Uncertainty in travel has its place

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip take us,” wrote John Steinbeck. I thought of this sentiment while putting together this issue’s cover story on incentive travel.

It’s encouraging that this timeless mode of rewarding top performers has rebounded slightly after being felled by the double whammy of an economic collapse in 2007-2008 and an all-out hammering in the media.

The validation for corporate incentive travel, of course, is that a well-structured program all but pays for itself in the form of incremental business that the top-performing participants bring in in order to qualify for the trip. The key term in that sentence, however, is “well-structured.”

I spoke with both incentive travel users and suppliers for this cover feature. One message that was unmistakable: Good incentive travel programs are hard to pull off and great ones are even tougher. Smart companies lean on professional planners who know how to put these programs together.

It may be tempting to plan an incentive travel program in-house, especially if you’ve already got someone tackling business travel. But these are beasts of a different sort. When you’re feting 100 top performers and their significant others, jumping on Orbitz for flights and rooms is a recipe for disaster.

One incentive travel user recounted a disastrous trip her company sponsored out of the country that led to the firing of
the in-house planner who put most of it together because so many things went wrong. I was sympathetic to the planner. The company began using a professional incentive travel planner from there on — admitting its mistake — but that wasn’t enough to save this poor woman’s job.

I interpret Steinbeck’s comment, which is found in “Travels With Charley,” to mean that travelers should embrace the uncertainty that is inherent in being away from home. I buy into that concept. Indeed, research indicates that incentive travel participants prefer events with fewer company functions and more free time to spend how they please.

But don’t mistake this sentiment for the absolute truth that a great deal of control is required up front and on-site by the program sponsor — working through professional incentive travel planners — to ensure that their participants go home with the sort of positive memories that will drive their performance to earn next year’s trip.


Paul Nolan, Editor