by Deanna Ting | October 01, 2014
In the years following the economic downturn of 2008, incentive travel's slow and steady comeback is in full swing. "I would say that incentive travel is pretty close to back to pre-downturn levels at this point," says Lynn Randall, managing member of Randall Insights and education and content consultant for the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). "Currently, our IRF trends survey shows that incentive travel planners continue to be optimists, and are seeing a more positive impact from the economy. That economic strength is helping with budgets and planning for incentive programs."

As more organizations continue to bring back and invest in their incentive travel programs, the programs themselves are also beginning to evolve, placing greater emphasis on one-of-a-kind experiences that encompass not just the trip itself but year-long engagement and motivation.

"The conversation today is really focused on how to make it a unique experience, and what will motivate your winners," says Rhea Stagner, division vice president of supplier relations and sourcing for Maritz Travel. "It's about what will make the trip feel like a personal experience versus one that's one size fits all."

"There's a little bit of pent-up demand for unique experiences," agrees Tony Wagner, vice president, CWT Meetings & Events, Americas region. "Companies are better at articulating the purpose of the incentive trip. You see more and more companies having compliance policies and code of ethics; it's a part of their sales plan and their growth plan. We see it continuing to strengthen. It's motivating the desires that customers want to motivate. "

"It's also about starting the experience even before the announcement, all the way through to the program itself, and afterwards," says Stagner. "It's about elongating the experience outside just the incentive travel program operation itself."

Wagner adds, "For our customers, it's a balance of the budget and ensuring that it will be a rewarding experience for attendees to drive behavior."

In the most recent IRF "Spring 2014 Pulse Study," Randall says that 52 percent of respondents are moderately increasing their incentive travel budgets to "provide more enhanced experiences." She adds, "The real focus is on the winner's experience that they have on site -- having a very genuine and local experience is important."

Budgets Still Matter 
While there's greater emphasis on the overall incentive travel experience, budgets are still a deciding factor for many programs. As airfares and hotel rates continue to climb, cost increases and decreasing hotel availability are having an impact on programs' bottom lines.

"Budgets are still a major consideration for our clients," says Marty Doyle, director of travel experiences for Dittman Incentive Marketing. "We monitor these trends in airline and hotel pricing/availability, and work closely with our clients to be sure that they are aware of the changing environment and can plan their programs and manage their budgets accordingly."

"Cost is definitely a factor for today's incentive travel programs," adds Randall. "Organizations have to look at how many room nights they want to load into the program plan because rates are higher than they have been in recent years. The air cost has been driven up so high at this point that the air travel component is also significantly affecting the way people plan, and put together their budgets and do their programs."

Randall says that the most recent IRF Pulse study shows that travel budgets are "stabilizing" and where respondents are spending their money on is "non-F&B related items." "They're adding more experiential elements to their programs."