How to Design Incentive Travel Programs in Challenging Times

Organizers should focus on employee motivation preferences and leveraging technology when designing programs for the post-pandemic workforce.


In the past 18 months, everything we knew and loved about work changed due to pandemic. We adjusted our workspaces, adapted our homes and reorganized our days. As a result, our motivations changed as we adapted to the evolving environment. Because of this, our incentive and recognition strategy must change, too.

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Before 2020, the incentive travel industry was growing. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no doubt in our minds that the incentive travel industry will rebound in a big way.

There’s no doubt incentive travel is lucrative for organizations. It’s a powerful tool that can be used as employee recognition and as a way to motivate your teams to reach organizational goals that positively impact your bottom line. However, your incentive design must effectively show a positive ROI and keep your customers (and their top performers) happy. Forward thinking is required to future-proof your incentive travel programs and keep them desirable, especially in light of what we’ve learned during the pandemic.

How do you design an incentive travel program for challenging times? Following are tips to ensure your incentive travel program continues to evolve and succeed.

People Are Motivated Differently

Travel is a universal motivator that breaks all barriers, and we’re all ready for a little travel after being locked down during the pandemic. But remember, people are motivated by different incentives. This has been amplified due to COVID-19. As a result, your employees’ motivations may have changed and they may desire travel that keeps them closer to home.

We work with many Fortune 100 companies that have a robust, multigenerational workforce. We are frequently tasked with creating incentive programs that motivate and reward all employees, regardless of whether they just started their careers or are nearing retirement.

It can be challenging to find the right mix of incentives to resonate with all generations, which is why working with a professional is critical. For example, we take a close look at the participant demographics before planning an incentive trip. If there are guests who haven’t traveled much in the past, then taking them to a far-away, exotic location might be more stressful than motivating.

The location is the base of your activities and excursions, so choose wisely! Finding the right mix of locations to meet the needs of attendees is important. You also must continue to curate new experiences to keep attendees motivated year after year. That’s why we keep a keen eye on emerging destinations. We watch how the destination evolves and the infrastructure grows to determine if it’s a fit for future incentive trips.

The Society for Incentive Travel Excellence plays a key role in helping identify these up-and-coming destinations. Each year, SITE picks an emerging destination for its Executive Summit, intending to break down the perceptions of these relatively unknown destinations and to promote the location as a great place to bring incentive travel business.

Focus on Cultural and CSR Experiences

We see a change in incentive travel. People want real experiences that they can’t curate on their own. When they travel, they are especially interested in immersing themselves in the destination’s sights, sounds, and culture. We’re finding cultural experiences have a more significant impact on employees and the company as a whole.

People are often want to help the destinations and culture they encounter in travel, which is why CSR initiatives are also powerful. Attendees want a sense of place. They want to know they are contributing to something bigger while participating in the incentive travel program. Plus, it’s an excellent way for companies to tie the CSR initiative back to their own vision, mission, and values.

We predict these CSR initiatives will be even more valued as we collectively help communities across the globe emerge from the pandemic. Socially-distanced CSR opportunities are possible to help your incentive travel participants contribute to the greater good.

Move the Middle

Often, companies want to recognize the top 3 percent of their workforce, and incentive travel programs are built around this key demographic. But what about the others? Ensure loyalty within your team by including mid-level performers. We want to see more employees enjoying the travel experience, which is why we work with companies to create a secondary program to recognize the top 5-7 percent of performers. This allows more employees to access these experiences and serves as a more compelling motivation tool for next year’s incentive program.
Seek up-and-coming locations

Technology is Key

Embracing new technology is important to communicate with your incentive travel program participants effectively. Mobile apps are a mainstay for any quality incentive program. First, they eliminate the use of paper, helping you create a sustainable incentive travel program. In the past, they were useful tools to create fun digital experiences that would excite your attendees. For example, you could use mobile apps to help attendees familiarize themselves with the destination and send push notifications to update attendees on their upcoming spa treatment. Now, mobile apps are a crucial tool in communicating health and safety information to keep important details in the palm of your incentive travel participants’ hands.

But, we often forget that there’s a period of time before you are actually traveling on the trip where you have to motivate employees to work hard to earn the trip. During that time, various communication tools can help, and technology makes this easier. We work with our teams to make sure we are hitting the right audiences at the right time to keep them engaged. From email campaigns to digital postcards with images of their award destination to reminders/teasers about their progress, using technology throughout the incentive program is essential to maintaining incentive program participation and continuously motivating employees. The companies that experience the most engagement are those that offer this communication all year long.

For example, On10's proprietary PerformX helps clients leverage technology, engage employees, and keep the incentive experience top-of-mind throughout the duration of the program. The more you can impact the entire eligible base of participants, the more meaningful the incentive program will be. Plus, you’ll be able to show the results and make a case for an increased budget for incentive programs.

Emphasize Safety Practices

Employees need to know just how safe incentive travel can be, especially in light of the pandemic. Hotel and airline partners around the world have been focused on ensuring a safe return to travel. Additionally, incentive companies should provide the necessary tools and communication about protocols to your attendees.

More companies are turning to incentive travel as a tool for employee motivation and retention. But, not all incentive travel programs are equal. To create an exceptional experience that is future-proof, you must be forward-thinking and evolutionary. The best incentive travel programs use technology to keep employees engaged throughout the program, include destinations that are exciting and an excellent fit for attendees, and offer curated experiences that attendees can’t recreate on their own.

Samantha Decker is the marketing director at performance improvement firm One10.

Learn more about how to plan incentive programs in challenging times during Northstar Meetings Group's webcast (June 21, 2 p.m. EDT).  Register here.