by Andrea Doyle | May 31, 2016

Incentive travel is booming. According to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) study, "2016 Trends in Incentive Travel, Rewards, and Recognition," budgets are up, lead times are growing, and the destinations incentive planners are using are expanding.

"Budgets are up to over $3,000 per person on average, with 30 percent of budgets being between $3,000 and $4,000," reports Melissa Van Dyke, president of the IRF.


Bonnie Boisner, Aimia

The incentive travel industry is healthy, and compared to last year, incentive travel budgets are increasing, agrees Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management at Minneapolis, MN-based Aimia, a leading incentive and loyalty marketing company.

"This will not only spur increased supplier competition, but will also force suppliers to meet the heightened expectations of their clients," says Boisner. "According to a survey by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), 70 percent of suppliers recognize they need to improve their incentive travel services and they are finding more creative ways to add value."

In addition, the demand for meetings and incentive programs is increasing as the economy has improved, which makes finding appropriate hotel space more challenging, as well as more expensive. "After surveying a number of our key partners in the event industry, they suggest booking large incentive programs two to three years in advance and medium programs at least one to two years out. Planning is critical in this demand-driven environment," advises Boisner. Executives and incentive planners who can't book this far out are advised to be flexible with their dates and destination choices, adds Michael Dominguez, senior vice president and chief sales officer of MGM Resorts International, and a past board chair of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

The IRF also reports that organizations are looking for properties and locations that deliver both distinctly unique and truly authentic experiences. Jo-Anne Helotes and Valerie Grady, partners of Progressive Inc., an incentive planning and destination marketing firm, are seeing increased interest in destinations like Central and South America, Asia, Iceland, and Croatia. "We are seeing a resurgent interest in international destinations, even given the recent events in Western Europe," they say.

In this robust market, there are very specific trends shaping incentive travel. Here are five of the most significant:

Experiential Travel
Hearing the roar of a lion during a South African safari… an afternoon spent immersed in the Maori culture in New Zealand… a car rally along the Monaco Grand Prix route… these are one-of-a-kind experiences unique to the destination. By incorporating the exoticness of the location the group is in, unforgettable experiences are created. When a group experiences the out-of-the-ordinary together, be that a meal, unique activity, or tour, the camaraderie -- not to mention the memories, created -- will be priceless.

"Overwhelmingly, creating an unforgettable experience continues to be everything," says Boisner. "We continue to work with our partners and suppliers to create unique and authentic programs. Participants are looking for incentive travel programs that cannot be replicated on their own. It is our job to continue to find new and creative ways to add value and wow them at every touch point. The future will continue to demand a higher degree of customization and heightened experiences for participants."


Group camaraderie is created
at Canyon Ranch Resort & Spa

There is a demand for experiential program design, but quality cannot be compromised, say Helotes and Grady. "Today, planners must deliver programs that create truly immersive destination experiences by offering the unexplored and undiscovered while maintaining the luxury demanded by American travelers," the duo say.

Boisner adds that, "with greater diversity in program participants, we are driven to include even more flexibility and activity variance in programs. We must understand the audience and even the individual nuances of each participant."

Mark Sergot, senior vice president, global sales organization, for FRHI Hotels & Resorts, calls this trend, "Experience over commodity," adding, "Groups continue to be drawn to programming that embraces learning and unique experiences."

This is a trend that cuts across all participant generations, and it goes beyond fun activities, says Alison Taylor, senior vice president of the Starwood Sales Organization at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. "Making sure that people are part of the community when they travel, and are socially responsible -- that they contribute to the community -- is a must-have in this market. It's so important to have social responsibility be part of the experience," she says. "People want to feel they've made a connection, actually met people, and become friends."

In Lhasa, Tibet, Starwood works with a local school. Incentive groups "can stay with the children, they can sponsor children afterwards if they wish -- they're in desperate need of books and other supplies," Taylor adds. "There are also charities and NGOs we engage with, because they understand what the local issues are and feel like [groups] can contribute." And the company's properties have long-term associations with groups, so clients can be assured they have been vetted. "This is very important," Taylor adds.