incentive industry. 

Another speaker was Bill Donius, author of the New York Times best-selling Thought Revolution:  How to Unlock Your Inner Genius, who discussed ways to get in touch with your own creativity and brainstorm more effectively. 

In the afternoon, Stotz gave a peek at some emerging trends the IRF has been tracking, and Ryan provided his insight on ways incentive professionals can position themselves to help solve three emerging business challenges: an emerging leadership shortage, growing challenges with collaboration, and deficiencies in change management.

The day closed with a rousing session by Michelle Gielan, a former CBS News anchor and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. Building on a 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review with a series of articles focusing on the power and importance of happiness and wellbeing, Gielan discussed the ways in which positive communications can improve engagement, productivity, and happiness at work. 

Over the next two days, there were several "In-Pool Ponderings," in which speakers set aside time to meeting with attendees and further discuss their presentations and topics -- in the resort's pool.

The IRF 21st Annual Invitational also offered more than 50 hours of networking opportunities, including the golf tournament, activities ranging from desert camel tours to snorkeling excursions, and gala dinners at nearby resorts including the Hilton Los Cabos Beach and Golf Resort, Secrets Marquis Los Cabos, and the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Golf & Spa Resort Los Cabos, which featured a Mexican lucha libre wrestling match.