by Deanna Ting | October 01, 2012
Domestic destinations like Los Angeles remain popular

Incentive travel, while not as robust as it was prior to 2008, is in a fairly healthy state of recovery this year.

"The current incentive travel industry  is rebounded," says Marty Doyle, director of travel programs for Dittman Incentive Marketing. The industry isn't out of the woods quite yet, however.

"Is it still fragile? Yes," Doyle says. "It could turn on a dime."

Doyle and other incentive travel experts agree that this cautiously optimistic outlook has had a direct impact on this year's list of the most popular incentive travel destinations in 2012.

"For us, our client base has stayed relatively close, and within the Northern Hemisphere," says Richard A. Blabolil, president of Marketing Innovators. For Blabolil and his team, that meant organizing more trips to the Caribbean, Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, and various domestic destinations.

Respondents to Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ" survey were in agreement. Topping the list was the Caribbean, which was the most popular international destination for incentive travel while. Domestically, Florida took top honors.

If there were a concurrent theme or connection among all of the top destinations, it would be good weather and a variety of outdoor activities. Active, more hands-on adventures in those locales were also popular with incentive groups in 2012.

Here's a closer look at the top incentive travel destinations for the year:

Fun and Sun in Florida
Florida, thanks to its extensive theme park offerings, expansive beaches, and variety of resort accommodations, was named as a top spot by every incentive travel planner  interviewed by Incentive.

In Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ Survey," 48.7 percent of respondents named it as one of the most popular domestic incentive travel spots in their programs. Within Florida, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami were the most popular locales for hosting incentive groups.

"Florida has wonderful beaches, a great infrastructure, great food, and good nightlife," says Kurt Paben, senior vice president of business loyalty for Aimia.

For incentive groups that include family members, Orlando, in particular, has enjoyed success. "In Orlando, we're very fortunate because we have so many options just for families," says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando. "There's no end to the number of attractions. The cultural it that are geared toward the family, and our infrastructure in general, is very geared toward families. It's not just about the theme parks but our overall infrastructure that offers so many family-friendly amenities," she adds.

California Cool
Close on the heels of Florida was California, which was named a top domestic incentive travel destination by 41.4 percent of  respondents in our "2012 Travel IQ" survey. As with Florida, California was also mentioned by every incentive planner whom we interviewed. The Golden State's extensive variety of locales and destinations is its biggest strength by far.

"If you look at California, you can have a very different experience depending on where you go," says Paben. "You can go to California year after year and have a different experience each and every time." Paben says he has arranged many incentive trips to San Francisco, Napa Valley, Santa Barbara, Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, in particular, has hosted many incentive groups that seek a combined city-and-beach experience in the culturally diverse locale that Hollywood calls home.

"No other destination in the country offers true luxury like we do, and I think we offer it in a setting that, in today's world, is less tricky," says Michael Krouse, senior vice president of sales and service for the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. "You can truly do luxury here and not be crucified because you're in Los Angeles," he adds. A number of new hotels, attractions, and restaurants are drawing attention to the city's downtown and Hollywood neighborhoods, says Krouse. The former Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, located on Hollywood and Highland boulevards, was recently rebranded as the new Loews Hollywood Hotel. Recent improvements to the city's subway and rail systems have also made it even easier for groups to travel throughout the city using public transportation, Krouse notes.

In San Diego, another popular choice for incentive groups, Margie Sitton, senior vice president of sales and services for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that she has seen incentive travel bounce back in recent years.

"I think that the incentive market is definitely coming back, and our resort hotels are certainly enjoying good occupancy rates," she says.

Sitton touts San Diego's easy accessibility, great beaches, vibrant arts-and-culture scene, and emerging culinary and microbrewery offerings as major highlights for bringing incentive groups to the city.

Sitton also says that many incentive groups that are traveling to San Diego are taking part in traditional beach Olympics-themed activities. Local destination marketing companies are also focusing on San Diego's strong military ties by offering armed forces-inspired training and teambuilding activities.

Heavenly Hawaii
Coming in third in Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ" survey was Hawaii, with 37 percent of the total vote. The island destination, which includes Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the island of Hawaii, the Big Island, remains extremely popular with incentive travel planners who want to offer their participants a taste of paradise without  straying from U.S. shores.

"Hawaii is one of the most popular incentive destinations in the world because of its resources, beaches, and activities; it's one of the most popular destinations in the world," says Paben. "Each island is quite different, so it's not unusual for clients to return to Hawaii but go to different islands for new experiences in a familiar place."

This year in particular has been a banner year for overall Hawaii tourism, especially on the leisure side.

"We're on record pace to break all [tourism] records ever for the state," says Michael Murray, vice president of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau's corporate meetings and incentives division. "That consumer confidence should translate to confidence in the meetings and incentives market, too," Murray adds.

Increased airlift from major feeder markets, not only on the West Coast of the U.S., but also from the East, have made it even easier for travelers to find themselves in Hawaii's idyllic paradise.

Fairly recent hotel openings and renovations in Hawaii include Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa on Oahu's North Shore;  the newly renovated Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay (formerly the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa) on the Big Island; and the newly renovated Sheraton Kauai Resort and Spa.

Upping the Ante in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, with its mega resorts and range of entertainment options, ranked fourth on our list of top domestic incentive travel destinations in the "2012 Travel IQ" survey. The city continues to update itself with new attractions, restaurants, and luxurious properties, ensuring that travelers will always have a different experience with every visit.

New developments include two different observation wheels currently being constructed along The Strip, both of which are scheduled to debut in 2013.

Caesars is investing $550 million into constructing a new retail, dining, and entertainment concept, The Linq, located between the Imperial Palace and  Flamingo Las Vegas. It should open in late 2013. Caesars Palace Las Vegas will also be home to the world's first Nobu Hotel, a boutique hotel within a hotel, similar to THEhotel at Mandalay Bay. The Nobu Hotel is inspired by the cuisine and design aesthetic of acclaimed chef Nobu Matshuhisa, and is  scheduled to open on Oct. 1.

New restaurant openings from celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jose Andres are also attracting gourmands to Sin City. Gordon Ramsay Steak opened in May at the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel. Over at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, Andres is utilizing the street food cultures of China and Mexico in his new restaurant, China Poblano. In April, ARIA Resort & Casino welcomed the newest restaurant by acclaimed Michelin-starred chef Masa Takayama, called Tetsu, which offers teppanyaki-style Japanese dining.

Raising Arizona
Arizona, with its wide variety of resorts, is still a favorite among groups that want the option to host traditional golf-and-spa incentive trips with opportunities for other adventurous activities, from rock climbing to cycling. As the fifth most-popular domestic incentive travel spot, according to the Incentive "2012 Travel IQ survey," with 19.4 percent of the vote, Arizona offers great value to planners, says Marketing Innovators' Blabolil.

"Arizona has been very cost effective for our clients," says Blabolil. "My incentive groups love that you have the ability to take advantage of some very nice luxury resorts in Arizona." He adds: "There are lots of great hotels and resorts, and the ability to play golf and do other adventures is so appealing. You can get more adventuresome in Arizona, and there's also a sharing of cultures." He says that hot air ballooning, mountain climbing, and hiking have also become popular for incentive groups in Arizona.

Caribbean Cachet
The Caribbean remains the top international incentive travel destination region according to the results from the 2012 and 2011 editions of Incentive's "Travel IQ" survey and feedback from many incentive houses. The region's close proximity to the U.S., easy airlift, sunny weather, and beautiful beaches make the region a favorite among incentive trip planners.

Within the Caribbean, most planners we spoke to saw a growing trend toward smaller, more off-the-beaten-path destinations such as Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, and Nevis. Popular locales like Puerto Rico, Turks & Caicos, and the Bahamas are also in high demand.

Both Paben and Doyle mentioned the Atlantis, Paradise Island, resort in the Bahamas as an extremely popular incentive trip location. "We've sent more than 1,000 people there on multiple trips," says Doyle. "It's not too far from home, and there's so much to do during the day; it could be considered on the pricier side but you get so much entertainment and dining and it's all right there."

The number of incentive cruises to the Caribbean region is also growing, note Paben and USMotivation's President, Tina Weede. "We are seeing a lot of groups requesting cruises more on the luxury and higher-end side," Weede says. She says the most popular cruise requests are for the Caribbean - both eastern and western. Adds Paben, "Caribbean cruises are a great way to see a lot of the different islands."

In the Dominican Republic, a new and improved highway system, El Coral, debuted in September and connects the all-inclusive resorts of Punta Cana to the charming and historic town of La Romana to the south. Patricia Perez, director for the Midwest U.S. at the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, hopes that with El Coral, it will be easier for incentive groups staying in Punta Cana to venture off the all-inclusive resorts and beaches and into La Romana for a more authentic look at Dominican culture.

Magical Mexico
This destination just south of the U.S.  border continues to be popular with leisure travelers and incentive groups who seek fun, sun, truly genuine hospitality, and value. "Mexico is a great destination, and it has great product and great experiences," says Paben. "Mexico can also offer great value to clients." In the "2012 Travel IQ" survey, 32.2 percent of respondents selected Mexico as a popular international incentive travel destination, right behind the Caribbean.

Within Mexico, Paben sees Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Punta Mita, the Riviera Maya, and Cancun as the top spots for incentive groups. Cozumel, Blabolil notes, was also a popular destination among incentive groups traveling to Mexico.

Although widespread media reports have noted drug- and gang-related violence in the country within the past few years, the incentive planners whom we spoke to said that these resort areas in Mexico are still regarded as a safe destination for their clients.

"There are certainly some destinations in Mexico to be conscious of but in the resort towns, they have been very well secured," says Blabolil.

Western Europe Beckons
The allure of Western Europe and its iconic cities - Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Paris, Rome, Venice, and Vienna - continues to drive incentive travel demand to the region. Nearly 23 percent of respondents in Incentive's "2012 Travel IQ" survey selected Western Europe as one of their most popular international incentive travel destinations. Aimia's Paben believes that many of the region's cities are so popular with incentive groups because of the aspirational desire attached to them.

"Paris is such an iconic destination," Paben explains. "It has iconic history and monuments and it's a place that everyone knows. It's a destination that people have on their bucket lists."

Many planners mentioned that, because of this year's Summer Olympics, demand for incentive travel to London and other parts of the United Kingdom was up.

Italy was also noted by many planners  for its natural beauty, cultural aspects, history, and exquisite dining. "We are seeing so much incentive activity in Rome,  Florence, and Venice," says Paben. "So much of it is very culturally driven: the art history of Italy, imperial Rome, the Vatican, the food and wine, and even Italian fashion."

Monaco, a destination often associated with glamour and luxury, is also popular with incentive groups. "For many types of incentive audiences, Monaco is the carrot to be dangled," says Cindy Hoddeson, director of meeting and incentive sales for the Monaco Government Tourist Office.Hoddeson says that incentive groups in Monaco are seeking somewhat more casual and relaxed experiences, and are particularly interested in activities that combine a corporate social responsibility (CSR) component.

Canada Calling
Our neighbor to the north is also a top destination for international incentive travel, with 18.9 percent of respondents saying that it was one of the most popular spots for their programs this year. Ample airlift and access to Canada's major cities - Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal - makes it easy for groups to travel to Canada.

Vancouver is popular with groups who seek an outdoor adrenaline rush in the form of skiing, snowboarding, and even paragliding. This July, Calgary celebrated the 100th anniversary of its annual Calgary Stampede. Toronto's luxury hotel offerings have grown with the addition of The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, last year, and the brand-new Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto, which had its soft opening in August. The Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto features 202 rooms and has 12,000 square feet of meeting and function space. Montreal's unique French-Canadian culture and affinity for gastronomy is transforming it into a popular leisure travel destination for Americans.

Costa Rica Charms
One destination that resonated with nearly all of the incentive travel planners interviewed was Costa Rica. The tiny Central American destination, best known for its famous refrain "pura vida," or "pure life," appeals to incentive groups searching for adventure, luxury, untouched natural rainforests, and friendly hospitality. 

Adventurous activities, ziplining included, topped the list of favorite incentive trip itineraries for Costa Rica. The destination's emphasis on eco-tourism is also a major draw, and Blabolil says that he's had many groups participate in such CSR activities as helping to save endangered turtle eggs while staying in Costa Rica.

Tahiti Titillates
Like Costa Rica, many of the planners Incentive interviewed mentioned Tahiti as a favorite incentive travel destination that is coming back in terms of demand.

"Tahiti is very interesting, and it's well equipped to handle incentive programs," says Paben. "Places like Bora Bora are quite beautiful." Luxurious resorts with overwater bungalows and villas, such as the St. Regis Bora Bora, are a favorite among incentive groups. While in Tahiti, many groups take up snorkeling, yachting, jet skiing, and jeep tours as activities.