by Donna M. Airoldi | March 21, 2017

The pharmaceutical industry is especially competitive for top sales performers, and turnover is always a concern. Companies recognize incentive travel programs are one way to not only motivate a pharmaceutical salesforce but also help retain one.

"You always have to stay cutting-edge just to keep talent," says Marc Graber, vice president, strategic accounts and business development, at New York-based Madison Performance Group. And with the economy improving, planners are seeing an uptick in the spend and size of pharma programs. "Those spending less and reducing their group sizes are in the minority today," says Mike Roberts, president and COO of Infinix Global Meetings and Events.

Still, the industry is cautious. The typical trip length is about four nights, which keeps groups closer to home, and there remains consideration about how lavish programs look, even while planners seek out destinations and experiences on participants' bucket lists.

Beth Purdy, ITA Group

"You can walk into an automotive incentive and tell the difference from walking into a pharmaceutical incentive," says Beth Purdy, senior program manager for ITA Group. "But that doesn't mean the quality will be less -- you just need to be more creative with your budget."

One way is to make sure the first day includes early arrivals and activities, so it isn't just a down day. Another is if there is gifting, it's in the form of something tangible and personal -- as opposed to cash.

Below are seven trends and elements of effective pharmaceutical travel programs.

Individual Incentives on the Rise
While group travel is still the "bread and butter" of most incentive houses, many planners noted an increase of individual travel. These programs sometimes replace the group trip, but also are used for second-tier performers in order to keep them working hard and not lose them.

"We're seeing a tremendous shift to individual travel awards versus traditional group travel programs," says Linda McCormick, division vice president of event solutions for BI WORLDWIDE. "It's our fastest-growing area."

It comes down to a matter of choice and what works best for a participant's personal needs. Offering family travel options is especially important. "To celebrate with children is a big motivator, particularly in this sleeve," McCormick adds.

For participants, they get to choose where, when, and how they enjoy their reward. For companies, there are multiple benefits -- not least of which is it keeps the scrutiny placed on a big trip at bay.

One advantage is not all the top producers are out of the  field at the same time, which can impact customer service and sales. Second, it can be more cost-efficient, with no need for a registration site, event staff, and all the other items, such as name badges or bag tags. Those savings can be used to reduce the budget overall, or can enhance each individual trip. Third, it offers ongoing buzz, with people continually posting trip photos to social media and coming back into the office and talking about their experiences, rather than just for a week after a group program.

Not every company is moving in this direction, however. David Caldwell, vice president of sales for Maritz Travel, had one pharma client offer individual trips for two years, then return to the group trip. "They felt they were losing the value of having their top performers together," he says.

More Personalization
Still, even on group trips, there is less interest in group activities, and most planners noted this was a trend led by Millennials, who want more choices and time on their own, while others say they're seeing it across generations. This, along with individual travel, means planners need to get more creative about how they recognize winners.

Bonnie Boisner, Aimia

"There are shorter award recognition receptions versus the big old dinners," says Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management for Aimia. "They're less elaborate to give attendees more leisure time."

But those events still provide an opportunity to call out the very best earners -- such as naming that top 1 percent and announcing they received an air and/or hotel upgrade, access to a hospitality suite, or special amenities.

BI WORLDWIDE tackles the desire for more personalized downtime by conducting a quiz at the beginning of an earning period to find out each participant's passion, then gears the activity choices to the winners' types. "If there's a foodie on the trip, they'll cook with a celebrity chef," says Sherra Buckley, the company's vice president, life science and healthcare group.

Smaller Group Sizes, Elite Tiers
Planners are also seeing pharma move away from large groups to smaller ones that are more intimate and provide more quality time with senior management. "They'll be divided up by therapeutic area, sales team, or geography," says Caldwell. "It allows for a more intimate experience and better interaction with leadership."

There also are more tiers at the upper level. Caldwell had a pharma client where the top 10 percent earned a trip, but the top 40 couples within that 10 percent went to Prague and Budapest while the next group of 140 couples traveled to the Caribbean.

Smaller groups also make it easier to offer individualized activity choices and open up the number and types of hotels available, such as boutique properties.