by Amy Jesse, metroConnections | March 25, 2014
Incentive travel is once again on the rise. According to the Incentive Research Foundation, “optimistic stability” is the biggest trend in the incentive travel industry. A 2013 survey noted that 45 percent of the planners expect travel program budgets to remain unchanged, 34 percent expect a moderate increase, with only 15 percent expecting a moderate decrease. Key trends include all-inclusive resorts, family-friendly itineraries, and the biggest hot spot is the Caribbean. But, is it business as usual? As budgets increase, should we go about planning our incentive travel programs as we did in years past? 

Having recently been the “plus-one” on my fiancé’s incentive travel trip to Mexico, I was able to witness, firsthand, some of the pitfalls and challenges of such programs. The following are some key themes I was able to identify to help you in planning your next incentive travel program.  

Tip No. 1: You still need meeting management. There is a major trend toward planning shorter trips (three to five days now, compared to a week in the past) and selecting all-inclusive resorts because of the reduced costs as well as ease for guests and planners. Further, most incentive trips have minimal agendas. After all, the point of the trip is for the recipient to enjoy time away from work. 

However, these trends result in a growing tendency to cut meeting planning from the budget. While this step appears to save money, in reality, it often results in higher costs and lost focus on the event and its goals. And, it may leave attendees frustrated. For example, for the event that I attended in Mexico, I had a hard time finding someone to answer any questions. 

Don’t underestimate the importance of having your planner on site, to be there for questions, recommendations or to just be the face of your company. Meeting managers have the benefit of knowing what needs to be planned and attended to, as well as having the proper resources. Since many organizations choose a new location for each meeting or incentive, they are not able to build relationships with local contacts, venues, or suppliers as quickly. As such, it’s not likely they can negotiate lower rates or discounts for multiple visits based on repeat business. 

However, a meeting planner with experience can leverage his or her existing relationships with vendors earned through coordinating programs with a variety of clients. The result is the ability to negotiate better rates and discounts. In addition, because they do this on a daily basis, they know what types of concessions to look for in contracts such as complimentary Wi-Fi and planning visits, reduced fees on items such as A/V equipment, food/beverage, and much more.    metroConnections_Incentive_Travel

Tip No. 2: Your attendees want a connection, and to feel welcome. Although over-scheduling activities for an incentive trip will take away the reward element, attendees still want to feel connected to your company and have options for activities. 

This is especially important for the employees’ guests. While you may only plan a few meetings or receptions for an incentive trip, it is key to provide suggestions and details on a variety of other activities for attendees. Start the trip off right by ensuring all attendees are welcomed and then be sure there is a point of contact for any of their needs. Although most resorts and hotels do a great job of handling guests’ questions, data and logistics may not always be in English, or English may be their second language. Don’t fall into the trap of not taking care of your employees and their guests just because this is their “vacation.” They will likely expect you to either handle or be able to point them in the right direction with regard to logistics.   

One tip is to have a hospitality suite staffed during peak hours. This allows guests to have a place to gather, check email, touch base with staff, and ask any questions related to the event and local sites. It may make sense to hire a local DMC to provide a staff member to be in your hospitality suite to help with local information or make restaurant recommendations/reservations for your guests so they can get out and experience the city. 

Another idea that has worked well is offering a shuttle that circulates through or to the closest city on a rotating schedule so attendees can jump on and off it throughout the day. This extra step serves as one more touch-point that allows attendees flexibility to see the culture, without having to do everything on their own.

Tip No. 3: Plan early. While a typical meeting planning process should occur six months to one year in advance, incentive travel events require extra time to build excitement, and to allow eligible team members a chance to “earn it.” As such, planning and promotion should begin, in most cases, a year to 18 months in advance, depending on the size, scope, and location of your event. 

Part of the planning process should be researching the seasonal trends for your desired location. Places such as the Caribbean are very popular during the winter and early spring seasons. Your research should also include assembling a list of things to do. Even if the list contains activities that aren’t hosted by your organization, attendees will have a jump-start on selecting options that are fit for their interests. 

Do your homework on the activities, though. For example, if suggesting deep-sea fishing, make sure to highlight the typical fish that they can expect to catch.  

Tip No. 4: Be cognizant of your brand. One common area of confusion is whether to have a separate brand and/or logo for your event, or to simply use your organizational brand. As a general rule, a company has a brand, while an event has a theme that supports the brand. However, often times, there may be a sub-brand, such as a conference logo and theme. These branded elements should be reflected on every attendee touchpoint, from the registration website and info on site, to lobby signage, the stage, collateral, post-event surveys, and more. To ensure the sub-brand is successfully integrated, it is vital to determine if it can work together with the primary brand without competing against each other and creating confusion.

In some cases, it may make sense to let the conference logo take the spotlight, especially at a time when organizations are under the microscope when it comes to budgets and spend. For example, one company was cautious about having its corporate name and logo showing up on signage throughout the hotel, as they didn’t want other guests to get the perception that they weren’t cautious with their shareholders’ dollars. By branding the event itself, they were able to place the company in the background, while sticking to message via a creative conference/event brand. The attendees became extremely familiar with the brand long before the execution of the event so they knew each location of breakout sessions, networking events, and more, but to the general public, the company name was still protected. 

Tip No. 5:Have a Goal. Although an incentive program may have a more flexible schedule and less scheduled activities, don’t forget the all-important step of setting a goal! It is still important to identify what you want attendees to leave with, whether that be new knowledge, a fresh outlook on the company, or simply to come back to work feeling rested and enthusiastic. Keep the goal in mind related to any events you actually schedule. 

Incentives can be your highest touchpoint of the year with your top employees, so make sure to take advantage of that time you have face-to-face with them. Retention is important for your business, so take that time to show them how they contribute positively to the company.

A metroConnections employee since 2008, Amy Jesse has served on the company’s registration team and conference & meetings team as program coordinator, senior program coordinator and now as a program manager. She has a B.A. in travel and tourism from St. Cloud State University. She wrote the following article following a recent incentive trip to Mexico during which she was a participant. She can be reached at [email protected].