The 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry for 2018

The individuals who are shaping the rewards and recognition industry now.

top 25 incentive industry leaders

The incentive industry is a broad, multifaceted community all working toward a similar goal: finding ways to motivate and inspire great performances. It’s a mission that requires the industry to constantly evolve and relies on the insights and innovations of a wide range of contributors. With this in mind, each year Incentive surveys our readers, industry leaders and our own editorial team to determine who is having the greatest impact on the business of motivation. Here we present our annual list of the major impact players who are shaping the incentive industry, including leaders at incentive houses, manufacturers’ reps, industry associations, incentive destinations and more.

Carina Bauer

IMEX Group

Carina Bauer

As CEO of the IMEX Group, Bauer is in charge of the biggest and most important global meetings, incentive, conference and events travel trade show in North America, IMEX America in Las Vegas, as well as its older European cousin, IMEX in Frankfurt. But IMEX is more than just a trade show producer … it's a thought leader. Its Smart Monday education program, in partnership with many of the main MICE industry associations including Meeting Professionals InternationalAmerican Society of Association Executives and Professional Convention Management Association, is one of the biggest days of industry education each year. Its 2018 focus on women in the industry ("She Means Business") and corporate social responsibility ("Legacy") helped set the agenda.

"The incentive industry is in a very positive place right now as more and more organizations are understanding the important role that incentive travel can play in driving business goals, building employee engagement and loyalty, and creating performance and recognition-based work cultures," she says. 

Drew Carter

Maritz Motivation Solutions

Drew Carter

This year's creation of the Cartwheel agency by Maritz Motivation Solutions was a big step forward in the use of decision sciences and artificial intelligence. "Our agency was born to partner with decision sciences, using the massive depth of data and analytics within Maritz to drive the most memorable and relevant interactions," Carter says, adding that analytics not grounded in science "are no longer acceptable." He adds, "Clients are looking for assurances that there's a return on their investment, and thanks to advances in AI and machine learning… we're committed to drive maximum value to our clients with proven ROI."

George Delta

Executive Director and General Counsel 
The Incentive Federation

George Delta

As executive director of the Incentive Federation, Delta oversees an umbrella organization for the incentive industry, including the Incentive Marketing Association, Incentive Research Foundation, Society for Incentive Travel ExcellencePromotional Products Association International and Recognition Professionals International. The organization is best known for its Incentive Marketplace Estimate Research Study conducted every few years, which put the size of the incentive business at $90 billion when it was released in 2016. 

As general counsel, Delta keeps tabs on issues that can impact the incentive industry. "The Federation is the legislative arm of the incentive marketplace," he says. "Our single biggest achievement over the past year was our work with the Senate Finance Committee to make sure that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 did not repeal section 274(j) of the Internal Revenue Code, [which] provides favorable tax treatment for safety and service awards programs.

Tonda Ferguson, CRP

Senior Director Employee Engagement, Southwest Airlines
Secretary, Recognition Professionals International 

Tonda Ferguson

A 36-year veteran of Southwest Airlines, Tonda Ferguson is proud of its reputation for putting employees first. In 2013, she led the team that created its companywide recognition platform, and currently leads the employee engagement team that creates "strategic enterprise recognition and incentive programs that support the purpose, vision, and values of Southwest Airlines," she says. Ferguson also oversees the company's Employee Engagement Survey, calling it a "critical listening tool to determine if employees feel recognized for the work they do." She is particularly proud of Southwest's Kick Tail peer-to-peer recognition program, which recognizes employees for Living and Working the Southwest Way, i.e., in accordance with the company's values.

As secretary of the board of RPI, Ferguson not only helps direct the leading industry organization, she credits it with teaching her "how to design recognition and incentive programs that are equitable; that reach all employees — not just the top performers — and reward the behaviors that a company wants to see repeated." 

Nick Foppe

Managing Director 
Cartwheel – A Maritz Agency

As the head of Maritz Motivation Solutions' new digital agency, Cartwheel, Foppe is leading the effort to incorporate, "decision and behavioral sciences into our marketing programs to influence customer behavior and drive results," he says. "Cartwheel is working side-by-side with our data scientists and Ph.D.s on the behavioral teams. The data is coming over the fence to the Cartwheel strategists and writers to build the most effective creative campaigns targeting specific audiences at the right time, with the right message, and with the most appropriate medium."

Foppe adds that the industry is "now breaking the myths that marketing [ROI] is hard to measure...and only the 'creative people' know if an idea will work. Agencies specialize in acquiring and engaging consumers, and the loyalty companies know how to retain them, so it truly is the perfect marriage where science and art come together.

Scott Graf

Global President
BCD Meetings & Events

Over the past three years, Scott Graf has overseen rapid growth at BCD Meetings & Events, tripling the company's profits since 2015 while expanding into 50+ markets globally. Most recently, the acquisition of Grass Roots Meetings & Events enhanced venue search and delegate management expertise with financial and professional services firms. The addition of a number of substantial new proprietary technology solutions has the company serving niche, national, multinational and global needs in a variety of sectors including meeting management, engagement, incentives, creative communication and sports hospitality.  

"We are excited at where the industry is today," says Graf. "Creating experiences that engage and incentivize audiences is critical to our customers. Our passion is to design and execute event solutions that create unforgettable experiences and change behavior."

Ashlee Green, CRP

Senior Manager – HQ Customer Service Incentives, Verizon Wireless
Director, Recognition Professionals International 

Ashlee Green

Passionate about improving the employee and customer experience, Green joined the board of Recognition Professionals International, actively planning the 2019 RPI Conference. She is excited to get more involved in the organization's direction. 

At Verizon Wireless, she is moving from a focus on building a strong connection between the customer service and marketing departments to a new position overseeing employee incentives and recognition at the leading mobile service provider's customer service organization. She says her focus is on using her "cross-channel knowledge to increase employee engagement around strategy, operational processes and business improvements."

Ashley Harris

Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships, National Gift Card 
Board President, Incentive Gift Card Council 

Ashley Harris

During her time at National Gift Card, Harris has led a team that turned a zero-profit department into a key revenue driver for the company, and has helped her organization grow to serve more than 500 brands. It now reaches more than 2,000 corporate customers and as it launched a B2B interface for programmers with iTunes, creating a greater level of security for customers by eliminating the need to house live cards. Concurrently, she deepened her involvement in the incentive industry by serving on the Incentive Gift Card Council board and helping provide educational content like the "B2B Gift Card Buyer Study," conducted with the Incentive Research Foundation. Her efforts led her to recently be named IGCC president for the 2018–2019 term, a role in which she plans "to serve the incentive gift card community as I work to enhance member engagement and prove the overall value of each membership."

John J. Iannini, CITP, CIS, CTC

Vice President, Business Travel Meetings & Events Americas, Meliá Hotels International
President, Society for Incentive Travel Excellence  Foundation

John Iannini

Over the past three years, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence Foundation has invested more than $800,000 in research, content and educational programs for its members and the incentive industry at large. Among these is the new Incentive Travel Industry Index, a groundbreaking study conducted in collaboration with the IRF and with the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners that had more than 1,000 respondents from 80 countries.`

"These investments strengthen the business case for incentive travel, support the development of competency-based incentive travel training and certification programs, and provide education grants and scholarships to SITE chapters and members," Ianinni says. 

Chris Johnson

Director, Global Travel and Enterprise Events, Land O' Lakes, Inc.
Trustee, Incentive Research Foundation 

Chris Johnson

This year, Land O' Lakes overhauled and modernized its entire meetings and events structure, focusing on "customer-facing loyalty events, sales incentives, and other customer acquisition events," says Johnson, who oversees everything from corporate travel and events to sports sponsorships. 

After a year on the IRF board, Johnson is looking forward to increasing his involvement with the organization in 2019. "I see incentive travel gaining new momentum with strong investment and even stronger expectations on ROI. We are working with a more diverse workforce than ever, with diverse interests, so clearly defining goals and objectives is key to seeing programs succeed."

Issa Jouaneh

Senior Vice President and General Manager
American Express Meetings & Events

Issa Jouaneh

The company behind a huge number of incentive trips, American Express Meetings & Events and parent company American Express GBT made several notable acquisitions this year, including those of U.K.-based international event management agency Banks Sadler and the Hogg Robinson Group, allowing it to offer a more comprehensive array of solutions. 

While the results of American Express M&E's signature 2019 Meetings & Events Forecast has not been fully released, Jouaneh shared that incentives should account for 11 to 15 percent of all meetings in 2019. "Our respondents predict 2019 will see more incentives, longer trips, increased attendance, and increased cost per attendee," he says, adding that the company has "observed a noteworthy shift within the industry, and organizations are beginning to understand the importance of focusing on the 'why' of an incentive or event."

Eve Kolakowski

President and COO
Rymax Marketing Services

Eve Kolakowski

Seasoned incentive professional and recently appointed president of Rymax Marketing Services, the leading incentive merchandise fulfillment company, Kolakowski is proud of the company's award-winning programs. "We develop and manage employee engagement programs, customer loyalty programs, sales incentives platforms and corporate gifting," she says. "We're tremendous event planners, too. We create one-of-a-kind redemption experiences for our customers that are second to none."

She is also excited by the recent rollout of the latest version of Rymax's MaxSite rewards platform, as well as the firm's growing portfolio of brands, which provide more than 15,000 redemption options. "We now offer over 400 brands representing the gamut in tech, luxury, fashion and even trendy candy," she says. 

Mike May, CMP, IP

President, Brightspot Incentives & Events
Chairman, Incentive Research Foundation

Mike May

May's biggest achievement this year was successfully rebranding his incentive company from Spear One to Brightspot Incentives & Events, focusing on the company's people, their creativity, and the goal of being the "bright spot" for clients by making their jobs easier and programs better. Other accomplishments include a growing series of ebooks on a variety of topics around creating a successful incentive program.  

As chairman of the board of trustees of the Incentive Research Foundation, May has overseen an organization that produces monthly research, including the IRF 2018 Trends Study, which "observed that 80 percent of public companies' value is in their intangibles of brand value, algorithms, customer data, ideas, and leadership, and therefore, CEOs are recognizing the importance of incentives, events and recognition impacting human capital motivation." Another accomplishment is the first joint study of the incentive travel industry by the IRF, SITE and the FICP.

Theresa McEndree

Vice President of Marketing
Blackhawk Network

Theresa McEndree

Since Hawk Incentives was launched almost two years ago, McEndree had overseen much of the work at the incentive-focused arm of prepaid and gift card solutions provider Blackhawk Network, building it into a growth engine for the wider organization. She has ensured that Hawk Incentives is a leader in instant reward delivery — for example, introducing the wallet-enabled MasterCard gift cards to the industry last year. This extends beyond rewards, to the company's rebate and promotions platform, which leverages optical character recognition technology and upgrades existing platforms (so users can take a picture of a receipt and get a reward digitally issued).

Thanks to her success, McEndree has moved from overseeing Hawk Incentives to running corporate marketing for all of Blackhawk Network, with an eye toward "creating new opportunities to connect the marketing value of a gift card to some of the robust promotion and incentive platforms that we have and bringing greater value to all of our clients," as she puts it. The organization also continues to produce a wealth of research about gift cards and the wider rewards industry, drawing on its pool of data on consumer behavior.

Lore Rincon

Sales Manager, Continental Premium Corp.
President, Incentive Manufacturers and Representatives Alliance

Lore Rincon

Under Rincon's leadership this year, the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance has continued to strengthen ties with PPAI and the Advertising Specialty Institute through educational offerings as well as increased presence on their show floors. "The exposure from these efforts and IMRA's other outreach activities is drawing in new brands and new customers," Rincon says, noting that at "Continental Premium Corporation we've noticed a rise in brands approaching us about how to get into the incentive merchandise marketplace and specifically about partnering with IMRA sales reps. This growing interest is a result of the increased exposure and marketing efforts of our IMRA members who have been out there actively promoting incentive merchandise. After 17 years in the industry it's exciting to still be learning and contributing to our growing industry."

Annamaria Ruffini, CIS, CITP, CMP

President and CEO, Events In & Out S.R.L.
President, Society for Incentive Travel Excellence

Annamaria Ruffini

2018 was a big year for SITE under Ruffini's leadership, starting with January's Global Forum, a first-time partnership with MPI on an educational event that was the organizations' largest-ever outside the United States. In May, SITE launched a new professional designation, Certified Incentive Travel Professional, an intermediate-level designation for mid- to senior-career planners. And the group has unveiled initiatives focused on sustainability and women in leadership. Finally, she believes that the organization is on track to meet its 2020 goal of 2,500 members. 

"We have formed a global committee focused on raising awareness of issues affecting women in our industry and have developed partnerships with other associations and women's organizations, a mentoring program, and education sessions and webinars to help empower women to become strong leaders," Ruffini says. She adds that she is excited by new research from the Events Industry Council showing that "incentive travel is outpacing corporate, association and trade show meetings, conferences and events for year-over-year growth."  

Didier Scaillet, CIS, CITP

Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, SITE Foundation

Didier Scaillet

The new CEO of SITE and the SITE Foundation takes over at a time of change for the organization, which brought its CEO, CMO and head of events roles out of its association management company to give the board more direct control. Scaillet's priority was to give the new management and volunteer leadership clarity and alignment with the Painted Picture 2020 strategy. With a clear focus this year on two major initiatives — the Incentive Travel Industry Index, which is the largest piece of research ever conducted for the incentive travel industry, and the Certified Incentive Travel Professional designation — the association is forecasting continued growth under its current strategy.

"Membership is now at record levels, and engagement, both on and off line, at an all-time high," Scaillet says. "We will now start building out our Vision 2023 with brand-new programming in key areas such as membership, content creation, education and events globally." He also aims to digitally transform the rich array of research, educational materials and other content SITE has produced over the years and make it more relevant and accessible

Allan Schweyer

Chief Academic Advisor
Incentive Research Foundation

Allan Schweyer

After producing almost two dozen research studies and reports in 2018, the IRF is poised for another year of growth following a record-setting fundraising event at its Annual Education Invitational in Cancun earlier this year. This research ranged from "legal issues in the industry to benchmark studies in industry trends, to the use of emerging AI technologies in reward program design," Schweyer says. "And this doesn't include academic research that the IRF sponsors. In 2018, the IRF Research Grants Program is funding research at Northwestern, Harvard Business School, the University of Waterloo, Monmouth University and the University of Central Florida." The organization also launched a Quarterly Academic Review, which he believes will "become a valuable tool in converting insights from academic studies into real practice in reward programs."

Schweyer adds that he is "looking forward to a 2019 in which more people in the industry see the broader importance of well-designed incentive programs. By that I mean we need to look beyond our traditional role and traditional measures. Reward professionals with deep knowledge of human motivation and the art and science of reward design are desperately needed across organizations to improve stubbornly low engagement scores, high attrition and the difficulties in recruiting skilled talent."

Selina Sinclair, CMP, SMMC, CITP

Global Managing Director
Pacific World

Selina Sinclair

With its own dedicated teams in 41 countries around the world, Pacific World is one of the largest destination management companies, and it hasn't been resting on its laurels. Aside from investing in creative resources in China, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Barcelona and India, the company can now offer clients 3D visuals of an event space, "enabling us to bring our ideas to life in the early stages of the event design process," Sinclair says. "Having our in-house creative team has enabled us to take experience design to the next level."

As clients increasingly look for global event solutions, Pacific is seeing "an increase in incentive activity globally combined with a new world of expectations from attendees," Sinclair says. "This is an exciting time for us as thought leaders and experience creators."

Brooks Smith

Founder, President and CEO

Brooks Smith

At the helm of the prepaid and payment solutions provider, Smith has ensured the organization continues to grow and innovate, tapping into the growing self-use of gift cards in creative ways. Among the most high-profile of these efforts has been InComm's acquisition of American Express' prepaid and gift card offerings in 2017, gaining exclusive distribution rights to the major prepaid card brand — as well as the financial services company's Serve technology platform. This has led the organization to add hundreds of new jobs and tens of millions of dollars in capital investment. InComm has made moves in a number of other areas to appeal to the market, from partnering its OLS division with National Bankcard Services so as to provide specialized gift card processing for fuel retailers to enhancing fraud prevention efforts, to the enhanced personalization promised by the recent acquisition of Gift Card Impressions. In all these ways, Smith is taking steps to elevate gift card offerings for incentive recipients

Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP

Industry Speaker, Author, Strategist

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has long been one of the most active and prolific people in the incentive industry, working with and leading many industry organizations. This year, her work, including more than 1,500 presentations and articles produced over the years, has finally been recognized as she was inducted into the Incentive Marketing Association's Hall of Fame and won its prestigious Karen Renk Fellowship, on top of the IMA President's Award in 2010. Smith has been actively involved with incentive industry research for two decades through the FORUM at Northwestern University and the Incentive Federation. She was also instrumental in the Incentive Federation's battle this past year to protect tax policy dealing with safety and service awards programs.

"For most of my career, my industry colleagues and I have been trying to push a boulder uphill when it came to getting C-suite buy-in for the incredible value and power of incentive and recognition programs to increase organizational performance and deliver a respectable return on investment," Smith says. "I believe we've finally reached the tipping point, with the majority of leaders now appreciating that value and embracing our guidance, research and powerful new tools — like neuroscience, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence — to achieve their goals." 

Kathy Stark

Recognition Professionals International 

Kathy Stark

This year, RPI is celebrating its 20th year as the leading organization providing resources "for recognition strategy as a driver of the business case for companies and organizations of all sizes," says Stark, who leads the RPI board. Recently, the organization has joined the Incentive Federation, an umbrella organization for groups focused on the incentive, recognition and reward business, working to "further understand and share the importance and the value of recognition, rewards and incentives as a whole within the industry," Stark says. The group has also reformatted its premier event, the RPI Annual Conference, and had all of its educational offerings, including the Certified Recognition Professional designation, reaccredited.

Dan Stern

Manager, Compensation Engagement Programs
BAE Systems, Inc.

Dan Stern

This year, BAE Systems' recognition program was a winner of Recognition Professionals International's prestigious Best Practice Award. The program, IMPACT, began in 2013 and has experienced at least 30 percent growth every year since, says Stern. "We started our recognition program, IMPACT, to create and foster a stronger culture of recognition and employee engagement," he says. "Prior to launching our IMPACT program, we were challenged with understanding the value of our various recognition efforts across the business. With a common platform, today we use the data from our IMPACT program at every level of the organization as a measure of how recognition builds stronger relationships, attracts and retains key talent, and broadens our culture of engagement.

Going forward, BAE Systems plans to dig deeper into the impact of recognition as motivation and as a business tool, Stern says. "Our incentive industry has a great opportunity to become a better strategic partner to our executives by creating benchmark business measurements. Historically, the recognition industry has related its impact to the business subjectively and has limited its influence with the C-suite. With firm analytics and metrics, we can better provide a template for constructive and informed conversations with our executives going forward."

Melissa Van Dyke

Incentive Research Foundation

Melissa Van Dyke

On the heels of a record-breaking fundraiser at its 25th Annual Education Invitational in Cancun in May, the IRF has 17 research projects in various states of completion, launched the industry's first academic journal to bring incentive, recognition and rewards programs to the attention of business schools, and partnered with SITE and the FICP on what Van Dyke calls the "first joint pan-industry benchmarking study." But growth is what really excites her these days. "The industry is growing, budgets are growing, new ideas and technologies are growing, and most importantly, our industry knowledge about how to design effective programs is growing," Van Dyke says.

Jesse Wolfersberger

Chief Data Officer
Maritz Motivation Solutions

Jesse Wolfersberger

The author of Incentive's "Inside Pitch" column looking at the incentive industry through the lens of a baseball fanatic, Wolfersberger is an expert on behavioral science and analytics. In that role, he spent much of the year studying how to measure the value of the incentive, recognition and engagement programs Maritz Motivation Solutions runs. For each one, Wolfersberger says, the company asked, "How many new people is it attracting? What is the lift in retention? What is the lift in sales and engagement? Ultimately, what is this program worth? ROI is notoriously hard to put a finger on in our industry, but that's exactly why we need to be hyper-focused on it." 

"This is an incredibly exciting time to be in data science," he says. "We're trying to inject artificial intelligence (AI) into every aspect of our programs. Most notably, we used AI to predict reward preferences in a loyalty program, in conjunction with our client HSBC. The results were better than we anticipated, with 70 percent of customers who redeemed doing so in the category the AI chose for them. This is the tip of the iceberg for how AI will transform this industry." Alex Palmer contributed reporting to this story.