by Leo Jakobson | September 30, 2013
Every year, Incentive gathers a group of experienced professionals from every sector of motivation, engagement, and incentives to talk about the state of the industry. On June 20, 12 participants gathered at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, FL, for some sun, sand, and serious conversation. Topics this year ranged from government regulation and return on investment to gamification and the return of luxury. 

What follows is a more detailed and extended version of that discussion regarding employee engagement.

INCENTIVE: How about engagement? There’s been a lot of concern in the past five years that when the economy improved, a lot of unhappy people would jump ship.

MICHAEL DOMINGUEZ, Senior Vice President, Corporate Hotel Sales, MGM Resorts International; Chair, Meeting Professionals International; and Executive Committee Member, U.S. Travel Association: At MGM Resorts, our No. 1 initiative for 2013 with every management group and leadership group is employee engagement. From our perspective, I don’t think it’s a fear of losing people. It’s the right thing to do. We felt that the family had been beaten down for a few years. It had been hard, and we were all in it together, but now is the time to celebrate, engage, and really get back to focusing on making sure that the employees are getting everything they need. I’ve seen that with a lot of corporations. For three years, our entire focus was staying alive as a business, and now the focus is ‘let’s get back to basics of our business.’ If we take care of our employees, our employees will take care of our customers. It’s not that we quit taking care of our customers, it’s just that is the focus is now back to the employees. 

PAUL GORDON, Vice President of Sales, Rymax Marketing Services: The scary part is the generational thing — [young people] don’t want to have face-to-face meetings. Business really is moving into a technological area, which I think is very, very dangerous. It’s sitting behind text messages, emails, and voicemail, and there is less face-to-face and there is less engagement. 

DOMINGUEZ: I would challenge the generational piece. We have found there is this misperception that the younger generation doesn’t want to meet face-to-face, and that’s just not accurate. If you see all the data, they’re experiential. It’s changing what face-to-face looks like. If you really think that face-to-face is dying, I’d point out that one of the largest conferences we do every year is a bloggers conference — an entire group that does their business online has to get together to meet face-to-face. 

IAN O’BRIEN, President & CEO, GiftCertificates.com: But the point you make around the generational gap — the reality is it’s not about meeting face-to-face less. The Internet is creating more communication, not less. They’re communicating a lot more frequently at micro levels in real time. ‘Let’s save it and have the discussion at the meeting,’ is not what the meeting is about any more. The meeting is about having the face-to-face, building relationships, and cementing all the communication that’s been happening in Twitter, email, and text. 

LYNN RANDALL, Managing Director, Randall Insights LLC; Education Director, Incentive Research Foundation (IRF): There’s actual research that’s been done by Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski. [She wrote a book], Uniting the Virtual Workforce. She talks about the concept of virtual distance. I think it’s 10 percent of the global workforce works remotely and 27 percent do at least once a week. That is one aspect of it. The other is that you can sit in a cube next to someone else and you will text them or email them, which creates that virtual distance. 

Her study found that there are three key points in any project, effort, or initiative at which you must have face-to-face [meetings] in order for it to success: At the kick off, a milestone sometime in the middle, and then to celebrate the completion of the project. It’s really powerful for us to talk about that, because that virtual distance isn’t going to change.

MARK THEIS, Director of North America Group Sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide: All of us in this room, and certainly the customers we work with, are also hyper-lean as it relates to staffing. So the importance of having that connectivity and that human element just gets compounded. To feel that sense of belonging, that happiness triggers a higher level or productivity. 

MIKE MAY, President, Spear One, and IRF Trustee: Everybody’s doing the job that two or three people used to do.

DOMINGUEZ: I always caution against making assumptions about the younger generation because they’re not that different. I always say that we’re immigrants to the digital age, because the Millennials are the only natives. They have been brought up with all this technology.

I’m talking from experience. I have three 20-something-year-olds and I have a nephew, and they are light years ahead of me. And from a technology standpoint, I’m pretty savvy. My daughter will get 15 people to get to the mall with a few texts. She’s using technology to get people together. I would have given up on the second phone call. 

To me, one of the lessons is that we often make assumptions. We see technology and it kind of freaks us out. To your point about the cubicles, we used to send emails and it wasn’t a big deal. But because it’s a text, people say, ‘Oh my God, we’re not communicating.’ We’re saying, ‘They’re going to grow up not communicating,’ and it’s just not true. 

RANDALL: The IRF did a technology and meeting study that’s going to be released later this year. One of the findings was that people under the age of 34 use social media as their primary form of correspondence. So it’s not email, it’s not text. It’s social media as correspondence.

GORDON: There’s a big difference between the value of it from a social standpoint and from business standpoint. And I’m specifically talking about it from a business standpoint. It puts up a lot more barriers than it does in terms of opening doors, because it’s very easy for my sales force to say, ‘Well, I sent an email.’ It’s very easy for somebody to say, ‘Well, I answered that email.’ 

It’s all about recognition, and recognition is critical in terms of making sure that message continues to go through on a regular basis, no matter what the format is. 

DOMINGUEZ: We talk in our industry about electronic RFPs [where we get many of] our leads and I hear this from my sales people: ‘It’s keeping us from the customer; we can’t build relationships.’ My answer is always really simple: If you’re waiting for the lead to build the relationship, you’re too late. You’ve got to get out from behind your desk.