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July 2020

IRF Studies Examine the Impact of COVID-19 on Incentives

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The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has recently conducted surveys measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the incentive industry. The surveys cover the ways employee and channel reward recognition programs have changed in response to the pandemic, as well as the effect on incentive travel.

"Reward and recognition programs play a vital role in helping to maintain employees' focus and energy during difficult times," said Stephanie Harris, IRF president. "This survey demonstrates that many incentive programs are performing well due to thoughtful shifts in programs that ensure relevance to participants today and help drive faster recovery for their organization."

In the pulse survey covering employee and channel reward programs, a high level of stability for incentive programs was reported, with more than 65% of respondents indicating their programs are viewed as strategically relevant by senior management. In fact, 12.5% indicated their program is viewed as more strategically relevant now than prior to the pandemic.

Other key findings in "COVID-19's Impact on Reward & Recognition" include:

  • More than half of respondents indicated that programs remained intact (53%), and budgets for these programs have largely been protected, with 56% reporting no budget change.
  • Program owners have indicated they continue to adapt their programs to ensure relevancy, shifting the focus to whatever is critical within the organization: growth-oriented objectives, safety-oriented objectives, health and well-being objectives, and revenue retention.
  • With travel down, there's been an increase in the use of gift cards, with 6% indicating they have added cards to their programs, and nearly 20% noting increased use.

In addition, the survey found that while just over half (54%) of respondents said they were not concerned about the optics of operating an incentives program in a declining economy, 31% of respondents who canceled or put their program on hold cited "perception concerns from leadership relative to economic conditions."

Key findings from "COVID-19 and Disruption in the Incentive Travel, Meetings and Events Industry" include:

  • According to an April 2020 IRF survey, the top concerns about participating in work or reward-related travel were the threat of an epidemic/pandemic (33%), closely followed by severe weather (29%).
  • People are beginning to anticipate and crave travel, with a focus on new experiences at safe destinations within driving distance or that involve shorter flights.
  • International travel, especially in large groups, might not return to previous norms until a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 is developed and made widely available.
  • Program owners who postponed incentive travel programs expressed a strong need to continue recognizing and rewarding outstanding employees.
  • Using 9/11 and the Great Recession as reference points, and assuming a vaccine is available next year, the industry might plan for a return to pre-COVID-19 revenues by late 2022 or early 2023.

"As we plan for recovery and a return to in-person meetings and travel, safety concerns prevail," Harris said. "This study provides actionable advice from industry leaders on how to rebuild incentive programs through strategic collaborations with clients, participants, hotels and resorts, DMCs and partners."

Despite challenges, postponements and program changes, study participants emphasized the importance of incentives. "We know that travel incentives are among the most cherished rewards. This will only be heightened. The pandemic has reminded people of their vulnerability, it will give them a sense of living; that life is precious, and they must get out from behind the desk to appreciate it," said an incentive reward program designer during an interview for the travel-related study.

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