In search of authentic travel experiences

Paul Nolan

Didier Scaillet, chief executive officer of the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) has worked for more than 25 years in the travel industry — 18 of those in executive positions with Meeting Professionals International (MPI). We caught up with him on holiday recently between hikes in the French Alps to discuss trends in the incentive travel industry. Chief among them is desire from participants to go beyond luxury and have a true lifetime experience.

SMM: SITE released a list of trends earlier this year that states “Incentive travel is moving beyond just experiences to life-changing experiences that change a participant’s outlook on life.” That’s setting a high bar. Can companies achieve that?

Scaillet: Incentive travel has always been about delivering unique travel experiences so people have something memorable to look to when they are working hard to qualify for that experience. It’s more than simply luxury hotels in lavish destinations and huge spend. People are looking for something far more authentic. Yes, people are seeing the beauty that a destination has to offer, but they want to go beyond that. What is the place? What are the customs? What is the food? How do people live? They are far more genuinely interested in the places they go to.

SMM: What does that look like?

Scaillet: Staying culturally connected. We’re hearing it even from our own constituency. We are having our global conference in January in Bangkok, and we have had a number of requests from people who want to do deep dives. People want to go see a food market in an area along the river that used to be warehouses and has been redeveloped.

SMM: One trend you cite is the importance of personalization and the use of technology to tailor experiences to individuals. Can you explain that further?

Scaillet: There is more and more information being collected on people’s preferences. This allows for looking at participants’ preference before going somewhere. It might be the food choices or the preferences in terms of experiences once you arrive. It’s really about gathering data of the participants and designing a program knowing what would be the optimal incentive travel experience for individuals. HR departments are doing this more and more.

SMM: One area of personalization you suggest is creating pop-up boutiques for people to select their own gifts. Why is that important?

Scaillet: Gifting is an integral part of incentive travel. It is about having something that people can keep to remember the experience. These are programs that companies run year after year. When people bring something home, it helps them remember that trip and that they want to go on the next one.

SMM: Traditionally, incentive travel programs have been targeted to sales performance. Your list of trends states that demand is increasing for programs for a larger audience based upon alternative metrics. Is that sustainable given that it’s a fuzzier ROI?

Scaillet: If you go back 40 years and look at the market valuation of a company on the S&P 500, over 70 percent of it was linked to physical assets. It was warehouses, production plants, etc. If you look at valuation of S&P 500 companies today, about 14 percent is linked to the physical assets. The rest is linked to intangible assets — things like having a great reputation, the ability to innovate and retain the top talent. There is an awareness on the part of companies that cash is important, but from a corporate culture standpoint there is far more to be done. Incentives in the broader sense of non-cash rewards are being used to drive training, adopt new practices, increase product knowledge, establish brand loyalty and more.  

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