by Terri Hardin | September 30, 2016

Having seesawed between bloated excess and sour-puss budgets in years past, the size of today's travel incentive program has finally gotten "just right," according to planners.

"Five years ago, when things were pretty tough, I would say that the average incentive was probably shorter, with activities that would have been at [attendees'] own expense," says Joanie Miskowiec Phillips, SMMC, director of purchasing and industry relations for Minneapolis-based MotivAction LLC. That was then. Now: "They're maybe a night longer, with higher-end entertainment or higher-end activities, which are included in the budget," according to Phillips.

Another difference is that, in the past, "programs were very active, with a full day of activities and evening functions," according to Mark Graber, vice president of strategic accounts and business development for New York City-based Madison Performance Group. "A lot of people in this day and age are looking for a little bit of downtime, to reconnect with the guest or the spouse they've brought. They really appreciate the free time available, and not just jam-packing the incentive with minute-to-minute activity."

Today's incentive is more bespoke than ever before.

"Personalization is key -- how to take your activity or event group dinner and make the theme and events weave in your corporate message, logo, and team structure," says Kelly Parisi, senior manager of solutions development for Spear One in Irving, TX.


Rhonda Brewer, Maritz Travel

Rhonda Brewer, vice president of sales at Maritz Travel, in St. Louis, MO, strikes a similar note: "The change from a few years ago is, that there needs to be some customization to an individual and to a group."

Parisi emphasizes that groups are pushing the creative boundaries with activities offered. While golf and spa are still standard offerings, they are less likely to be the main focus of the day.

The Way of the Millennial
While incentive programs extend to a diverse multigenerational workforce, Millennials are having a tremendous impact on what's being offered. Millennials are not looking for tried and tested," says Kevin M. Hinton, CIS and chief excellence officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) International. "They enjoy the unknown and want to be challenged. It is important for planners to uncover Millennials' distinctive passion points, and engage them in a way that speaks to their personal drivers."


Kevin Hinton, SITE International

For example, he notes Millennials' preferences for personalized workouts, healthy foods, and holistic wellness as behaviors that are shaping the travel industry.

Phillips agrees: "A lot of clients are incorporating a fitness instructor or a 5K run."

In today's incentive travel program, she adds, everything is interactive, even the tour. She points to a speedboat ride down London's River Thames to give groups a James Bond experience.

Frank McVeigh, president and CEO of McVeigh Associates, Ltd. in Amityville, NY, says his company is seeing an increase in such adventurous and customized activities as ziplining, hiking, and mountain climbing. But these activities are not so much about adrenaline as providing attendees with new experiences.

Frank McVeigh, McVeigh Associates, Ltd.

 "'Impact travel' is a new buzz phrase -- a blend of past CSR [corporate social responsibility] activities and 'go local' movements," McVeigh says, giving the examples of, "a Native talking stick ceremony and dance during an Alaskan cruise, or a private tender from the ship to a motu in Bora Bora for a gala dinner in a thatched-roof venue."

Hinton agrees that new experiences are key. While "sun-and-fun types of destinations" are always popular, they are having to make room for destinations "where groups can get more involved with the community and culture, either in the form of CSR activities or dining experiences that include local food, wine, or beer." For example, instead of a restaurant dine-around, attendees may get more out of being hosted at the home of locals.

Whatever the circumstances, says Phillips, "It's not just handing over a check -- it's building a park or cleaning a park or painting a school. People get the most out of CSR when they see or interact with the person who's benefiting from it."

In fact, SITE research suggests that seven out of 10 incentive programs include a CSR activity. While all experts agree that corporate social responsibility is now a fully integrated element of the travel incentive program, they also warn planners not to include it on the fly. CSR options, says Hinton, "need to be planned well in advance and carefully selected."