Incentive Live Digital Event Offers Expert Tips for Motivating Teams During Crises

The three-day event concluded with cases studies and research on how to pivot incentive programs successfully to reward high performers in the current climate.


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The disruption of incentive travel programs has been among the many intense challenges faced by the meetings industry. According to research from Northstar Meetings Group, 73 percent of incentive travel programs that were scheduled to take place in 2020 were postponed, and nearly a quarter were outright cancelled. But times of crisis are perhaps when incentive programs are most needed to motivate and reward hard-working employees.

Incentive Live 2020, a digital event held July 27-29, was designed to help incentive planners deal with today's challenges and get back to business. The online gathering, which drew more than 200 attendees, offered plenty of time for networking, discussion and learning. 

"We designed Incentive Live to give incentive professionals the latest research and industry expertise to help them navigate these uncertain times," said Lisa A. Grimaldi, editor of Northstar Meetings Group's Incentive magazine. "We also wanted to create a setting for planners to learn the latest news from suppliers in one-on-one appointments, and to provide them with a number of forums — themed networking lounges, virtual networking events, education sessions featuring industry thought leaders and round-table breakouts — where attendees are encouraged to share their concerns, challenges and successes with their peers."

The New Normal

The first day of the event included a round-table discussion about the current challenges of incentive travel. Each of the six speakers gave a brief overview about a single topic of concern. Among the issues addressed were new budget considerations, contract and legal issues, and new ideas for gifting during the pandemic. 

Jeffrey Brenner, director of special markets for Seiko Watch of America, told attendees to "not just think outside the box, but outside the giftbox." Today's incentive planners should consider virtual gifting lounges along with merchandise options that fit the new reality, where people are spending more time at home with family, cooking, or exploring the outdoors. For this reason, food and home gifts have taken off. Luxury items, such as jewelry, watches and sunglasses, are another popular option, according to Brenner, that can help people feel good during this trying time.

For those planning an incentive travel trip, Kevin Edmunds, vice president of meeting and incentive sales for AIC Hotel Group, advised planners to be creative, adaptive and overly communicative with their hotel partners and vendors. 

"We could plan something today and then have to redo it tomorrow," he said. "We're going to see so many contracts and clauses that will need to be redone because of what's happening and changing by the second. Rely on your relationships and make sure you come to the table with options."

Breakout sessions later in the afternoon allowed attendees to connect with speakers in small groups and discuss the topic of their choice in further detail. Despite the current challenges and economic hardships facing many companies, the speakers noted that incentive programs remain critical and should not be overlooked.

"Gifts still work; incentives still work. Even though we've had to pivot what our incentives are, it doesn't take away from the fact the products still work," said Kate Renk, event sales representative for Incentive Concepts, during one of the breakout sessions.

Looking Ahead

Day two kicked off with a session from Stephanie Harris, president of the Incentive Research Foundation. Harris reviewed the Foundation's latest research about the impact of COVID-19 on rewards and recognition programs, including that 42 percent of incentive programs planned for 2020 have been cancelled, with many being pushed as far back as the third and fourth quarters of 2021. Fortunately, 80 percent of companies that have postponed their incentive programs are holding on to their budget. 

Harris also predicted that future incentive travel programs will focus on domestic destinations that are close to home and offer outdoor opportunities, as well as small, boutique hotels that can "surprise and delight people in what might be a familiar setting." But she cautioned incentive planners against creating programs that only reward the top 10 percent of an organization. 

"I would really encourage incentive planners to take a look at the qualifiers and how the program is designed to make sure you're motivating everybody in the organization," she said. "This is that 'move the middle' idea that we've been talking about for a really long time in the industry. So if 20 percent of the organization performs above and beyond their goal, then they're all going to get that award or go on that program. That kind of rule structure can fuel faster recovery out of the pandemic situation that we're in right now in a really big way."

Later in the day, Suzanne Sangiovese, commercial and communications director for the travel-risk assessment company Riskline, shared the latest information on how to travel and gather safely. Her tips for incentive travel planners included sending risk and safety assessments to all vendors, preparing an in-depth crisis plan, and reviewing and updating their insurance policies. 

Three of Incentive's 2020 Motivation Masters winners took the virtual stage next to share a behind-the-scenes look at what made their programs such a success. The Winner's Circle program from T-Mobile and MotivAction offered an inspiring and particularly relevant story for attendees about the power of incentive programs to effect change not only within their own organization, but also on the destinations in which they meet, particularly in times of hardship.

The program, which received the Grand Motivation Master Award, provided a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience for T-Mobile's customer care and retail employees, while helping to bring business back to Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Winner's Circle honored 655 employees and resulted in a 98 percent satisfaction rate, with winners saying they felt more valued, energized and inspired to work at the company.

"We were the first major program to come back to the island after the hurricane," said Jeannie Balestino, client account director for MotivAction. "We made headlines. We were able to make a difference on the island not just by supporting the big hotels, but also the small vendors. We helped support and bring all of those businesses back."

Ensuring Success

On the third and final day of Incentive Live, Richelle Taylor of One10 Marketing and Gary Beckstrand of the employee recognition company O.C. Tanner spoke about what high performers will want in a post-COVID-19 world. These new expectations included frequent and transparent communication with company leadership, as well as meaningful rewards programs. 

As Beckstrand noted, organizations that create workplace environments where people feel valued will have a clear competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and maintaining talent. "Appreciate more and recognize often," he said. "When you think you've done enough, do more."

According to research from One10, employees who are eligible for incentives have 23 percent higher levels of trust in a company. Meanwhile, a pulse survey from O.C. Tanner showed that when employees were recognized during the COVID-19 crisis, engagement improved by as much as 47 percent. 

"One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it has shone a spotlight on the value of our people," said Beckstrand. "Now more than ever, employees want to be acknowledged and recognized not just for the work they do, but how they uniquely contribute. They need to feel that they are valued, on track and doing meaningful work." 

To close out the event, incentive professionals from Teradata, a database provider, and Creative Group, a global meetings, travel and employee recognition company, shared their experiences pivoting programs during the pandemic. The Teradata incentive trip, which recognizes high-performing employees from around the world, was scheduled to take place in Hawaii at the end of February. But because the coronavirus crisis was escalating in Asia at the time, winners from China were no longer able to attend. Instead, they were invited to attend next year's incentive program in Monaco. But rather than make the winners wait a full year to receive the recognition they deserved, the incentive team at Teradata sent them each a gift box filled with luxury items, including Maui Jim sunglasses, Hawaiian sandals and a GoPro action camera. Senior leadership also publicly praised the winners for their hard work. 

Melissa Van Dyke, vice president of design and insights for Creative Group, has had more than 75 conversations with clients about adjusting their incentive programs. "The pivot is different for every client depending on industry, leadership, who's attending and what the program goal is," she said.

One high-tech client had planned to bring 500 of its most deserving sales representatives on a trip to Sydney in May. In a matter of three weeks, the program was moved online, and Creative Group compiled an impressive selection of customized travel experiences for winners to choose from — all of which can be redeemed over the next 36 months. The options included a vintage Harley Davidson tour across the country, a NASCAR driving experience, tickets to the Grammy Awards and a European vacation. The winners also have access to a travel concierge team to help coordinate their experiences.

"We love live. We all want to get back to live as soon as possible. But there are options and rewarding experiences we can create for your winners now," said Van Dyke. "There’s such a wide variety with what we’re seeing with clients. But what we’re trying to do with every client is make sure that with the current pivot, they’re set up for what comes in 2021 and 2022. So if we have to move to a hybrid solution in 2021, they’re set up to do so."