For travel incentives, the destination is the key motivator. But luxury merchandise can greatly enhance such programs. Here are eight expert tips on how best to utilize merchandise on a trip, from choosing top brands to delivering a customized experience.
1. Know Your Audience and Past Gift History
Before choosing merchandise for a travel program, understand your anticipated audience in terms of gender, demographics, and geography. Younger employees are not really into logos, so keep your corporate branding subtle. And figure out how many winners are repeat earners from prior programs. Rotate the gifts each year so you're not giving the same products and causing recipient fatigue.
"One year they may have gotten sunglasses, or luggage, and this year it's watches," says Adrienne Forrest, vice president corporate sales, Bulova. "But if the same people get watches [or any type of gift] every year, it may not be as special."
2. Make Sure the Products Have Broad Appeal
Unless you're catering to an industry that skews male or female, products should be gender neutral.
"We're lucky, as a consumer brand we're 52 percent male, 48 percent female. That helps for success," says Brett Hatch, senior director, global corporate gifts for Maui Jim.
Try to find merchandise people actually want and that will be used after the event. Especially be cautious if choosing a gift tied to the destination that may not be as appreciated once the recipients are back home.
An example is a group of financial services high performers attending an incentive in Texas Hill Country. The company spends $500 per person on cowboy boots and hats. "Eighty percent are from the Northeast, 10 percent are from California, and 10 percent are from elsewhere," says Patrick Corley, vice president for Incentive Concepts. "Ninety percent will never use them again."
3. Consider Transport and Shipping
Even when you choose gifts people want, they have to be able to get the items home. Sunglasses, headphones, and watches are effective because people can wear them or easily pack them.
You can handle luggage two ways, says Mike Landry, vice president, special markets, for Tumi: You award them with the products prior to the trip, so they can use the luggage on the program. Or if it's part of a selection of items during the trip, offer to drop-ship to the address of their choice.
Beverages can get tricky. If you're giving guests a $150 bottle of wine and most people brought only carry-ons, "the last thing they want to do is check a bag, so they'll leave it in the hotel room and you've just wasted $150," says Corley.
One way to handle that is to give the wine on the first night, so they have a chance to enjoy it during their stay.
For awards such as crystal items, Stephany Schmitz, team lead, event recognition, BI WORLDWIDE, recommends sending one down for the presentation, then shipping the awards to the participants after the fact. "It's the easiest, cleanest approach, and they don't have to worry about transporting it back. It also helps with breakage," she says. Also, lead crystal can cause TSA luggage searches because of the way it shows up on scanners.
4. Choose the Best Brands
Don't skimp on the budget, and aim for aspirational items and brands. "The higher the quality of the gift, the more memorable," says Hatch.
Agrees Forrest: "You want to wow them, and a trusted brand name with high perceived value is really key. Authenticity is a strong trend among today's consumers."
Planners say they've seen a switch to more luxury and demand for brand names, but "luxury" doesn't have to mean "high-priced." Schmitz says she's received a lot of positive feedback on Polaroids as gifts on programs. "They're amazing," she says. "You have an instant photo that you can upload to social media, and there's a [built-in] slide printer so you can give a copy to the friend you took the picture with."
5. Execute at a High Level
The manner of giving the gift is just as important as the gift itself.
"When you do it right and make it exceptional, like an experience of getting fitted for sunglasses, it makes people feel connected," says Hatch. "If you want to give a Maui Jim beach bag or water bottle, then give the glasses, then a cleaning kit, that's all high end. But if you give out something cheesy the first night, then Maui Jims, then a cheesy gift the last night, that hurts the entire process."
One way to handle this is making the first room drop a customized Maui Jim sunglasses case and cleaning cloth, with instructions to come choose from a selection of sunglasses and have them fitted the next day.
Landry agrees with the tiered concept. In advance of the trip, you can give out small leather goods, like a passport holder or card holder, but dress it up, he says. "Some planners will put in a note from the president, or faux tickets to one of the events happening on the trip."
Nearly all experts agree that having a company representative on hand for distribution, when possible, is important.
"You have to have someone who knows your product and can answer questions about it, or the warranty," says Hatch, who sends trained Maui Jim employees to all events.
Getting a gift customized is always an added benefit. For Tumi, each piece of luggage comes with a monogram patch that can be laser engraved. "Typically, the corporate logo is on top and the recipient's name underneath," says Landry. "It's an understated way to customize and make it special."
But make sure you plan in the time for any fittings. "If you have only an hour, and 600 people are getting a watch, that's not enough time for a sizing, to get the links removed," says Forrest. "Pre-planning is key to the success of the program."
6. Make the Delivery an Experience
"We're seeing a switch to experiential gifting," says Schmitz. Instead of nightly pillow gifts, plan an event with several brands on offer, and guests can choose what they want.
Fittings and other customization fall into that, but so too does the atmosphere surrounding the awards.
Bose offers the Bose Lounge concept. The company provides a DJ, Bose music systems and speakers, and creates a party atmosphere, complete with food and cocktails. "[Attendees] hang out, enjoy the music, and have a cool final night," says Corley. "Then they get Bose products to take home [or have shipped] as part of the lounge experience. It becomes more of a brand experience."
7. Offer Choice, But Not Too Much
"We're giving more of a choice on site, then beefing that up so we have what's hot and what's new," says Schmitz.
But Corley warns that you should have no more than nine items. "Not nine brands, but nine items," he says. If you have 20 choices, all that does is slow down the process and everybody ends up picking the top three to four things anyway, he adds.
Use the demographics of the group to understand what they most would want, then stick to those items, with options of color or some other element for variety.
8. Make Sure There Are No Surprises
This covers everything from making sure there's enough inventory to being sure you understand what the true final costs will be. This is especially important for international programs.
Questions Hatch recommends asking: Is there a restocking charge? Are you being charged for booth staff? What are the duties and taxes? Will the product be safe during shipping and once it's at the hotel? Is there a deposit? What are the drop-ship charges? Are there maximums or minimums? If there's a holdup at customs and it's going to take an additional $12,000 to get the product through, who is responsible for that?
These behind-the-scenes issues can impact gift presentation. "And you want the [merchandise] experience to be memorable," says Hatch. "It often sets the tone for the entire event."