Windows around the world

High-tech workers love their incentive stock options, but Microsoft’s Michele Samoulides says that incentive travel programs are some of the software giant’s most effective motivators. She runs the company’s annual Gold Club program, which recognizes more than 2,000 sales professionals, human resources professionals, administrative assistants and other employees worldwide through three regional incentive programs.

SMM: You had extensive experience in incentive travel before you started working at Microsoft. What was Microsoft’s approach to incentive travel when you arrived?

Samoulides: When I came to the company in 2005, there were a few groups that understood that incentive travel could be motivating, but they had no formal incentive travel program. They mostly rewarded people with stock options. Some departments were randomly doing their own programs, but budgets weren’t equitable across the company. In 2008, we created Platinum Club and Gold Club. Those are the only two incentive travel programs we have at the company that are for sales, marketing and service employees. Each one is a four-night, all-expenses-paid trip and the winners can bring a guest.

SMM: What convinced the company to sponsor these programs?

Samoulides: Our competitors in the IT world – Oracle, SAP and Salesforce  -- were doing a lot of incentive travel, specifically for their sales employees. Microsoft is a very inclusive company, so we let some of our support roles participate as well. Those aren’t based on quotas, so you can’t stock rank everybody. But it’s a nice thing to have some support roles included.

SMM: What do you find effective about incentive travel?

Samoulides: We’ve looked closely at the overall impact that these reward trips have and it goes beyond increasing sales to having a huge retention component to it. It’s a way we can keep our top performers, engage with them and let them know that management sees their value. Stock options are all behind the scenes. Their peers don’t see it.

SMM: How do you choose destinations and what have they been?

Samoulides: Because my programs are fairly large, we really have to do a lot of research to determine what hotel properties are the right size, in the right areas, with the right infrastructure. For the Americas program Hawaii is always a hit. We’ve also done Cabo San Lucas and the Bahamas. For our Asia group, we’ve done Bangkok and Bali, and for our Europe/Middle East/Africa group we had a hugely successful program outside of Johannesburg in Sun City. We’ve also done the Canary Islands, been to Barcelona and next year we’ll be going to Cape Town, South Africa.

SMM: Your largest group is over 1,000 employees and your smallest is still 500 people. I’m sure large groups give you bargaining power with suppliers. Are there other advantages for large groups versus smaller groups?

Samoulides: The larger groups definitely do give you buying power, but that can be offset by the fact that you can’t use some exciting, motivating destinations because you don’t fit with their infrastructure. People would love to go to Costa Rica or Tahiti, but we simply can’t fit 1,100 people into the infrastructure that is available.

SMM: Is it important to keep that group structure as opposed to individual incentive travel?

Samoulides: I personally think it is. It’s a chance for our top performers to interact with senior leadership that they don’t get to mingle with on a day-to-day basis. It also gets them to mingle with other top performers and co-workers who they don’t get to interact with regularly.

SMM: Do you incorporate much in the way of merchandise into the event?

Samoulides: We used to do a lot of little things like water bottles and T-shirts, but we found that Microsoft employees get a lot of those things during the year from conferences they attend. We’ve been giving one nice gift. Sunglasses have been hugely popular where they can select from a dozen different styles. In Italy one year we did leather gloves. And we always do a photo frame with a couple’s photo or group photo. That’s also hugely popular. We bring a photography team with us every time and they photograph everything for the entire trip and then we post a photo site online where participants can select the photos they want. On the site we also do a mobile app, which is fitting given our company’s focus on mobile devices.

SMM: What sort of follow-up do you do once you’re back home?

Samoulides: Of course, we ask if they liked the hotel and their meals and things like that, but we also dig deeper and ask them if attending this program motivated them to want to exceed their goals again next year. Does it make them feel more loyal to Microsoft? Is the motivation and reward factor working? Those scores tend to be crazy high, so it seems to be working.

SMM: Can you talk about your use of third-party vendors?

Samoulides: There are just two of us who run incentives so I really rely on my vendors and partners. IMEX (the Incentive Travel, Meetings and Events Exhibition) is invaluable and our vendor partner AIMIA does the research for me. Very rarely will we go to inspect a destination without doing a lot of homework beforehand. Most of the time if we go, we’re going to book it.

SMM: There is increased concern about employee travel in an era of widespread geopolitical uncertainty. Does that impact your programs?

Samoulides: We would love to do Istanbul. I still have it on the radar, but we probably wouldn’t bring anybody from the U.S. there right now. We have a trip to Dubai this year and have some people from Israel who don’t want to go.

Michele Samoulides, Senior Manager of Worldwide Reward and Recognition Programs at Microsoft