by Leo Jakobson | June 20, 2017

It can get a little repetitive to say that the Incentive Research Foundation's Annual Education Invitational event reaches another level every year, but the 24th edition of combination fundraiser and educational conference was a wow for reasons beyond its location at the Grand Wailea: A Waldorf Astoria Resort in Maui.

Along with hosted buyers and sponsors, as well as guests, speakers and members of the media, the attendance hit a record 600 this year. And judging by the crowd packing the property's largest ballroom at the potentially ambitious hour of 8:00 AM on Thursday, June 15, the 16 education sessions built on the previous year's Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) research studies were as strong a draw as the bright blue Hawaiian waters a few hundred yards away at the beach. And the live and silent auctions that are the organization's primary source of funding smashed the record, bringing in $412,000 and ensuring that the IRF's 2018 research calendar will be a full one.

The attendees included more than 200 incentive professionals and corporate executives who run incentive programs, who account for a combined 10,000 meetings and incentive programs, spending a combined $1.5 billion.


Of course, the invitational is also a networking event, with activities including a golf tournament at the Wailea Golf Club, one of Maui's most highly regarded links. Also a hit was the catamaran snorkeling excursion on the Alii Nui that won raves from attendees for both the experience, food (and bar), and the boat crew's service. More than a few planners said they will bring their own incentive groups on the boat, which offers a variety of coral reef and turtle snorkeling expeditions, as well as whale watching, sunset dinner cruises, and SCUBA diving.


Looking Ahead
IRF President Melissa Van Dyke was one of the first speakers on education day. Going over the IRF 2017 Trends Study, she noted that the number of U.S. companies using non-cash incentives has more than tripled in 20 years, going from 26 percent in 1996 to 84 percent in 2016.

While there are a number reasons for this, it is certain that American businesses have a growing need for incentive, recognition, and engagement programs. With 77 percent of all U.S. jobs now in service- or experience-related fields ranging from healthcare to retail, Van Dyke cited (but not quoted) the Harvard Business Review in saying "to be successful in these fields, you need shiny, happy people." That is, motivated and engaged employees with an emotional connection to their work. And given that employees are now expected to do not only their core job but a variety of other functions ranging from trainer to innovator, she said, the reward and recognition business is more important than ever. "An experience economy means you can't do without emotion," she adds.

Reaching that emotion is not easy, however. Another session, led by IRF Trustee Meg Withinton, managing partner at Intellective Group, focused on what the top performing companies do differently when designing their reward and recognition programs.

Defining best-in-class companies as those with at least 5 percent revenue growth and satisfaction scores by both customers and employees of at least 90 percent, Withinton said an IRF's survey of 400 executives at both top-performing and average companies found that the best companies "are more philosophically invested in their reward and recognition programs." Nearly half of the executives from top-performing companies believe these programs are critical to their success, and are twice as likely as average companies to create sales incentive programs designed to reach the largest number of employees possible.

Disruption Study
One of the most interesting sessions was about the IRF's recent Event Disruption Study. Rodger Stotz, who is transitioning out of his role as chief research officer of the IRF, noted that a pair of white papers on this topic will be coming out this summer and in the fall. Defining disruption as "anything that compromises a program's success or causes its failure," Stotz noted that between terrorism, diseases like Zika, and weather-related events likely to grow with global warming, as well as old standbys like airline delays, nearly 60 percent of the incentive travel planners surveyed by the IRF reported having a program disrupted in the last 12 months. Forty-three percent reported a financial loss ranging from $10,000 to more than $1 million, and 19 percent said their reputation was damaged.

Live and silent auctions raised $412,000 for IRF research.

That result is that incentive planners now report spending "one quarter of their time planning for disruptions and expect that to increase going forward," Stotz said, adding that procurement departments are "now looking at risk."

Mitigation strategies run the gamut from preparing crisis manuals and security training to closer scrutiny of contracts and arranging alternate vendors in case they are needed. Fifty-five percent of planners say they expect that the time they dedicate to risk management and disruption preparation will increase.

The day's education ended on a high note, with a dynamic closing keynote by Mike Staver, an executive coach, speaker, and author of "Leadership isn't for Cowards: how to Drive Performance by Challenging People and confronting problems." Staver not only held crowd's attention, he engaged and energized them -- no easy feat at 4:00 PM on a long education day, especially with Maui waiting just outside.