The Allure of Incentive Travel

Paul Nolan

Since 1952, Growmark, an agricultural supply and grain cooperative that conducts business in 40 states and in Ontario, Canada, has driven performance of its member cooperatives with an annual sales program that culminates in a trip for the top performers. In 1992, the company added the MARC of Excellence, a second incentive travel program targeted to a more exclusive group of sales reps.

The rules have been tweaked over the years, but the basic tenets remain the same: Meet your sales quota, gain certification in specific fields of expertise, and you will join your fellow high performers and key executives on an extravagant travel experience in a warm weather destination. Oh yeah, spouses are included.

Growmark is not an outlier. Companies of all sizes and across all industries have used incentive travel programs equally as long to recruit top talent, spark performance and hold on to their best workers. The reason is simple: In a 2014 survey of B2B sales and marketing executives by Sales & Marketing Management in cooperation with the SITE Foundation, more than 95 percent of respondents who use incentive travel said their programs were “very effective” or “effective” in achieving their objectives. As a result, 46 percent have used incentive travel for 10 years or more.

Unparalleled experiences

Dana Weaver, senior manager of marketing services for Growmark, says the organization’s two incentive travel programs provide experiences that simply cannot be matched through any other company efforts. He recalls Growmark’s CEO visiting with a group of sales reps during a whale watch excursion in Hawaii during the company’s most recent trip last January.

“Here we were in Hawaii on a boat having an interaction between salespeople and the CEO that would never happen in the States,” Weaver says. “They were there to have fun and to be recognized, and yet there was some level of business being done even while they’re in a fun atmosphere.”

Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based recruiting and staffing firm, shares Weaver’s affinity for the incentive travel experience. So much so, in fact, that he offers to bring all 100 or so employees on an annual trip if company­wide goals are met. The company went to South Beach last January and Napa Valley in Northern California the year before.

“I get CEOs asking me all of the time, ‘Aren’t there cheaper things you can do as an incentive?’ There are, but at the end of the day, we build [the cost] into the company goals and we allocate the dollars back to our people,” Gimbel says. “It doesn’t mean we’re not making money, but we take the long-term view on this. We create a culture of teamwork and the end result is very positive.”

All Aboard

LaSalle Network’s salespeople can qualify for the trip independently even if the whole company does not hit the companywide goal, but Gimbel has been happy to bring all of his employees on the past two trips.

By including all employees, LaSalle Network is an outlier. More than eight in 10 incentive travel users (82 percent) who responded to the Sales & Marketing Management survey stated their program is targeted to salespeople. Service workers were a distant second with 34 percent of programs targeted to them. (The total exceeds 100 percent because some companies target more than one group of employees.)

“If you’re really going to have a company culture that focuses on everybody pulling their weight and everybody believing in the common goals, then you want to get sales and delivery people focused on new client acquisition, on delivery and fulfillments,” Gimbel explains. “If you can get everybody fishing for new business opportunities in addition to salespeople, you can create some pretty interesting things.”

Gimbel says with two all-company trips behind them, the all-for-one attitude he’s shooting for is evident. His salespeople have taken the lead and others followed. “In order for the whole company to hit this, the salespeople have to become internal leaders. They communicate a clear message internally that everybody can play a role in closing business. When you get that, everybody is stepping up and there is a lot of empathy going around. I’m a big believer in empathetic leadership in management.”  

International incentive travel has rebounded in recent years, but the U.S. and Caribbean remain the most popular destinations. Third-party planners estimate a higher spend per participant than corporate respondents.

Source: Incentive Research Foundation, “Trends for 2015-2016 Planning” (