by Geraldine Gatehouse | October 17, 2011

In its Sept. 5 edition, USA Today reported that incentive travel is again on the upswing, after being dramatically cut in 2008, when the economy was in recession and the AIG effect caused a backlash throughout the business travel industry. Today it seems the backlash has abated, and more end-industries are ratcheting up their incentive travel programs.

"If we had to put a score on it, it's probably 85 percent to 90 percent back," says David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel. Resorts that traditionally have relied on incentive travel groups are reporting more bookings. For example, at Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, group sales are about 20 percent higher than a year ago, with incentive meetings comprising about 65 percent of all group business, says Mark Benson, the resort’s vice president of group sales. He adds that “incentive travel is showing the fastest rate of growth in all group business.”

Studies indicate that for every dollar spent on incentive travel, $3 to $5 are added to a company's bottom line, says Steve O'Malley, senior vice president of Maritz Travel and president of the Site International Foundation, which supports the incentive travel industry. O'Malley says a social responsibility component often is part of the new incentive travel programs. "We've seen the content of these programs shift over time to reflect what's going on in the culture, this idea of giving back," he says.

In a separate communication with Jim Ruszala, director of marketing for Maritz Travel, he says there “is a true and growing interest in CSR programs.” Although he says CSR is “not yet mainstream,” he notes that “there are businesses that are serious about it and are looking for help in [integrating] a CSR component into their programs.”

Notes Ruszala: “In my opinion, there's a niche opportunity surfacing. For now, though, I'd say it's for early adopters. That said, the growing number of interests I'm hearing about may signify deeper interest in next fiscal budgets. The landscape will grow, but it will be one to three years out.”

All of this is good news for our industry and for the many nonprofits that should benefit from the rebound in incentive travel and the growing interest in CSR programs. It is something that I am very much looking forward to see.

Ruszala continues: “ A major point of discussion lately has been around how organizations are having a little cognitive dissonance after they venture into sustainability practices. The reason is mainly that they're going from zero to well over 200 miles per hour overnight. When that happens, it's a lot to take on and successfully integrate into business culture and core values.”

He goes on to say, “Short, strategic, baby steps do help here, with a keen eye on the end goal. Plus, [it helps] knowing the difference as to how CSR practices are applied and perceived, either as loose, add-on elements or as truly integrated elements in the overall strategy.”

This last point brings up a good reminder for those looking at sustainability and where to start. It matters less where you start than actually starting. Much of it is subjective; there is often not an absolute right or wrong way to do sustainability. There are always choices to be made.

It is more about being aware and doing the best you can, given your resources. Perhaps you can’t produce signage for your event according to recommended sustainability specifications, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for a children’s nonprofit or an art organization to which you can donate the signage for repurposing. There are always alternatives.

A point that Ruszala makes is about not endeavoring to do too much too soon. “Many organizations are looking for ways to evaluate whether they're on the right course of action,” he says. “Having some leading questions to self-diagnose might help and make next steps actionable.” He says such questions might be:

- Do we integrate green efforts early in the meeting, event, and incentive travel planning process?
- How are we translating our green principles into actionable practices?
- Are our green practices strategic, or do they represent standalone tactics?
- Do we work with sponsors, suppliers, and vendors that align with our core principles?
- How are we evaluating performance? Are we capturing such insights as impact to savings and waste diversion to show the tangible benefits back to our employees and customers?”

It is also important to identify the “sustainability cheerleader” in your organization. In addition to active and meaningful support from executive management, it is necessary to have an empowered, “get-things-done” person who can lead, educate, and support efforts toward sustainability.

It is an exciting time to be involved with sustainability and CSR and to witness the accompanying growth and creativity. They are also great opportunities to distinguish yourself ahead of the curve. I would love to hear from anyone about new ideas for increasing sustainability and CSR awareness in his or her life or organization.

A Tribute to Steve Jobs
With the death of Steve Jobs earlier this month, the world has lost a very special man and rare creative visionary. He made some great observations about his life and work, and I am including one of my favorite quotes from him here:

That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. —Steve Jobs, 1955 to 2011

Geraldine Gatehouse is an independent planner, speaker, and instructor with a passionate belief in the value and potential global impact of CSR. She is based in southern California, a member of Meeting Professionals International, a committee member of the 2011 Site Classic, a 2010 past board member of Site Southern California, and a member of the IMEX America team. She can be reached at geraldine-g@cox.net, via her 

and on Her Twitter address is @ggbrit.