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How incentive travel can increase its potential market and explain its business case

How incentive travel can increase its potential market and explain its business case

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Eric Mottard
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A wellness activity by the poolside of the Gran Hotel Central; a networking coffee to reconnect with 40 incentive travel professionals and venues; an exchange of ideas on how our industry can be more sustainable: that was the recent SITE event in Barcelona, which offered a great opportunity to connect with this community, refresh and reset, and strengthen what is the basis of our industry: human connections. As discussed at the event jointly with Elena Rubio (president of SITE Spain), Borja Llopart (vice-president and sponsorship director of the company) and Elena Altemir (sustainability director of the company), incentives are a great opportunity to connect with the community, refresh and reset, and strengthen what is the basis of our industry: human connections. We took this opportunity to sit down with Rebecca Wright, head of chapter engagement at SITE Global, for a great exchange of ideas about the situation and opportunities for the incentive travel industry. She reminds us the current strength this amazing motivational tool has, but also reflects on ways to bring more value to companies, articulate this value, and maybe even broaden our target market.

Has activity in incentive travel gone back to normal?

So much has gone back to normal, yes, activity has picked up very strongly… but we should not forget how much the organization of work and talent management has changed: on the one hand, companies have to be much more flexible in how they manage their teams, many people want to ensure balance between work and the rest of their life. On the other, meeting remotely is widely accepted, and, even if we know nothing substitutes face to face, this acceptance of virtual meetings is something we have to follow, since avoiding the cost and time of travel is a big benefit. We have to ensure the quality of what we offer justifies the effort of moving.

Are we better off (since people missed human connections and understand their value) or worse off (since virtual solutions have expanded)?

I think we are better off, especially since virtual communication does not transmit any of the energy that you have in a real meeting or event. You can have some collaboration online, but when you are with someone, so much energy is transmitted. We have to change the mindset and be very mindful about the need to meet face to face. Let’s not bring people together for the sake of it, we have to be more mindful about it making sense.

Rebecca Wright, head of chapter engagement at SITE Global

In a world in which any information can be easily accessed online (and AI will only make it worse), isn’t relationship the great quality of events, and is incentive travel unique in that relationship-building? Companies have a thousand ways to communicate a message, but not many ways to create meaningful relationships…

Definitely. You can’t replicate or substitute this value of incentive travel. During the pandemic, incentive travel was often substituted by cash rewards, but people used this money to pay for their bills. The motivating effect was poor and companies saw then that the value of shared experience does create this retention, this emotional connection… People value the experience, the privilege of seeing a unique destination, of mingling with the leaders of the company, be proud of the achievement…

Today, even if going to the other end of the world is great, just meeting and sharing time seems to be a reward. This brings a question: in today’s context in which we value shared time so much, should we open the spectre of incentive travel, and make it acceptable to organise also trips closer to home and shorter, but still extremely motivating and valued?

It is an important point. In our vision, we express the importance of “motivational experiences” beyond the far-away incentive trip. With the world being more virtual, we see companies doing offsite retreats which create shared experiences, stimulate loyalty and retention and love of the company. Some are not as exclusive and motivational but they do create a powerful result in motivation. Instead of a year-long campaign when you go to Bora Bora, you could have more meetings throughout the year, combining work and free time with special activities. It could also broaden our target market, beyond the “president’s club”, to more people inside the company; and we would love to see these types of experiences infiltrate more of the company.

Maybe at some point we will wonder why the incentive was limited to once a year… Yes, besides the great incentive trip, a smaller trip close to the city, offering special moments, makes sense. This will take work from site and other players, to articulate the value (since it will still involve time and cost), we have to explain the return. You can measure the impact of incentive on sales, but it is harder to measure it in engagement and retention.

Isn’t HR the great missing piece of the incentive industry? Are we too tourism-focused? It is something we talk about a lot and it is important indeed, and this aligns with developing the business case of incentive trips. We have to align with HR, and know how they plan to motivate and reward. We have to understand and help them better.

Should we also reach out to compliance, whose approval is important? We started talking to them. This encompasses something which is very important for our industry: we have to look at the corporation and how they work, on all aspects and how we can strengthen their business. The “sales” dimension of incentive programmes is easier, now we do have to involve HR and compliance. So, it comes back to a strategic process to understand better how companies work and how incentive travel can bring value to the key divisions and decision-makers.

Incentive travel is amazingly useful… but isn’t it still underestimated, nor properly understood? We have to lead efforts to bring that business case for incentive travel. During the pandemic, we ran a study called “leadership insights” in collaboration with SMU, asking CEOs around the world why they use incentive travel. It presents many insights, especially that they see a lot of intangible values. CEOs recognise it connects the employees with the company and creates motivation to rise higher, but articulating it with figures is difficult. In another study to be published soon, we ask incentive programmes winners the effect that winning and going on the trip has on them. We are looking at ways to analyse the value of incentive travel.

Is the usage of incentive travel increasing or decreasing? We don’t have recent data on that. We feel it is on the rise and part of that is because, when companies could not have incentive trips during the pandemic, they realised they were missing something. We always say cash is not as strong as shared experience for motivating, and companies saw it during the pandemic.

This is related to a theme which fascinates me: the transformative power of incentive travel. This comes from the transformative power of travel in itself– visiting a new destination/culture. It can also be transformative based on the destination in another way: by providing relaxation and a way to destress from the usual day-to-day. It is also transformative in the way the award winner views his/her relationship with the company, leading to more loyalty, engagement, and desire to remain with the company for many years. 

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