Incentive Travel Programs Are Being Scheduled for 2021 and Beyond

Northstar Meetings Group's Global Incentive Summit online event pointed to signs of the industry's gradual recovery domestically and internationally.  

The Four Seasons Nevis will host a 25-person incentive program in April 2021.

Incentive travel organizers are booking international reward trips everywhere from Boston to Bora Bora, according to planners who participated in Northstar Meeting Group’s Global Incentive Summit, which took place online Nov. 5-6. 

Northstar's two-day event brought together 77 planners with 58 international suppliers, who met in one-on-one appointments and attended educational sessions.  

Three incentive professionals who are currently sourcing and planning programs shared their challenges and successes during the "Planner's Turn" panel. Kathy Gibbons, experience design manager for Creative Group, has a much-anticipated program in the works for 25 participants in April at the Four Seasons Nevis. "The hotel was an amazing partner to work with because they listened and they understood [our concerns]. That made it a lot easier to have some of those difficult conversations, especially about penalties and damages," she said. 

Kim Anderson, vice president of global accounts for HPN Global, is planning a program in Bora Bora for early 2021; the setting was selected in part for its remoteness. She is seeing interest from clients in other far-flung destinations, including St. Lucia and Tanzania.

Europe, typically a top bucket-list choice for incentive winnners, is not in demand for 2021. "It's basically a no-go at this point," said Matthew Thiel, sales director of meetings, incentives and group travel for Fox World Travel. "I know that we had a lot of interest prior to Covid-19, but in just talking with suppliers, it's obviously a waiting game until we can go again, and that's so unfortunate." Thiel added that he believes the region will eventually return to its status as a top incentive destination.

The panelists noted that while they are working on some international events, domestic destinations are the most in-demand spots for 2021 programs. "We are looking at destinations like Santa Fe, Austin and Boston, creating trips that are a little bit out of the ordinary in an urban destination," said Gibbons. 

Incentive Travel Industry Preview

Participants were given a preview of the 2020 Incentive Travel Industry Index from Padraic Gilligan, CMO for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, and managing partner of SoolNua. Among the findings of the annual survey of 2,880 international incentive professionals, U.S. planners are more optimistic than their international counterparts, expecting a return to 2019 levels of business by 2022. American incentive professionals also are the biggest users of alternative awards for winners who do not want to travel. 

The index also revealed that the majority of respondents are dealing with reduced budgets as a result of the pandemic, with many having to reduce staff.

On a positive note, incentive professionals said they expect these impacts to be temporary. Gilligan said many of the professionals polled have developed new skills and revenue streams now. “It's not all doom and gloom,” he noted. 

Travel Still Has Risks

While planners are sourcing and booking programs for the new year, there are still many health and safety concerns they'll have to address. Bruce McIndoe, founder of WorldAware and president of McIndoe Risk Advisory, shared some hard truths about the pandemic during his session, "Promoting Safe Travel in a Covid-19 World."

“We're all waiting for the vaccine to appear on the horizon, but it's not going to be a silver bullet,” he noted. “Worldwide, it's going to take three and a half to four years, at best, to distribute the vaccine globally. And here in the United States, the pharma companies and government agencies expect that the average citizen will not see the vaccine until early Q3 of 2021.”  

Until then, McIndoe pointed out, “we have the tools to deal with this, and if they are deployed aggressively and comprehensively, they might be more effective than a vaccine.” He reminded the audience that wearing a mask reduces risk by 77 percent; social distancing reduces it by 85 percent, and cleaning hands and surfaces, about 66 percent.

“When you start doing all of these things together, you substantially reduce the overall risk of contracting and especially transmitting the virus,” he said. 

DMCs' New Direction

Destination management executives spotlighted their challenges during the panel “What’s Next for DMCs.” 

The three participants — Alaina Tobar, regional general manager of PRA Northern California and president of the Association of Destination Management Executives InternationalPaul Miller, managing director of Spectra DMC; and Nicole Marsh, partner at Imprint Event Group — addressed how the pandemic highlighted the need to rethink their business models to protect themselves and their revenue better.

“We have to take the lessons learned from this year and make adjustments as necessary,” said Tobar. “You can also expect that DMCs are really going to be reviewing their pricing models and how they charge to more directly reflect the value of the time spent on some of these programs.” 

The panel also discussed ADMEI’s new letter of agreement and updated service agreement that has been designed to protect DMCs better in the wake of cancellations and postponements.