by Leo Jakobson | September 22, 2017

Every year, Incentive gathers a group of professionals from all sectors of the motivation, recognition, and engagement business to talk about the state of the industry. This summer, 12 participants gathered at the spectacular Langham Place, New York, Fifth Avenue to discuss topics including the growing focus on return on experience (ROE) over return on investment (ROI), changing views of the impact of Millennials, and the growing attention paid to security, as well as what's happening in the merchandise, gift card, and travel awards categories. What follows are highlights of that discussion. One additional point: This conversation took place before the devastation of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, so comments in the travel section do not reflect their impact on those destinations.

This is part two of a four-part article. The other parts can be found below, and one-on-one video interviews of Roundtable participants can be found here.

• Part 1: The State of the Incentive Industry
• Part 3: Merchandise
• Part 4: Gift Cards

 

PART 2: TRAVEL
 
What Are the Hot Destinations?
Hanks:
 Florida and California are still having record-breaking years -- that's every year for the last four. One of the most exciting destinations for us right now is actually Los Angeles, because of the number of new hotels. If you go to downtown today as compared to two years ago -- there's a new InterContinental that just opened up which is unbelievable, W's are being built, the whole downtown LA Live is expanding. Off the beaten path, Seattle is one of those next destinations that are becoming hot.


DiGregory:
 California was in double-digit growth last year. Florida is always good, the Caribbean. We have a lot of luxury brands now, so I just spent the weekend in Vieques, Puerto Rico.


Stagner:
 The good old standbys in Europe are always popular: Italy, France, and Switzerland. Paris is still super strong for us. Iceland is trendy, it's new, it's hip, it's different.


Athanasiou: We've seen a big push on cruise as well in Iceland.


Stagner: For a lot of customers that we've had for many, many years, it's the same top achievers every year, so you've got to rotate the more popular places, get deeper into those bucket lists. We do some of the really nice boutique properties in the south of France or maybe in Tuscany. In the wine country that is a more unique boutique experience.


From left to right:
Patrick T. Smith of The Leading
Hotels of the World, Jeffrey Brenner
of Pelucida Glass

Smith: A hot new destination is Croatia, which is really popular for us.

 

Stagner: We're really seeing an uptick in Slovenia -- one of the reasons is that Slovenia is rated one of the safest destinations in Europe. It's also this untouched, special place that you really can't find in Europe anymore.



Smith: And I see destinations within destinations. For example, not just Italy, but Puglia. That is not a region that most people are familiar with, but they love Italy and have been there a million times, so they are willing to try Puglia.


Athanasiou: That is why river cruises have become so popular over the years. You are getting into smaller ports that often don't have the hotel infrastructure to support the number of rooms that you need. It's a great taste of a region or a smaller, harder-to-get-to destination. The three Ritz-Carlton yachts coming in 2019 are being built specifically for that reason: To go into the ports that the bigger ships can't.


Stagner: Mexico continues to be super strong for us, no problems at all. We continually use Cabo, Punta de Mita is fabulous, and a Fairmont is opening there as well. Riviera Maya--Cancun continues to be popular. Depending on what coast you are coming from, or the Midwest, Mexico continues to be in the top three to five destinations for us.

We aren't seeing much of the super long-haul, and it is strictly because of the flights. Our programs are actually shorter than they used to be, so we tend to do more Europe, Caribbean, Mexico, Costa Rica, versus going all the way to Australia or New Zealand. Traditional Asian destinations like China, Hong Kong, Thailand are not considered so much, unless winners have a portfolio of trips to choose from. If it is just one trip, Asia is not going to be on the list, and most of it is the long-haul flight. For our well-traveled groups that have a choice, we would put in a Vietnam or something more off the beaten path like Bali, in Indonesia.


Athanasiou: I think airlines are impacting travel. With a lot of customers, the cost of air travel is dictating the type of program and experience that is going to be created. Whether it's hotels, destination management companies, cruise lines, you name it, we have to finagle budgets based on what the airline cost is. It can be frustrating. I haven't heard a lot of noise about customer service. It's more about making sure they can get people there without having three connections.


Stepping Up Security
Athanasiou:
 I would say we hear a little bit more about the potential security risks/concerns. That question comes up more than it does not, and so in dealing with that it's been more about having conversations about it and getting the end user and their internal channels more involved in the discussion, the risk mitigation and plan. I think those conversations are happening more than they have ever happened before, so that has become common for us.


Stagner: Maritz Holdings has been around for over 100 years, and we've been a travel company over 60 years. We have had emergency preparedness plans for as long as I remember. Most times, the clients never cared to even ask about it. They just said, "We know you've got it, we're fine, if there's a hurricane, if something happens, we're handled." We've talked about it more in the last year than we ever have. The other thing we're seeing from our customer base is resilience. They're saying, "We want to know you're prepared, but we're going to do this. We're not going to stay at home and say 'I'm never going to get on a plane again.'"

The reality is, it doesn't matter where you are anymore, something can happen absolutely anywhere. And we don't talk about it just with our customers. We're pulling in our destination management company partners, our hotel partners, our cruise lines -- it is a very open conversation. The Association of Destination Management Executives International has a formal [Emergency Preparedness Certificate] now, which is wonderful.