5 Tips to Create Successful Incentive Travel Programs

Motivate employees and deliver a measurable return on investment by following these guidelines.

Incentive travel participants value destinations and activities that they might not otherwise get to experience, such as an event in a private capsule of the London Eye organized by Spectra DMC.
Incentive travel participants value destinations and activities that they might not otherwise get to experience, such as an event in a private capsule of the London Eye organized by Spectra DMC.
Photo: Courtesy of Society for Incentive Travel Excellence

According to the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), incentive travel is expected to grow at a significant pace through 2016 as global economies and job markets improve. By linking travel rewards to specific performance objectives, companies can drive employee behavior to reach business goals. “Compared to other marketing initiatives, incentive travel programs have the highest level of cost accountability,” says Kurt Paben, Aimia senior vice president and president of the SITE Foundation. “A properly designed, planned, and executed incentive travel program can be done at no incremental expense and often produces incremental revenue.”

BizBash asked three people with expertise in incentive travel to share tips for creating successful programs: Steve O’Malley is Maritz Travel's division president for meetings and incentives; Kent Cisewski is the president of Fusion Performance Group; and Kevin Hinton is C.E.O. of SITE. Here are their recommendations.

1. Establish goals and objectives before the incentive campaign begins. “Is it 10 percent growth over last year? Is it launching a new product? You define what success will look like before you ever begin putting the campaign out there,” O’Malley says. In a survey this summer sponsored by the SITE Foundation and Sales & Marketing Management magazine, more than 88 percent of respondents reported their primary program goal is geared towards sales objectives, with incremental revenue increase being the most common purpose.

2. Decide how much you will spend on the incentive program. In addition to the award trip or event itself, the budget also needs to cover the marketing, communication, and engagement strategies leading up to it. “You have to have teasers, you have to keep unveiling information to keep people excited. That should be 10 to 30 percent of the budget to be able to take that engagement to a new level,” Cisewski says.

3. Determine the needs and desires of your audience regarding decisions such as length of the incentive event, destinations, whether families are included, and the types of activities offered. “You want to motivate them, not the executive committee. So it can’t be where the C.E.O. wants to go on vacation,” Cisewski says. “Smart companies create a program that will engage and move the middle 60 percent of their sales staff. If it’s just the top 20 percent [that earn the trip], it’s an award not an incentive.”

4. Design an incentive program based on that feedback. The program needs to be fair and have an achievable goal, with a reward the target audience desires. “It doesn’t have to be about the high-dollar, completely exclusive events. It needs to be focused on the audience you are engaging with,” O’Malley says. Try to build in elements of choice regarding how participants spend their time during the incentive experience. A Maritz survey found that the most desirable activity for an incentive event is free time. “And free time costs the organizing company nothing, but it actually is the most attractive thing people can have because they are so busy,” O’Malley says. Regarding destinations, survey respondents indicated a preference for new destinations and those that they otherwise might not be able to visit. A SITE survey of incentive program participants found the destination is one of their strongest motivating factors for participation, and the destination has the most impact on making the experience memorable.

5. Evaluate the success of the program based on the original goals and objectives. Consider both financial and behavioral metrics. “When you are surveying employees, you want to understand, was it memorable? was it motivational? So we can understand how it will affect future behavior too, not just looking back,” Hinton says. “Social media is also a great way to learn about participants’ perceptions and capture candid, real-time responses on how they perceive the incentive travel program before, during, and after the trip.”

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