By Kathy Stoodley
If the next three years are any indication, the demand for incentive travel shows no signs of weakening, particularly since incentive programs continue to play a critical role in amplifying sales and marketing initiatives in many Canadian organizations.
In many sectors, Egencia Meetings & Incentives have witnessed a continued increase in incentive budgets over the past several years. As meeting owners and key stakeholders continue to look for ways to dangle the proverbial carrot, they are looking beyond simple rewards programs to offer a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to participate in something special, something that is worthy of earning.
More often than not, the event starts upon arrival at the destination, with organizations choosing to book economy or lower priced airfares in an effort to maximize their budgets to provide a better experience and/or location.
As any seasoned meeting owners will tell you, the days of “one size fits all” are long gone. Structure and framework are important for any program, but the diversity in attendee demographics continues to push organizations to look for new ways for participants to customize their own involvement.
Additional trends to consider and manage include:
- Continuing education on the road. We’ve seen a significant uptick in the addition of educational options with attendees wanting to pick and choose elements of interest that also provide the ability to earn industry specific credits.
- Emergence of ‘bleisure’. Program Itineraries that allow enough free time to provide for attendees to encounter the culture and destination, even if it’s at their own expense.
- Menu customization. Paleo, hunter-gatherer, celiac and gluten free just to name a few, are all examples of new complexities around meal planning. Increased choice not only adds to the importance of tracking by participant, but increase cost, time, and in some cases resources to manage onsite program operations. In general, healthier food demands and prices to accommodate them are on the rise.
- Value outpacing luxury. Luxury hotel brands are also vying for a piece of the incentive market action by offering “all inclusive” options in an effort to compete with destinations like Cancun, for example, where the air lift and a five star property experience may offer more value and consistency in product than properties in the Caribbean.
- Longer lead times. Lead times for sourcing hotels and evaluating destination options are on the rise. The demand from returning incentive programs and high-end leisure travellers has put a strain on hotel inventories, increasing lead times for meeting owners evaluating a destination from two years to as long as three.
- Responsible gifting. Multiple gifts used to be an integral part of most incentive programs. Currently the trend has shifted toward two main themes:
- Giving back in both time and money to non-profits and/or charities
- A higher quality gift
But what about technology and the impact it continues to have on incentive travel?
For incentive travel it’s not just technology, but the importance of planning communications to attendees through multiple channels that is in increased demand. The expectation has never been higher in finding new and clever ways to engage with diverse demographics of attendee types, from the time of inception right through to program marketing teasers, operations and post-program follow-up. Ensuring all parties receive immediate and relevant information is critical. Add to that the need to communicate in multiple languages and the requirement for a communication plan enabled by technology, and use of social media for your program emerges as a project unto itself.
While interest and use of mobile apps has become almost an expectation within the meetings and incentive landscape, it is important to ensure the cost versus benefit of using a compatible tool with your meeting’s technology and specific timelines are factored into critical milestone dates within your project plan.
Another example of a standard expectation is Wi-Fi. Attendees want to capture and share their experiences real time with each other as well as their friends and family. Hotels are under pressure to increase Internet bandwidth because of the increasing use of mobile devices at events. The high demand to enable social media activity and staying connected is only going to continue to rise.
Tips to consider as you plan your next incentive travel program include:
- Learn from the past. Use past post-event surveys, budgets and project plans to determine the effectiveness of the budget spent. Validate how return on investment results and attendee satisfaction stacked up against what was projected. Pinpoint gaps and make them a focus for your next program if they still apply.
- Know the bar has been raised. You’re only as good as your last program right? Not really. While past programs may have yielded all the benefits intended, know that expectations will be even higher for the next event.
- Do your homework. Research Value Added Tax (VAT) rebate opportunities or other destination incentives to maximize your budget spend.
- No room at the inn. Don’t find yourself in a challenging position to have to accept what’s left over in inventory because you didn’t plan far enough in advance. It’s a hotelier’s market right now and the supply-versus-demand realities may impact your ability to negotiate savings. Plan for at least a two-to-three-year lead time if your incentive group exceeds 500 attendees.
- Knowledge is power. Conduct an in-depth qualification of criteria before deciding on a destination, including asking your event management company for an airfare and lift analysis.
- Create a buffer. Try to provide enough of a lead time from the date of known participants to the date of your program. You don’t want to get caught having more participants than space, or be impacted by higher than expected airfares because inventory is limited too close to departure.
- It’s a three-way street. As an event management company, Egencia Meetings & Incentives works with our clients’ key stakeholders and third party suppliers to collaborate through a disciplined project plan approach and software. This ensures that all parties understand their respective responsibilities, deadlines for information, key milestones, and ensures linkages across all parties as programs needs continue to evolve.
- Don’t fall into the abyss. Finding out you’re over budget at the end of the program is too late in the process. Have disciplined rigor around maintaining and updating your budget throughout the life cycle of your program.
- Risk management. Elements such as unforeseen political unrest, weather related impacts or attendee emergencies can and unfortunately do happen. Always work with your event management company to plan for the unexpected.
The meetings and incentives industry continues to provide new opportunities for creativity, stretching the boundaries, producing value for organizations and delighting the employee. With the many moving parts involved in incentive travel, staying current has never been more important.
About the author
Kathy Stoodley is Director, Meetings & Incentives, Egencia® Americas. For more information about Egencia® Meetings & Incentives, please email MeetingSalesNoram@egencia.com.