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by Leo Jakobson | April 05, 2011
This past winter, the Just Born candy company of Bethlehem, PA, makers of Peeps, Hot Tamales, and Mike and Ike, stirred up headlines with an incentive trip to Fargo, ND.

The Just Born sales team had been promised an annual sales meeting in Hawaii if it made the company’s goal of a four percent sales increase over the previous year, the Associated Press reported. Unfortunately, the company’s sales increased by only two percent. Despite generating positive growth in one of the worst economic times in recent memory, the team did not make the goal, so the two dozen members of the sales force decamped for a destination that was about 75 degrees colder than Hawaii. 

AP’s story on the program—which was picked up by media outlets ranging from the Dallas Morning News to Salon.com—quoted Just Born Manager Dave Bayha admitting, “It was somewhat of a punishment.” Still, he and the other Just Born salespeople seemed to make the best of it, laughing about the situation and telling the AP reporter that they’ll still be reminiscing about the trip in 30 years. And a Phoenix-based attendee, Robert Bolliger, told the local Valley News Live that the trip was “really nice” and mentioned that he had never experienced a white Christmas before.

In fact, there certainly were elements of a standard incentive program, such as room gifts (furry bomber hats embroidered with the Just Born logo), outings to local attractions (a pair of local wineries and a showing of the classic film Fargo), group events (a sleigh ride at the Edgewood Golf Course, followed by dinner at Divots restaurant in the clubhouse), and, of course, camaraderie (over a spaghetti dinner at the local VFW—five bucks all you can eat). 

Then, there was the embrace by the Fargo community, spearheaded by Craig Whitney, president of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, who personally welcomed the Just Born team. On a Chamber blog post just before the Just Born team arrived, Whitney said, “They will realize quickly that a convention in Fargo should be viewed as far from a punishment.”

Thumbs Up or Down? 
From the responses of those willing to speak on the record, it appears that the Fargo trip delivered an incentive experience. But does that make the trip a good idea? While Just Born refused to discuss the trip with Incentive, the company seemed to have framed the trip as more of the “stick” than the “carrot.” After all, “punishment” was the term Bayha used to describe the trip, albeit jokingly—and the excursion definitely had costs associated with it. And, more to the point, is there anything from this trip that can be gleaned and incorporated into conventional incentive programs? 

Incentive spoke to a number of incentive industry veterans, and their answer to both of those questions was a very qualified “yes”—in the right circumstances, with the right management and the right sales team, and with a small company.

“The Just Born employees made the best of a cold situation and should be applauded for their positive spirit,” says Dr. Paul Marciano, an engagement consultant, speaker, and author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, published last year. “I have no appreciation for the architect of this dis-incentive program.

“From an employee morale perspective, these ‘all or nothing’ kinds of programs in general are simply a bad idea,” he says. “You tease employees to work hard to achieve a goal; they make progress toward the goal but then miss—so you decide to punish them. What do you think is going to happen the next time when it becomes apparent that the goal cannot be reached? People will become resentful and resigned—especially those who worked the hardest—and decrease their discretionary effort sooner.”

But Jim Dittman, president of New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, says with a chuckle, “I kind of like the idea.” He adds: “My presumption is that the intention was if they didn’t make it, they would still go to Fargo, and they would still use it as a bonding experience. You’ve still got all of your people together, you can tell them how much you appreciate what they do on a daily basis, and you can still do some of the critical elements of recognition, even though it’s in a different place.” 

That said, Dittman warns, “It’s the kind of idea, I think, that can only be pulled off by strong and involved management and where the people would have to be honest and say, ‘You know, they gave us all the tools, they backed us all the way, and we still didn’t get it done.’ ”  

Beyond the right management, you also need the right sales team, says Jeff Broudy, executive vice president and COO of United Incentives, in Philadelphia. “I see it not as an incentive but as a team-based motivational tool,” adds Broudy, who is also the chairman of the Incentive Research Foundation. “It could be that they’re a team-based organization, and this is how they operate. We all ride along when we have gain and when we have pain. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but if this works for them, great. The great fallacy in our industry is that we think we have a ‘right’ structure.”

On the other hand, there are decades-old motivational techniques that work, and Just Born’s Fargo trip was not among them.

“When you look at the science of our business, it’s really about positive recognition and motivation, not negative,” says Tanya Feldman, manager of group event management at West Des Moines, IA-based ITAGroup. “Even though you’re going to Fargo, there’s some expense associated with it. So much of what we do now is based on return on objective or return on investment, and are you really getting your return [by] taking them to Fargo? I guess you can look at it as an opportunity to get their sales force together, and we all know that there is a benefit to that.” But, she adds, “They could have framed it differently.”

Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Dallas-based Sunbelt Motivation & Travel, agrees. “The concept of do this and get this, but do [that] and get punished—that’s nowhere,” he says. “I would say, ‘Look, guys, we’re going to have an incentive program, and we’re going to have teambuilding, because we feel like we work best as a team. So if we make our numbers, we’re going to Hawaii for our teambuilding exercise; if we don’t make our numbers, we’re still going to have our teambuilding time, it’s just going to be at a lesser destination.’ That way, it’s a positive and a positive, not a positive and a negative.”

While the Fargo trip may not have done any damage to the Just Born sales team, Boyd says, “I’m not sure it does any good. The people who went on the trip, they will say, years and years from now, ‘Hey, remember that trip to Fargo?’ In terms of memory value, I think it was very relevant, but in terms of motivation for people to perform better, I don’t think it amounts to anything.”

Alfie Kohn, a speaker on human behavior, and author of Punished by Rewards, says, “Sending employees to the American version of Siberia made the news because it’s a stunt. Cute gimmicks are a good way to get press but generally not a good way to manage people.” 

Tiers, Not Tears
The program Boyd advocates is more of an offshoot of the traditional tiered incentive travel program, which is often used by companies with districts that simply don’t have equal sales potential and whose leaderships want to motivate and recognize the top performers in those smaller markets. 

Maritz Travel runs plenty of trips in which top salespeople go for five nights to a luxury destination while mid-level performers might spend two or three nights at a lesser destination, says Chris Gaia, marketing vice president. 

“We did a study of a large insurance company’s top-earner program in which a lot of longtime winners had fallen out,” says Gaia. “A lot of those who were not earning the trip anymore said, ‘The numbers have risen to the point where it is not fair. I am in a small market, and these numbers are impossible to hit.’ ” Giving them a smaller trip, he adds, can be “a real paradigm-shifter.”  

United Incentives even has a client that runs a three-tier incentive, Broudy says.

One Maritz Travel client provides new employees a far lower goal to make the annual incentive trip for their first year, Gaia says. “It wants to get them interacting with the best salespeople, to hear from the pros and to build networks.” And, of course, to acquire a taste of qualifying for the trip.

Gaia says that while the AP article portrayed Just Born as a group that did not see the Fargo trip as a punishment, you’d likely get a different answer from a group of 100 or 1,000 than you do from two dozen people. “A larger group will say it’s not fair,” he says, but adds, “there probably were people in this group that got more than 4 percent,” in reference to Just Born’s sales goal for the Hawaii incentive. “The top 10 or 20 percent [of your sales force] really provide a huge percent of your sales,” he notes. With a loud laugh, he adds, “The fact that they went to Fargo says it didn’t work. Next year, I’d carve it into individual goals.”

Just Born is reportedly going to Rapid City, SD, next year if its sales goal is not met. 

The idea of combining the carrot and the stick is not new—check out our piece on steak & beans incentives