Incentive Travel Experiences Are Too Treasured to Abandon

How desperate are people to travel again after a year in lockdown?

How desperate are people to travel again after a year in lockdown?

According to a survey of 2,000 adults in the U.S. and UK earlier this year by online accommodations platform trivago, one-quarter of both Britons and Americans say they would give up all of their savings to travel now. Nearly four out of 10 Americans (38%) say they would give up sex for a year to be able to hit the road immediately. One in five say they would give up their partner to travel now, and nearly half of Americans (48%) would give up their job to be able to travel.

That may say as much about respondents’ satisfaction — or lack thereof — with their significant other and their job as it does about that eagerness to travel, but the desire to pack one’s bags and go somewhere — maybe anywhere — is evident.

While it has widely been predicted that business travel will never return to pre-COVID levels, incentive travel — the concept of bringing groups of high-performers together to celebrate successes — could be a motivation tool that’s too effective to abandon.

“I do not believe that incentive travel is something that can be replaced by a hybrid environment,” said Stephanie Harris, president of The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). “Incentive travel is inherently about connecting with other top performers in your organization. It’s about getting exposure to senior management. It’s about building collective memories and having shared experiences. That is a unique and inherently in-person experience.”

Travel On Hold

An IRF Pulse Survey last July showed that just over 42% of incentive programs planned for last year were canceled, while many large group events were postponed. When the IRF surveyed incentive professionals for the July study, they indicated the second quarter of 2021 is the soonest incentive trips will be held for most program sizes, and that may be ambitious. Suppliers have noted that RFPs for incentive travel in 2022 and beyond are increasing.

In a survey of incentive travel users and suppliers by the IRF in partnership with the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and the Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP), 70% of respondents said they expect a one- to two-year recovery period for incentive travel programs once effective vaccines are completely rolled out and global health officials report it is safe to hold large, in-person events. 53% of respondents to a survey by Meeting Professionals International (MPI) said their next in-person meeting is contingent on the distribution of a safe and effective vaccine.

Pádraic Gilligan, chief marketing officer at SITE, says, “Realistically, it will be Q2, 2022 before we see any international programs, and into 2023 before we see anything like the 2019 levels. Health security and duty of care will be key considerations as corporations recommence their meetings and incentives programs. We could easily find ourselves in a situation where there’s a lag between individuals’ willingness to attend corporate meetings and incentives and the corporations’ own hyper-caution around allowing them to do so.”

“There’s a huge appetite to meet IRL (in real life), and we’re also hearing this from our regular conversations with partners, exhibitors and buyers around the world,” adds Carina Bauer, CEO of the IMEX Group, a sponsor of global trade shows that bring meeting and event planners together with industry suppliers.

Starting Small

Some smaller regional events are already taking place, and Bauer expects those to continue to increase, with larger events re-emerging in 2022. After going virtual with its major industry trade shows in 2020 as well as the IMEX Frankfurt event planned for this spring, IMEX America is scheduled for Nov. 9-11 in Las Vegas, and Bauer says that will occur in person.

The IRF reports compression is already posing challenges for group travel in late 2021 and 2022. With so many postponements and deferrals, organizations may have a hard time finding venues through next year. In addition to venue inventory, staffing reductions may cause delays. Hotels and destination management companies are slower to respond after furloughing staff. One incentive house reported that a provider turned down an RFP for a travel program in 2021 because they were too busy delivering on virtual events in Q1 of 2021 to quote for live events in Q3.

Bauer says the rise of virtual meetings and events may prompt some businesses to further scrutinize some of their business travel, but the very human need to meet face to face still remains. “Our time spent working remotely has taught us that online doesn’t offer the same depth of experience or interaction that meeting face to face does. To be able to look someone in the eye and — dare I say it? — shake their hand is a powerful way of connecting people, building relationships and creating memories.”

Incentive travel also brings with it a sense of camaraderie that companies and participants alike are unwilling to give up, Bauer says. “The benefit of spending time together, outside of the work environment, and being part of an experience that’s specifically tailored to the group all brings massive benefits to both the individual and an organization.”

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