Group travel is down, but not out

Author: 
Paul Nolan

According to an April survey by the Incentive Research Foundation, the top concern about participating in work or reward-related travel was the threat of an epidemic/pandemic at 33%, followed closely by severe weather at 29%. This begs the question, what’s up with the weather scaredy-cats?

The classic President’s Club event, in which top-performing salespeople gather with corporate executives in luxurious destinations (oh yeah, and bring a significant other!), is in an indefinite holding pattern. These trips are as old as sales itself, and they are a key component of companies’ effort to drive performance and instill loyalty.

“Organizers of meetings and conferences can at least work around social distancing — respect [social distancing] rules, reduce capacities, eliminate buffets, etc. — but organizers of incentives are left with the sinking feeling that social distancing could suck all the energy and joy out of the incentive reward. Would it really be a motivational experience if I couldn’t stand at the bar and celebrate freely with my fellow qualifiers?” asks Padraic Gilligan, co-founder of SoolNua, an Ireland-based consultant for corporate events and incentive travel suppliers.

Incentives interrupted

Many companies had launched their incentive travel campaign for 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Sales are still happening, but a group celebration isn’t likely.

“2020 is done, and a there’s a lot of hesitancy about the first half of 2021,” says Philip Eidsvold, vice president of strategic alliances for One10, a provider of sales incentive programs and other performance improvement programs. Eidsvold says the company’s incentive travel clients have either pushed planned group travel events to the second half of 2021 or pivoted to an online platform where salespeople earn points that can be redeemed for rewards of their choosing. Some companies have opted for cash bonuses, which Eidsvold (like many proponents of non-cash incentives) argues provides the littlest bang for the buck for sponsoring companies.

Inventive alternatives

Like many other business processes, celebrating success is transitioning to the virtual world, says Eidsvold. One10 is in the latter stages of negotiations with some clients to duplicate the group travel celebration virtually through an online day of celebration. The virtual event would include shipping multiple boxes with recognition items to participants’ homes with directions not to open them until instructed to do so. The plan is to feature a motivational speaker and a musical performance by notable musicians streamed live. It may not match the experience that a couple hundred top performers can have when they gather together in Hawaii, but these are times for compromise.

Many incentive travel veterans say the pandemic presents an ideal opportunity to use individual incentive travel rewards, which allow recipients to pick a destination and travel at a time of their choosing. Marc Matthews, president and CEO of Pulse Experiential Travel, has been organizing group incentive travel events since 1979.

When the recession of 2008 hit, Matthews pivoted to providing “bucket list” experiences for individual reward recipients. His Just Rewards gift card allows companies to provide top-performers with 15 to 30 travel options in multiple price ranges. His packages can indulge foodies, wine enthusiasts or provide entry to a high-profile event such as the Kentucky Derby or Emmy Awards. Recipients have three years from the time of earning their award to travel, so there is time for travel to become enticing again.

“My individual travel programs were never meant to replace group travel,” Matthews says. “Even though I compete with it, I can’t diminish the importance of it. In group travel, you get the team-building aspect that is so important, and the relationship building. My product has always been meant to augment those programs.”

Gilligan also is confident that although group incentive travel is on hold, it will return. “Covid-19 has no chance of killing incentive travel. It’s integral to the core business model of so many organizations. When you give me an incentive travel reward, you give me an extraordinary travel experience (often) to share with a loved one…You also connect me with the company. You make me an ambassador for the company. You strengthen company culture.”  

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