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A Closer Look

IMA Keeps Moving Forward

When the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, was first declared a global pandemic in March of this year by the World Health Organization (WHO), that announcement would turn out to be just the beginning of months of uncertainty and difficult decisions for a wide variety of businesses around the world.

For many organizations, the past several months have been undeniably challenging. And, with mandatory lockdowns and safety protocols that needed to be met, businesses had to either furlough employees or terminate jobs completely in order to save money and stop their businesses from going under.

In looking at how all of this has affected the incentive market, leaders from the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) shared their views on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the industry, what the association is doing to help, as well as what some of the latest IMA news and trends are.

IMA Update

On a positive note, Len Sadek, CPIM, director, gift card sales and marketing at Landry's Inc., and president of the IMA, said the "IMA membership numbers remain strong and growing even in these challenging times," noting that the annual in-person IMA Summit that was scheduled for July had to be canceled.

"Our IMA board, our Strategic Industry Groups (SIGs), and the Summit planning committee worked hard to plan and deliver content, training and networking opportunities that are being made available virtually and spread out over the second half of the year," he said. "We felt it was important to deliver the content throughout the remainder of the year, rather than all at once, so we could stay connected and provide fresh, relevant content as needed. We started with our virtual IMA Annual Meeting where our board and committees updated our membership on IMA initiatives, strategic plans and finances."

The new board of directors and planning committees for 2020-21 were introduced, and have already shared several successful training programs and panel discussions on timely topics.

"We have had a very positive response to one of our new programs where companies can present their capabilities, with a focus on innovations they want to tell our members about. We already have several companies lined up for this new opportunity to present to our membership," Sadek said.

Commenting about the annual summit moving to a virtual event, Fintan Connolly, chief revenue officer, Motisha, and vice president of the IMA, said that it has been "a great success with many industry luminaries sharing valuable insights and ways in which we can grow our business and industry in the coming months.

"We also moved our IMA Summit Awards to a virtual program held in September. As a leader in advocating for and promoting the use of incentives and recognition to improve business performance, it is important for the IMA to recognize excellence," he added. "We continue our outreach to our members and beyond and are looking forward to a record-breaking 2021 and a superb IMA Summit in Florida next summer."

Bill Martocci, CPIM, president, Carlisle Sales & Marketing, and executive vice president of the IMA, pointed out that "The work of the IMA continues even in these unusual times. With the inability to hold our traditional IMA Summit, we have been hard at work providing education for members that is relevant and informative.

"All the various Strategic Industry Groups that make up the IMA have also participated and created education sessions designed to keep members engaged. With all that is going on around a person, it is easy to feel alone and unsure."

He added that "The myriad of panel discussions with industry leaders and peers have shown to be helpful in keeping our members apprised of changes over the wide range of issues involving everything from supply chain issues to steps the travel industry is taking to ease the public's concern in a return to getting out there for business and pleasure.

"Mixed in with the education, this virtual summit has much of the content we had planned, such as our annual member meeting, IMA Summit Awards, to lighter content like industry game shows and virtual happy hours to try to help that networking component with some fun interplay," Martocci said. "All with the intent to have some of the staple content members know and expect, because we are still pressing on to help the membership as we can."

Nancy Alderman, CTC, IP, CPIM, client consultant—TSYS Loyalty Travel, IMA board member and president of the Incentive Travel Council, a Strategic Industry Group of the IMA, added that she was "skeptical at first that we could revision such a wonderful in-person event to one that was virtual and still bring the value," referring to the IMA Virtual Summit. "I was pleasantly surprised and grateful to be a part of the planning committee."

Impact of COVID-19

In terms of how the pandemic has affected the incentive market, overall the industry has seen "a slowdown and has had to make the adjustments to remain relevant and as strong as possible in the current environment," Sadek said.

"We have seen some of our members' jobs being impacted. In many cases this may be temporary. The IMA is allowing them to continue as full members during this time, offering them networking opportunities and maintaining contact with them individually, even if not currently affiliated with their previous employer.

"We are also continuing our focus on outside alliances where there are synergies and opportunities for our membership. We are continually evaluating the programming and support we are offering to make sure it reflects the changing environment our member companies and individuals find themselves in. We will also be prepared to expand services when business comes back as we are confident it will," he said.

With many IMA members having been furloughed or losing their positions over the last several months, the IMA has been reaching out to its members to ensure it does everything it can to help.

"We are keeping a directory of all members affected in the hope that we can provide those details to prospective industry employers when they are ready to hire and ramp up again in the near future," Connolly said. "We have also been providing initiatives such as the re-visioned IMA Summit in order to maintain connection for our members in the industry. We remain committed to providing value to our members through all times, difficult and good."

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the travel industry extremely hard, "and everyone has had to pivot from how we service our clients and customers to new opportunities of what is needed to meet current demands and trends." Some of those trends include "quickly expanding rewards offerings, adjusting to the ever-changing airline rules and regulations, to the daily changing travel restrictions," Alderman said.

"The IMA has been invaluable at keeping communications open amongst members, providing a wealth of industry experts and most importantly providing a much-needed support network during a time of great need for all of those working in incentives, not just travel," she added.

Martocci noted that COVID-19 has had an impact on the industry in various ways, "from a body count via layoffs, to travel restrictions, to supply chain issues. These are issues where the IMA has little influence other than to inform and provide a place where folks can turn to seek incentive resources.

"The IMA is aware that folks who are furloughed may want to continue utilizing the industry network for contacts and information," he said. "To help ease the economic hardship the IMA is offering a free 'Members in Transition' membership. This allows members who have lost their position in a member company due to layoff or furlough to receive a membership through the end of 2020."

The Latest Trends

In looking at the latest industry trends, Sadek said that on the merchandising side, there definitely is a trend toward "products that reflect the current work-and-stay-close-to-home environment," with some examples including home and garden items, health and wellness equipment, home office and family recreation.

"More incentive and recognition awards are being delivered directly to the employee versus handed out at the office," he said.

Connolly said that "Anecdotally, I think the industry initially witnessed some slowdown on new program launches in the spring of this year.

"Thankfully, those programs seem to have been re-engaged with later start dates. I think some organizations have ramped up the budgets for their employee engagement programs as they try to tackle remote workers and the changing environment," he said. "However, we have also heard of other organizations holding their budgets stable or even reducing them as they navigate the new normal. Our feeling is this will be re-instated as the dust settles and we become more comfortable with new ways of working."

Another trend has been "blending travel, merchandise and gift cards, especially as a proxy for group travel programs," said Jim Atten, vice president of business development, Wolff, LLC, and treasurer of the IMA. "Recipients of group travel rewards are being offered individual travel packages (for future use), bundled with a tangible merchandise reward and a gift card.

"With the increase in state-mandated 'stay-at-home' orders, and the workforce's move to remote offices, we are seeing higher demand for 'stay-at-home' centered rewards—things that help manage life at home and pass the time," he said. "In merchandise, it is things like toys, puzzles, games and office equipment. In gift cards, it is streaming services, online gaming, at-home food prep, food delivery."

Atten said that "While there have been disruptions in incentive travel, we have seen little disruption in the supply chains for incentive merchandise and gift cards." And, "Spot recognition programs are growing in importance and popularity to ensure remote employees stay engaged and motivated."

On the topic of travel, Alderman said that "Since the coronavirus pandemic there has been a shift in group travel to individual travel and from exotic destinations to travel close to home.

"How people travel has also changed, with less opting for flights and more traveling via car or even RV," she said. "Choices in locations and accommodations have also shifted with consumer[s] staying out of the cities and navigating more toward open land, mountains and beaches. Vacation home rentals have increased in demand, as well as more boutique-style hotels and resorts with plenty of open space for social distancing."

In response to the latest trends, Martocci said that "The 800-pound gorilla in the room is: What changes can we expect as corporations move to managing their workforce and building a healthy and productive culture remotely? The role incentives can play will prove crucial to creating that new broader environment successfully.

"Historically," he said, "incentives are valuable during both vibrant and struggling economies for both employees and customers. The emphasis and nature of the incentive can change, but the ability to persuade and coax change remains," he said. "As companies find that production is as good or even better from their remote workers, they will not necessarily be rushing to assemble in an office environment until a vaccine or other major suppressant of COVID-19 spread is readily available and accepted.

"But the culture typically created by everyone gathering can affect teamwork and other workplace components. That creates a major opportunity for an incentive program to provide inclusion toward a goal," he added. "The need to engage employees will be important to maintain that productivity and sense of belonging to the group as this way of working switches from a happenstance to a new norm."

Future Outlook

As far as the outlook for the industry, "Employee incentive and recognition will always be important, whether they work from office or home," Sadek said.

"We are already seeing some businesses improve, and that will continue. We know there is pent-up demand for leisure and business travel, dining and entertainment, gifts, and aspirational merchandise," he said. "Once things normalize, we will see demand come back. The mix and delivery may be slightly different, but our members will make the adjustments to succeed."

Connolly believes the industry is at the beginning of a "bounce back."

"We see a number of those paused programs mentioned earlier with confirmed launch dates for Q4 of this year and Q1 of next year," he said. "On the sales and marketing side of the house, I believe it will be even more important to engage our channel and our customers. On the HR side of things, I believe there is great opportunity. As the workforce changes forever, we are now part of a sea-change moment. Our industry has an opportunity to be part of that change and help engage and recognize our employees and teams in this new world."

Alderman feels that "with the New Year, we will be beginning to come back stronger than ever.

"As life in general begins its 'new normal,' we need to recognize employees, consumers, professionals and all that have stood together during a most unusual time in our lives. We'll be wanting to say thank you! Rewards and recognition will be the spotlight of many companies as they take on new diversity initiatives, thank their customers for their loyalty through a difficult year and, most of all, thank their team members. We have all had to adapt to something outside our comfort zone," she said.

Martocci said that "With all this change comes opportunity.

"So, for me, that has me optimistic especially as a manufacturer's rep of merchandise," he said. "The supply chain gets better every day, and the 'out of stocks' of today will have those products shortly. I am not going to say my path is exactly the same as someone more heavily reliant on the travel sector, for example, which may need a longer recovery time. But I know of and hear from people who want to go places now and will do so again as soon as they are comfortable.

"Our industry was performing at record levels across sectors before this pandemic and shutdown. That is because incentives get the results corporations desire," Martocci said.

"Companies will use incentives again to help pull them out of their own unique situations COVID-19 created," he added, "as well as help them regain and exceed levels of sales or production they desire as they seek to thrive."



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