by Lisa A. Grimaldi and Alex Palmer | March 06, 2019

A thought-leader roundtable, a deep dive into AI and a ceremony honoring the best of the best motivation programs were among the highlights of Northstar Meeting Group's Incentive Live, the annual educational program for incentive professionals, which took place March 3-6 at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park.

The event kicked off with a 90-minute thought-leader roundtable, where industry luminaries --Rhonda Brewer, vice president, sales, for BCD Meetings & Events; Shelly Colla, national sales manager, Premium Incentive Group, Sony Electronics; David Gould, CEO of CR Worldwide; Tony Lorenz, CEO of PRA; Mike May, president/owner of Brightspot Incentives & Events; Steve O'Malley, division president, Maritz Travel; and Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation -- delved into hot topics such as big data, artificial intelligence and the economy. The panel also covered topical issues including trends in contest design, top concerns in the C-suite, and specific challenges facing the travel, merchandise and gift-card sectors.  

The importance of using data to demonstrate the value of incentive programs and for program owners to better understand their impact was a key topic. "Over the last couple of years we've seen a growth in the demand for data in, about and around non-cash reward programs," said Van Dyke. "There's a driving need to understand how to make these programs work better and what their outcomes are."

Van Dyke also discussed the impact of the economy on planners, pointing out that travel planners were less optimistic about the state of the economy compared to those who planned merchandise-based programs. She expects to see even more trepidation on the travel side in the future.

The Incentive Industry Roundtable brought together a number of industry leaders.

O'Malley pointed to the shortage of talent and a tight labor market. "That bodes well for the incentive industry," he said. "We're already hearing that CMOs are getting more involved in employee programs, because they realize that is going to be one of their differentiators going forward."

The panel addressed another issue that is affecting the entire meetings industry: the balance of power between buyers and hoteliers. "Hotels are very busy --ADR [average daily rate] is up, occupancy is up, travel is up - and they're ready for a fast decision," said May. "Alternatively, it's difficult to get the corporate America side to commit 12 to 18 months out. They focus on a quarter-to-quarter decision cycle. If they were in a relationship, they'd be the bachelor who feels like he has lots of attractive options and doesn't have to commit yet."

The roundtable served as the centerpiece of an education-packed agenda designed to provide incentive buyers and suppliers with the latest insights into trends and factors influencing program design today and in the future. The program also included an award ceremony to honor the winners of Incentive's Motivation Masters awards honoring outstanding motivation programs.

David Meerman Scott discussed the power of fandom.

The first of two Incentive Live keynote sessions was "Harnessing the Power of Fandom to Boost Business and Engagement" by marketing strategist, author and Goodman Speakers' presenter David Meerman Scott. During his lively interactive session, Scott told the audience why they should aim to develop fans rather than customers. "It's not products and services people are fans of, it's being together and sharing experiences with like-minded friends." He cited examples such as concert-goers, comic fans and vintage auto enthusiasts.

Tuesday's keynoter, Maritz Motivation Solutions chief data officer Jesse Wolfersberger, shared his insights into "The Possibilities of AI and Incentives." In this engaging presentation, Wolfersberger discussed the promise of predictive analyses and machine learning in the area of motivation and incentives. He also shared details of the Motivation Masters award-winning program he and his team created for HSBC Bank that used an AI-enhanced algorithm and reward program to boost customer loyalty. He advised the audience that before undertaking an AI project, "ask yourself: Is the end user's experience better because of AI, or is it just more efficient for you?"

The agenda also included a number of breakout sessions. "Ask the Experts" focused on three topics. "Moving the Middle: How to Make Everyone a Winner" featured Hinda Incentives president Mike Donnelly, who shared strategies for motivating team members at every level of the organization. Law expert Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. tackled "New Legal Issues for Incentive Programs," answering audience questions on hotel contracts, music licensing and more. He warned planners that "Every time you amend a contract, it has a ripple effect." The expert breakout was helmed by Holly Glowaty, co-founder at K+H Connection and Flourish Conference for branded currency; she walked attendees through blockchain technology and its relevance to the incentive industry in gift cards, travel and merchandise.

Incentive Live also included one-on-one appointments for buyers and suppliers to discuss potential business opportunities, and networking events including an afternoon exploring Chicago and a "Shimmery Nights" dinner reception at the riverfront Smith & Wollensky steak house.