Incentive travel, chief among the four elements that comprise MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, events), has traditionally been synonymous with luxury. This has been the case for decades. It stemmed from a shared word cloud that included such terms as exclusive, expensive, elite, and extraordinary (and add in extravagant, opulent, and over-the-top while we are at it).
Only the highest performers qualified for the incentive trip, so that trip needed to bathe them in luxury, bring them literally and metaphorically inside the velvet rope, onto the red carpet, in front of the step-and-repeat board for the paparazzi to capture their perfect orthodontics. The more over-the-top it was, the better. There are still enough of us around who recall embarrassing levels of over-programming and over-servicing in the eighties and nineties when it was considered truly creative to arrange to have alcohol spurting out of the Renaissance fountains. Those days are long gone -- and good riddance.
While some cultures and geographies may continue to link luxury with lifestyles of the rich and famous, the new global consensus is that luxury has more to do with accessing authentic experiences tailored to individual, personal choice.
Lessons on Luxury
This new understanding of luxury has been bubbling up for some time, as evidenced by Ritz-Carlton's reevaluation of their "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" motto. When the motto was developed, the core client cohort of Ritz-Carlton was high-net-worth individuals dressed formally in well-cut Italian wool suits. By the mid-nineties they were dot.com millionaires in cut-off shorts and flip-flops -- not the average image of a lady or gentleman!
My favorite nonindustry print magazine, Monocle, recently came to Dublin and, in partnership with Conrad, one of Hilton's luxury brands, staged an intriguing panel discussion on "The Future of Luxury Travel." There was much consensus among the panelists around what constitutes luxury these days. All agreed that it wasn't a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all concept -- that authenticity is pivotal to luxury today. John Vanderslice, Hilton's global head, luxury and lifestyle brands, stated how luxury must reflect the local destination, and linked this with Hilton's development of "lifestyle brands" like Canopy.
Real and Authentic Experiences
These days, the word cloud associated with luxury includes terms like energizing, experience, neighborhood, local -- eons of time and space away from elite, elegant, and opulent.
Now, luxury involves curating local experiences, keeping them real and authentic, and allowing the guest to immerse fully in the experience as an insider, not as a tourist. Incentive travel has evolved in the same way, with a massive switch from generic group activities and a heightened concentration on offering a wide palette of highly customized individual experiences.
Today's trends in incentive travel follow the "new luxury." They're all about authentic, local experiences that bring qualifiers into contact with new, exciting cultures and lifestyles.
Padraic Gilligan is vice president of research and education for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) Foundation and managing partner of SoolNua, a marketing agency working with destinations, venues, and hotels. He also publishes @Padraicino, a popular blog in the meetings and incentives industry.