by Deanna Ting & Leo Jakobson | July 18, 2013
It’s tough coming up with a list of the most influential companies in an industry like the incentive business. So many large incentive companies are also involved in related industries such as meetings management, employee recognition, and consumer engagement. With a few exceptions, we looked for companies that include a focus on traditional sales incentive programs at their core, and are award-neutral: They use travel, merchandise, and gift card awards, rather than just focusing on one type of incentive. 

Company size and the number of incentive programs run were obviously important, but they were not the only factors. We also considered how active a company and its executives are in the industry, and how creative it is in running programs and embracing new tools and technologies. In the end, any list like this has a bit of a subjective component. We expect that you’ll have opinions on this, and we hope you’ll share them with us. We’ll take them into account for next year. Here they are, in no particular order.

Aimia 
When it comes to global industry giant Aimia, an award-winning Montreal-based organization of more than 3,400 employees, one word stands out most: loyalty.
“The main difference between us and everyone else in the market is that we look at motivation and performance improvement through the lens of loyalty,” says Fay Beauchine, president of Business Loyalty. That principle applies to loyalty relating not only to employees but also to business channel partners and the end consumer, she adds. “At Aimia, we don’t just focus on creating an incentive program with gifts and travel. We focus up front on the business objectives and always through the lens of building loyal, long-lasting relationships with all three of those constituents.”

As Aimia continues to focus on building loyalty, it also continues to grow in its global reach. Last fall, the company completed its acquisition of Dayton, OH-based Excellence in Motivation and grew its business exponentially. “We expanded our presence in the U.S. and our industry strength in so many sectors,” says Beauchine. “For example, we serve eight out of the 10 biggest U.S. auto manufacturers by sales, and almost all of the top tech companies,”she adds. “We’re stronger and we have more physical presence, more revenue, and more clients.” 

BI Worldwide
Edina, MN-based BI Worldwide (BIW), like fellow industry leader Maritz, has humble beginnings in jewelry and merchandise. After founder Guy Schoenecker grew his business into incentives for the grocery, petroleum, and financial industries, the company never looked back. Today, BIW remains privately held but is truly global in its reach with $450 million in sales and more than 1,000 associates serving over 350 different customers from seven office locations around the world. In total, BIW services more than 800,000 program participants per year and books more than half a million rooms each year for its travel programs.

Leveraging the company’s investments in technology to improve and encourage employee engagement is a major objective for BIW. “We want to be the thought leader in applied behavioral economics as it relates to engagement in organizations around the world,” says Betsy Schneider, vice president of marketing. Just a few of the innovative technologies that BIW has produced include a mobile Web-based event management system (EngageNGo), an educational marketing platform for delivering content on both iPads and PCs (Chameleon), and its patented GoalQuest system, which has resulted in 98 percent engagement with direct salesforces for more than 600 different programs.

CWT Meetings & Events
A worldwide giant in the business travel industry dating back to the late 1950s, Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) has been aggressively growing its incentive travel business in the last few years — particularly since parent company Carlson Co. sold off its industry-leading incentive business, Carlson Marketing (now Aimia). The CWT Meetings & Events division ran 461 incentive travel programs last year, three quarters of them in the U.S. While that’s a small portion of the business of a firm that runs 35,000 meetings and events each year, with more than 1,600 employees in 75 countries around the world, it’s still too big to be ignored, especially considering how quickly that number has grown.

“It’s been a growth based on client demand and evolution of our meetings & events services,” says Therese Kelleher, senior director, Global Strategic Meetings Management (SMM) Sales, CWT Meetings & Events. “We’re driving the business rigor of SMM into incentive planning and output. The rigor is around the principles of sourcing, contracting, and aligning the incentive to the business objective. Companies are spending a great amount of money, and SMM rigor allows them to track and manage how they’re performing against that. That’s very important to our clients. It seems to be a bridging of the gap between marketing and procurement. Corporations today are facing tremendous economic pressure [to show] return on investment (ROI) for any type of meeting they’re organizing and spending money on.”

EGR
Founded in 1958 as an advertising and marketing agency, New York City-based EGR was converted into an incentive travel company in 1970 after being purchased by a director for the Society of Incentive Iravel Executives (Site). By 1995, its current president, Jeff Grisamore, had purchased the company and turned it into a full-service incentive house. “We stayed true to the focus on performance improvement, but we moved to expand our communications expertise,” Grisamore says. Then, about eight years ago, Grisamore began to see shortcomings with the traditional incentive house model, notably with the lack of focus on ROI and shrinking margins on the awards that provided the firm its revenues. “We moved aggressively into the agency model,” he says. “We are an engagement agency with a focus on creative communications and visual design that is just as strong as our competency in traditional incentives.”

A founding trustee of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, EGR rebranded in 2009, spinning its engagement division into BlackLab Media, an in-house agency. It now runs hundreds of programs annually, providing both engagement and creative consulting services. “We have a lot of big new clients that came out of our engagement business,” Grisamore says. “Just south of 50 percent of our revenues come from that space. We see a great future for traditional incentives, but proudly say we are award neutral. We don’t have to go in with the mindset of awards — we can go in looking at what’s best for the client.”

ITAGroup
Few incentive companies are able to “walk the talk” as ITAGroup does. The employee-owned company, which turns 50 this year, is different in that every single one its employees has the incentive to work hard and increase the company’s bottom line. Since becoming employee-owned in 1987, the company has experienced double-digit growth each year, culminating in $273.5 million in revenues last year alone. “We do have a higher level of accountability because we’re working for the client but also for ourselves in a way,” says Thomas J. Mahoney, president and CEO. “Our customer satisfaction rating exceeded 99 percent.” The company also added more than 120 employees within the last two years; it is moving to a bigger office in West Des Moines, IA this year.

While Mahoney and his team make it a primary objective to “drive business success through people,” ITAGroup is also taking a stand when it comes to supporting the incentive industry. “We were one of the first companies to join the U.S. Travel Association in a coalition in research [“The Return on Investment of U.S. Business Travel”] that validates the importance of events,” explains Mahoney. “We also just funded a survey with WorldatWork that identifies ways to improve engagement.”

Michael C. Fina Corporate Sales 
A third-generation business, Michael C. Fina began life in 1935 as a high-end New York City jewelry store, and was brought into the corporate incentives and recognition field after a private customer, then the CEO of IBM, told the incentive planner running his company’s 25-year service awards program to buy the awards from Fina. While the jewelry store still exists, Michael C. Fina Corporate Sales is a separate entity with 300 employees that designed and ran 3,500 separate merchandise incentive, engagement, and recognition programs for more than 900 clients last year. 

“One-hundred percent of our business is employee-focused,” says Jeffrey Fina, chief business development officer. “Recognition programs and incentive programs are what we do, and at the end of both come rewards.” One major trend the company is focusing on is the use of social media in recognition programs, Fina says. While traditional recognition and incentive programs brought employees together to witness an award in the office or at a ceremony, Fina sees that today’s workforce is increasingly virtual and mobile, and social media is necessary for the social part of recognition. One of the company’s responses to this trend is its Recognition Wall, where clients’ employees can see and respond to co-workers’ awards, whether they are in the next cube over or on the other side of the world. 

Maritz
Few companies have as storied a history in the incentives industry as Fenton, MO-based Maritz. The company transformed itself from a jewelry manufacturer to one of the first incentive merchandise companies of its kind during the Great Depression, and is now a full-fledged industry giant. Today, Maritz not only encompasses incentive travel (Maritz Travel) and incentive merchandise (Maritz Motivation Solutions) but much more, from research and consumer loyalty marketing to automotive dealership solutions and even a business strategy institute (The Maritz Institute). 

Today, the company continues to evolve, and is investing in research in order to have a “deeper understanding of the science of human behavior,” says Steve O’Malley, senior vice president of Maritz Travel. “We’re in the business of transforming businesses through people and events,” adds Paula Godar, brand strategy and communications leader for Maritz Motivation Solutions. “It’s not just about executing a program but about the design and delivery.” O’Malley adds: “Our investment in understanding people is a great differentiator. It’s not just something we are doing to have philosophical ideas; we’re changing our 
business processes and technologies to incorporate what we’re learning.”

O.C. Tanner
Salt Lake City-based O.C. Tanner, like many of today’s most influential incentive companies, has humble beginnings, stretching all the way back to 1927 when Founder Obert C. Tanner sold 50 class pins to students celebrating their high school graduations. Today, the company services more than 8,500 clients in a total of 129 different countries worldwide, and employs a total of 1,674 workers. Over the years, it has worked to develop award programs with more than 400 different brands, and has worked with 34 Fortune 100 companies that include American Express, Chevron, and FedEx. 

As the company continues to grow its reach it is also investing heavily in technological developments. Last year, it debuted a new employee appreciation program, Appreciateology, as well as its free mobile counterpart, the iappreciate mobile app. O.C. Tanner is also making an effort to employ socially responsible practices and policies; last year, the Incentive Marketing Association gave the company its Social Responsibility Award for its efforts to protect the environment, maintain employee diversity, and for allocating at least 10 percent of annual profits for local and national charities. 

USMotivation
Atlanta-based USMotivation celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and for the company’s next 50 years in business, Scott Siewert, vice president of sales, and Barbara Nindos, vice president of operations, are keeping a very close eye on developing new technology to meet the future, as well as maintaining the best practices in the incentive industry. So much so that recently, Recognition Professionals International (RPI) awarded USMotivation with its Best Practices award, acknowledging excellence in each of RPI’s seven best-practice standards, from strategy and program change to flexibility. “We’re the first incentive company to win that award in meeting all of those standards,” Siewert explains. “That’s a big differentiator because it proves that we’re truly in sync with what we’re preaching.”

On the technology front, USMotivation is investing in developing more seamless and powerful online rewards and recognition platforms and mobile apps. Recently, USMotivation also created its very own online TV channel, called “The U” (www.usmotivationtv.com). “It’s like a webinar on steroids — it becomes an interactive TV experience on the Internet,” Siewert says. Even with such a technology focus, adds Nindos, the company hasn’t lost sight of the overall participant and client experience. “You can have all the technology, but if the client satisfaction and participant experience isn’t great, it doesn’t matter,” she says.

MotivAction
Now in its 39th year in the incentive business, Minneapolis-based MotivAction doesn’t limit its focus to specific industries, but has clients among large companies in all industries, including 26 Fortune 500 companies. “One reason we don’t focus on any one industry is we believe motivation is motivation, salespeople are salespeople, customers are customers,” says Joe Keller, the president and COO. “We have a simple, six-step Path to Performance that helps companies close the gap … and get salespeople to sell more, employees to perform better, and customers to be more loyal.” 

One business area that has grown in importance for MotivAction these past few years, Keller says, is making incentive programs more accessible via mobile technology, especially as more companies find a larger percentage of their employees, particularly salespeople, working remotely. “We’ve done an enormous amount of work with mobile,” Keller adds. 

MotivAction has been in very good shape over the past four years, Keller notes. The firm added 15 new clients in each of the past two years and saw revenues grow by 17 percent in 2011 and in 2012. MotivAction also has a 97 percent client retention rate, and has been working with some of its clients for the past 20 or even 30 years. In an industry built on relationships and the elements that bind those together — from engagement to recognition — that certainly speaks volumes.