The Incentive Research Foundation's In-Person Education Invitational Draws 500 Attendees

The organization’s tentpole event, held at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort in Florida, delivered three days of robust education, enthusiastic networking and a preview of a key study.

A panel at the Incentive Research Foundation Education Invitational featured, from left to right, From left to right, Trevor Hanks, managing partner of 360 Destination Group; Laura Pugliesi, director of sales for Cvent; Karen Devine, CEO of 3D Cruise Partners; and Rich Garlick, chief research officer for the IRF.

Five hundred incentive executives and suppliers came together — many for their first in-person event since the pandemic began — for the Incentive Research Foundation’s Education Invitational, held June 2-4 at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort in Florida.

The event marked one of the first industry gatherings where the majority of fully vaccinated participants (89 percent) could leave off their masks for indoor and outdoor events, as the IRF updated its safety protocols in accordance with new CDC guidelines that were released days before the event kicked off. Safety protocols were still followed: Attendees were required to undergo daily health and temperature checks, administered by Vital Circle, and wore lanyards that tracked their whereabouts. As a “softer” precaution, attendees were given color-coded buttons to show their social comfort with physical distancing and contact during the event; it was a virtual sea of green dots, which signified the most comfort, and resulted in an enthusiastic show of elbow bumps, fist bumps and side hugs.

The robust educational offerings included two inspiring speakers, artist Phil Hansen and musician Jade Simmons, who overcame hurdles to become stars in their respective fields. Also on the agenda was an update on duty-of-care advice for incentive programs from Dr. Jonathan Spero and attorney Joshua L. Grimes, as well as breakout sessions that addressed of-the-moment topics relevant to incentive professionals.

One panel session (pictured above), which was helmed by the IRF’s chief research officer Rick Garlick, provided a preview of the much-anticipated “Impact of Destination Choice on Motivation” study, which incorporates IRF research, plus sourcing and booking data for incentive trips planned for the immediate future from such providers as Cvent.

The study reveals that Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Western U.S, Western Europe, Alaska and the Southern U.S. were most appealing to incentive participants. Destinations of least interest were Africa, the Middle East and the Midwest. Panelist Trevor Hanks, managing partner of 360 Destination Group, recommended that planners who can’t find popular resort areas for their upcoming programs should consider big cities like New York and San Francisco, which have a lot of availability now.

A surprising finding was that the majority of participants (52 percent) considered six to nine days the ideal length of an incentive trip, when the majority of programs last five days/four nights. The full study is expected to be released later in 2021.

Other sessions included insights about why companies like Nationwide Insurance, FedEx and T-Mobile value incentive travel  and their incentive partners.

Reflecting on the event, IRF president Stephanie Harris shared that “overall [attendee] impressions were how much pure energy there was from being together again, which speaks to the value of live events, and the levels of engagement with our education session.”

The highlight of the conference for many, including Harris, was the JW Marriott Marco Island's celebratory staff parade held during the final day’s brunch. “So many people noted that they were incredibly moved by seeing all of the associates who were back after furlough and so enthusiastic to be doing what they love to do again,” noted Harris.

As per tradition, the venue and dates for the next Education Invitational were revealed at the conclusion of the program. The next IRF Education Invitational will be held at the Hyatt Ziva Cap Cana and the Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, June 1-4, 2022.