by Alex Palmer | March 13, 2018

The incentive industry has plenty to feel optimistic about. That was the theme struck by industry members taking part in Incentive Live, Northstar Meetings Group's hosted-buyer event taking place at the new Park MGM in Las Vegas on March 11-14. The gathering brought together more than 150 incentive program planners as well as exhibitors from incentive merchandise, travel, and gift card providers, for one-on-one meetings, activities, and education sessions. 

The first of the education sessions was Leaders Speak Out, in which Incentive Editor-in-Chief Vincent Alonzo and Executive Editor Leo Jakobson sat down with four industry panelists -- Mike May, president of Brightspot (formerly Spear One) and 2018 chairman of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF); Cheryl Payne, senior director of global meeting services for Meeting Sites Resource; David Caldwell, vice president of sales for Maritz Travel; and Tina Weede, president of Peerless Performance -- to discuss the challenges and trends they are seeing in the incentive sector.

"I see that incentives are alive again and moving with full force," said Weede, in a sentiment that other speakers echoed.

May cited the strong GDP and roaring stock market of 2017 as positive economic indicators, and also pointed to the Incentive Research Foundation's Net Optimism Score, which draws on the responses of industry members to determine the proportion who feel positive about the industry while deducting the amount that feel negatively. 

"The score in the fall was 44," he said. "So the people who were positive were 44 percent higher than those who were negative."

But while the panelists were generally bullish about the opportunities the industry presented, they also pointed to challenges, including the continuing seller's market and Marriott's commission reduction.   

"Not to mention the increases in resort fees," said Payne. "Las Vegas is a great incentive place for many groups, and with surcharges in parking and more it keeps adding up."

In addition to the Leaders Speak Out education session, planners, who had the chance during registration to scope out and pick up a gift card from Tommy Bahama, were also given the opportunity to take part in one of two afternoon outings: going off road for a high-energy (and fairly dusty) dune buggy tour sponsored by Dubai Business Events; or sampling the wide range of Vegas dining options during a food tour sponsored by Lip Smacking Foodie Tours

The experience was capped by the evening welcome reception, where attendees were transported to Bellagio Las Vegas, where they sampled from a spread of culinary offerings including tuna carpaccio pizza and edible crab cake terrarium. The meal was enhanced with performances from tenor Fernando Varela, who performed a pair of songs from last year's musical film The Greatest Showman, as well as a show-stopping operatic performance that received a standing ovation from attendees.

"It is about the show here," said Gregg Herning, vice president of sales for Bellagio Las Vegas, explaining that "Welcome to the Show" was not just the theme for the evening, but for the property itself, which hosted some 700 meetings last year. "This is our stage. Walk through our hallways and you'll see some of our 70,000 associates who have been schooled on how to put on a show."

The next morning, attendees took part in tabletop discussions over breakfast, moderated by industry figures including Mike Landry, vice president of special markets for Tumi, and Dennis Borst, president and COO of Patriot Marketing Group/Foot Locker Gift Cards, touching on topics such as "Creating Experiences" and "Negotiating in a Seller's Market," while planners dropped by the Maui Jim Sunglasses gifting area to try on the latest models and select a complimentary pair. This was followed by one-on-one appointments in which buyers met with suppliers for 15-minute sessions, as well as a Fireside Chat with numerous buyers interested in learning more about the incentive gift card and merchandise industry, hosted by Alonzo and Jakobson, then a networking break care of Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group.

The general sense of optimism at Incentive Live was shared by the event's keynote speaker, Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation, who over lunch presented the latest findings from her organization. 

"Do non-cash rewards elicit a higher performance for a lower cost than cash programs? The answer, according to our academic partners, is yes," she said, citing research drawn from academic as well as market researchers. Van Dyke outlined factors, as well as the research supporting them, that demonstrated these findings, such as "the IKEA effect" in which individuals view a reward as more valuable if they worked to create or earn it; that individuals' innate responses to non-cash rewards are stronger than to cash rewards; and that non-cash rewards provide greater sense of an enhanced status than cash.

Van Dyke's message of the aspirational impact of non-cash rewards was bolstered by the pre-keynote messages. James LaValle, manager of conventions, exhibitions, and corporate events for the lunch's sponsor, Meetings & Exhibitions Hong Kong, described the destination's attractions as a bustling, lively city, with its character "reflected in the activities and lifestyle of Hong Kong itself."

Patrick Miller, president of Park MGM, also described the changes happening at the property in which Incentive Live was being held, as it transitioned from the Monte Carlo to the Park MGM, with the reflagging slated to complete on April 30. In addition to transformed rooms, which attendees had already experienced, the new property will boast F&B options ranging from Eataly to a new offering from beloved Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, as well as the hotel-within-a-hotel NoMad (which will take up the top four floors of the property, complete with separate arrival and check in). 

Attendees were then set free for time on their own or to take part in scheduled activities such as helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon care of Maverick Helicopters, a mixology workshop care of Park MGM, a tour of MGM Resorts Events Productions' warehouse, or a tour of the recently refurbished Mob Museum

The night ended with a rooftop party at the Chateau Nightclub at Paris Las Vegas, sponsored by Caesars Entertainment. While sipping cocktails and sampling paella and risotto, attendees networked, danced, and, every half hour, were treated to the Bellagio fountain water show right across the street.