by Alex Palmer | March 08, 2016
In 2016, expect to see incentive planners embrace luxury in their gift card and merchandise programs. That's one of the trends outlined in the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF)'s new "2016 Trends in Incentive Travel, Rewards, and Recognition" report, which predicted growing budgets and an increasing interest in upscale offerings for motivational awards.

The report, which drew on IRF's own proprietary research as well as the responses of hundreds of professionals in the industry, pointed to a growing interest in luxury when it comes to gift cards and merchandise in particular. It pointed to the most recent IRF "Pulse Survey," which found that growing economic confidence helped drive higher-end merchandise and gift card offerings to the top of incentive recipients' lists. The top merchandise options included electronics (cited by 31 percent of respondents), open-loop gift cards (28 percent), luggage (24 percent), and watches (23 percent).

Additionally, IRF found that per-person spending rates are up as well. Nine percent of respondents to the "Pulse Survey" spent an average of more than $1,000 per recipient in their gift card and merchandise reward programs (though the plurality of respondents -- 26 percent -- spent between $101-200 per person on average).

Melissa Van Dyke, president of IRF, emphasized that this return to luxury has been building over the last several years.

"As far back as 2012 the IRF was talking about 'cautious optimism' and the resurgence of more fully funded non-cash reward and recognition programs," she said. "The last two years have seen the shift to full optimism with continued, increased investment in programs."

She added that while gift card programs are less responsive to economic shifts than travel programs, they still, "hinge strongly on program owner's perception of the economy. And right now, barring an unforeseen catastrophic event, the perception is very positive."

Van Dyke emphasized that "luxury" could mean different things to different people when it comes to gift cards.

"For some it is a gold watch or expensive bag, for others it is hard-to-find, personalized Nikes," she said. "Be sure you understand the recipient's definition of luxury if you are offering a limited-choice card."

But whatever the reward, she added that it's less significant what is being given or the amount being spent than how the reward is presented.

"Even if you are providing amazing awards, if the recipient does not know why she or he is receiving it, does not feel connected to the individuals providing it, or does not like the way it is communicated, our research shows you will undoubtedly miss the mark," said Van Dyke.