by Deanna Ting | October 01, 2014

One Size Does Not Fit All 
Often, those experiential elements are being offered in a variety of different ways, tailored specifically for different groups and preference. "We're seeing more multiple activity tracks for the same incentive travel program," says Wagner. "It really appeals to multiple generations."

Sunny destinations such as Hawaii were the most 
popular destinations for incentive travel programs

 Wagner says that, this year, one of his clients held two separate incentive travel programs to reward winners -- a Disney cruise that would include families and a trip to Orlando for couples only. "They offered two separate trips and itineraries, and winner could indicate which one they preferred. For the family-friendly program, each winner could bring up to three guests and could pay to bring a fourth person." Wagner says that the success of this year's dual incentive travel programs convinced his client to offer the same two trip options next year as well.

"I think you'll continue to see programs offering more multiple tracks of activities and really customizing the activities and experiences for the participants," he adds. "You'll see different tracks of activities that we need to weave into incentives now to account for all the varying expectations from various winners. For example, golf is more popular with Boomers and Gen Xers; Millennials aren't necessarily as excited by golf but they might be into hiking or mountain biking."

Randall suspects that Millennials are also driving a trend toward wellness travel. "People want to improve their health and adding wellness elements is definitely on the rise in all areas of travel," she says. "We are seeing an increase in budgets for non-meals; Millennials want a very unique and active experience."

She also sees culinary tourism continuing to have an impact on the types of activities included on incentive trips. "Experiencing authentic local cuisine or creating experiences where you go out and pick the foods you'll be eating are popular both domestically and internationally," Randall notes.

Establishing a deeper connection to an incentive travel destination is also top of mind when it comes to crafting experiences says Doyle. "Activities are destination specific, and we always make sure that they reflect the culture and ambience of the location itself."

Crossing Borders 
This year also saw a slight uptick in more international incentive travel programs. "Slightly more respondents [to the IRF's Pulse Survey] say they are changing from domestic to international programs than those changing from international to domestic," says Randall. "International travel is showing much greater interest than it has in some previous trends and Pulse studies."

Dittman Incentive Marketing's Doyle also saw more clients choosing to travel abroad. "International destinations are increasingly selected by our clients for channel and customer programs, in part to compete with their own competition."

"In general, I would say that destinations worldwide have come open; the world is wide open to our clients," says Kate Rice, senior travel buyer for The Performance Group. "I'm a strong believer in incentives, and as companies become more global they need to bring everyone together through incentives."

Cruising Along 
One type of incentive travel program that is picking up major steam is cruising. A new era of world-class vessels and expanded, more global itineraries are making cruising an attractive option for incentive trips. With an abundance of choices in dining, entertainment, and itineraries, and opportunities for cost savings, cruising has become an even more in-demand incentive travel option. A November 2013 SITE Index study in cooperation with the Cruise Lines International Association, "Focus on Cruises for Incentive Travel," found that 88.8 percent of respondents would recommend a cruise ship for a motivational group incentive travel program. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they were planning an incentive group travel program on a cruise in 2014-2016.  

"It's a whole new world, and a whole different experience on today's cruises," says Jo Kling, co-founder of Miami-based Landry & Kling, a MICE cruise specialty firm. Kling says that more flexible dining options, entertainment offerings, and diverse destinations are making cruises particularly well suited for hosting incentive groups on the seas and rivers. "There's really a ship out there for every type of group, whether you're looking for luxury, intimacy, a wide variety of attractions, etc."

"We've had double-digit growth year-over-year for the last probably six consecutive years, specifically when it comes to incentive business, but even on the meeting and conference side as well," says Lori Cassidy, director of corporate, incentive, and charter sales for Royal Caribbean International. "I think planners are realizing that cruise ships today are very different from cruise ships in the '70s and the '80s. The hardware that we bring to the table is incredible, very innovative. We are thinking about business more so than just the vacationing public when we're building our hardware today. I think you're going to start seeing that uptick in incentive business increase even further as we take the business in the future."

Doyle says that many of his clients have chosen MSC Cruises, which offers "a ship-within-a-ship 'Yacht Club' on its Fantasia-class ships." He notes, "A limited number of the suites have their own deck, pool, lounge, and concierge service. This allows for a more intimate cruising experience without the expense of some of the smaller, luxury lines. Since cruises continue to offer great value, this is an interesting way to provide a luxury experience on a limited budget."

The all-inclusiveness of cruises, as well as more intimate, personalized experiences is also an appealing draw for incentive groups. Lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises, for example, offer a variety of complimentary amenities, from free shore excursions and unlimited Internet access to gourmet dining and airport transfers.

"Most of our clients tends to sail with Regent Seven Seas where there are 600 passengers or less on each ship," says Rice. "It's a different type of experience whereby you can see a lot of destinations, but also feel like you have the freedom to do so much more than you would with just a standalone hotel."

Adds Stagner, "It's not just huge ships now. There are ships out there that are more personal and more about the luxury and not just the destination."

Both Rice and Tina Weede, president of USMotivation, have also noted the popularity of Mediterranean cruises. Weede has also seen increased demand for Baltic cruises. River cruising, notes Weede and Stagner, is also making a comeback. "To me, the river cruises are definitely more popular again."