During this period of unprecedented challenges, we’ve all had to make changes in order to adapt to the new business environment. We’ve had to accommodate remote and hybrid work schedules, account for wage inflation, and develop new strategies to combat the labor shortages, company culture needs, and employee retention issues.
For those of us who operate in the travel industry, the last two years have required tremendous patience and flexibility. Delays and cancelations have become the norm, rather than the outliers. Organizations everywhere have had to constantly reassess risks as the rules and advice given by authorities are adjusted seemingly from week to week, country to country, and state to state. And all of this is to say nothing of the challenges in accommodating individual preferences and concerns about issues as serious and important as their health and safety.
Nowhere has this need for adaptation been felt more acutely than in group incentive travel. Talk to anyone in the industry and they will tell you it’s been one of the most uniquely difficult periods in memory. It would be easy, therefore, to look into the future and assume that travel as a motivational tool is, if not off the table, then forever altered. But to understand the state of travel—and group incentive travel in particular—it’s helpful to look at the state of the industry from both a bird’s eye view, and from those on the ground experiencing it firsthand.
Despite the challenges of the past two years, incentives are actually on the rise. According to a recent Trends Report from the IRF, overall incentive budgets are expected to increase by 34% year-over-year, with the average per-person spend rising from $764 to $806. This speaks to the optimism for a broad economic rebound as the country hopefully climbs out of the depths of the pandemic.
It also suggests that organizations are aware of the rising expectations of the American worker. Employee satisfaction today is based on more than a nominal pay raise (though that’s still important). What’s changed is that things like company culture and a more flexible work environment are now top-of-mind for a majority of employed Americans.
As people begin to redefine what’s important to them, companies are having to reimagine how they motivate and reward. This has led to incentive programs expanding their reach to include a wider range of participants while offering a broader spectrum of rewards. In particular, the IRF suggests a focus on the middle 60%, as well as part-time employees and channel partners, while finding more creative ways of motivating these different stakeholders. This includes identifying target behaviors that go beyond the traditional idea of, “sell this, get that.”
Travel is also still a huge part of the incentive space, according to the IRF, and “will continue to remain a top motivator.” In fact, in a June 2021 study, the IRF found that 80% of respondents considered incentive travel to be “very” or “extremely” motivating, with one professional suggesting that incentive travel is irreplaceable as a reward.
With all of that said, there’s no denying that expectations have changed since the start of the pandemic. Participants understandably prefer their trips to feature more space, fewer crowds, shorter flights, and more remote destinations. And because individual comfort levels in the current environment can vary widely, the IRF suggests “overcommunicating” with participants and “breaking down information into easily digestible bites” so that each individual can ultimately plan and make decisions for themselves.
On The Ground
These sentiments echo what we’ve been hearing from our clients and group incentive travel participants over the past year. In spite of the uncertainties posed by the pandemic, our post-trip surveys have revealed a strong appreciation for the continued opportunity to escape, explore, relax, and reconnect. In other words, for our participants and key stakeholders, travel is as impactful a reward as it’s ever been:
“It is wonderful that [the client] provided this trip for valued customers.”
“It was a new experience for me so I really enjoyed everything!”
“It was an honor to go and represent my company, and I hope it was the first of many of these for me and my wife.”
“I feel like I’m part of the [client company’s] family.”
Another key sentiment has been that real-life face time and networking opportunities with coworkers, partners, and company executives continues to be a tremendous value add:
“Great experience for my wife and I to get to know our customers in a relaxed and welcoming environment.”
“The thing I enjoyed most was putting faces to the names and sharing some relaxing time.”
“Always enjoy spending time with other dealers. We stay so busy and this trip allows us the opportunity to catch up, visit outside of work and spend time with great people that have become friends.”
There’s also been an overwhelmingly positive response to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) events we’ve been including in our trips as part of our Group Travel Reimagined program design:
“I think [the CSR event] was a fantastic gesture and something that should be included whenever possible!”
“Loved [the CSR event]. Need to continue that.”
“Giving back is always rewarding, so this type of activity should become a standard.”
“[The CSR event] was a terrific idea and we should continue to serve the communities we visit!”
In addition, a common theme on the trips has been the important effect that unique excursions and experiences—what we refer to as “soft benefits”—have on participants. These experiences are frequently cited as one of the most enjoyable parts of the trips:
“The whole trip was even better than expected!! We loved it all. The snorkel excursion was a great way to get to know the group!”
“I enjoyed the excursion the most. We went horseback riding, got wet in the waterfall and snorkeled.”
“The thing I enjoyed the most was the catamaran trip!”
Finally, participants have frequently pointed to the hospitality of travel and resort staff as the glue that holds everything together:
“The thing I enjoyed most was how friendly everyone was. Starting on the bus ride from the airport to the resort. All the employees were so eager to help and to be of service.”
“We had the best time, and it’s hard to name one thing that I enjoyed the most. I really enjoyed meeting everyone, but the service of the resort was incredible.”
Of course, all of this would not be possible without the appropriate health and safety precautions in place. Although this is something that’s clearly top-of-mind, our post-trip surveys revealed that nearly 90% of respondents felt pandemic concerns did not impact the quality of their trip experience. This suggests that these concerns are top priorities for incentive destinations and hotels as well, with 4- and 5-star locations making extraordinary efforts to provide top-quality service and accommodations in order to make guests feel at ease.
There’s no doubt the last two years have presented some unique challenges for the incentive industry, and group incentive travel in particular. But through it all, our feelings about being rewarded, as well as the value of travel, haven’t seemed to diminish. If anything, they’ve only grown stronger. Perhaps it’s that the pandemic has caused all of us to reevaluate what’s important to us, to rediscover what it means to reconnect with others, and spurred us to want to reengage with the communities we live in and visit.
After years of isolating, social distancing, and leading virtual lives, we’re all craving real experiences, and rewards that go beyond mere compensation—which we can get from any job or business partnership. No, instead what we’re seeing, and what the data tells us, is that people are choosing to value quality over quantity, and the memorable over the mundane. They want to experience something special together with loved ones, with colleagues and partners, rather than escape to somewhere alone.
These sentiments speak volumes, and they’re starting to be reflected in the overall numbers. In fact, for 2022 the World Travel & Tourism Council is forecasting a more than 11% increase in travel spending over pre-pandemic levels. This is astonishing, considering where we’ve come from. But it’s not surprising once you also consider what we’ve all been through. That’s why the right group incentive travel program, with the perfect blend of flexibility, safety, relaxation, connection, and community engagement, can provide us with the type of rejuvenating experience that we’re all seeking.