Feature Article - January/February 2010

Give Them the Works

Motivate With Travel & Merchandise Incentives

By Rick Dandes

Reduced budgets, delayed or cancelled programs and a general atmosphere of malaise brought on by the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s have made this past year a challenging time for incentive planners, especially those looking to motivate with travel. Now, however, with some economic indicators pointing toward the end of the recession, incentive and recognition programs are starting to make a comeback, as planners look to the rest of 2010 and a much brighter 2011.

How employees perform has always been critical to an organization's overall bottom line, but these days, as the economy recovers, performance might be more important than ever before. And, since employee performance in part depends on psychological factors such as the sense of belonging and the need for being noticed, organizations have come to realize that various staff reward and recognition programs are vital for company success in this ever-more-competitive business environment.

Studies show that one of the most effective strategies in maintaining workforce productivity and getting your business to the next level is undoubtedly incentive travel. But incentive travel alone doesn't do the trick.

Merchandise is often used to great effect to support incentive travel. Such items might include room gifts, goody bags and so on during a trip. Or in a contest where travel is the grand prize or top reward, merchandise or gift cards may be awarded to runners-up or to complement a program.

The reason why travel has proved an effective tool of motivation is that travel is a special type of reward or motivator. It not only makes participants feel appreciated, but is also a way to satisfy a variety of other needs, such as the need for novelty, the need for physical activity, the need for knowledge, the need to rest from work.

"For most of us, traveling creates lifelong memories and unique experiences that we treasure," said Michelle Smith, vice president of business development for O.C. Tanner, and president of the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement at Northwestern University. "Those qualities are the hallmark of an effective incentive or recognition award. Whether we achieve an individual travel award that allows us to pick the date and location of our travel, or we're rewarded with a group trip that offers the opportunity to celebrate and share those memories with colleagues, travel awards are coveted and in high demand."

What happed to travel awards last year was extremely unfortunate and shouldn't be interpreted as an indictment against their popularity, Smith said, referring to budget cuts. "Travel has always been a very desirable award choice and I'm sure it will continue to be popular long into the future."

"Clearly," agreed Chris Gaia, vice president of marketing for Maritz Travel, "an organization's top performers are motivated by the recognition and experiences. Money can't buy the same qualities of effective incentive travel programs."

Many times, Gaia said, these programs include face time with senior company leadership. These leaders, in theory, then benefit from the market insight and customer-focused view of their organization that their sales leaders or other partners and employees can provide. But at a time when the travel business has been battered by recession (the U.S. Travel Association estimates a loss of 247,000 travel-related jobs in 2009), what exactly is the current state of the incentive travel business? And where do we go from here? Expert opinions vary among top consultants on incentives of all kinds.