Northstar's latest Incentive PULSE Survey reveals a massive swing from negative to positive booking activity. Sixty percent of the 141 respondents to our March 2021 survey are now sourcing and booking incentive travel programs, up dramatically from just 37 percent in October 2020, when we last conducted this semiannual research. Only 12 percent are not planning travel programs, a substantial drop from our fall survey, in which 34 percent of respondents weren't organizing trips.
The second half of 2021 will be particularly strong: Nearly two-thirds of planners (62 percent) will hold programs this year, with most taking place in Q3 and Q4, which was also the case in our previous study. More than a third (37 percent) wait until 2022 before executing a travel program, while just 1 percent will resume in 2023.
BACK TO BOOKING
The good news signals a decisive acceleration on the road to recovery. "We knew recovery would be swift in the U.S., but these trends are indicating an even greater rebound," said Aoife Delaney, president of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence and director of marketing and sales at The DMC Network.
This growing optimism is evident in the survey findings. More than half (52 percent) of respondents expect programs to return to pre-2020 norms within the next three years, a huge jump from the 19 percent of incentive professionals in our previous study. This positivity matches the findings of the most recent Incentive Travel Industry Index, the annual survey conducted by the SITE Foundation, the Incentive Research Foundation and Financial and Insurance Conference Planners.
In other upbeat news, only 15 percent of incentive planners anticipate winners will want to avoid travel through 2024, far less than the 44 percent in our fall survey. As one respondent noted, "Travel will always be the most rewarding incentive, the one that is most anticipated and provides memories that last a lifetime.
Favorite destinations haven't changed
Interestingly, destinations of choice have been consistent from survey to survey. More than half of the planners (54 percent) will hold their next programs in the U.S. Fourteen percent of those U.S. incentives will be within driving distance of participants, while 41 percent will require flights, a slight uptick from our previous study and in accordance with the increasing number of people flying again. In March 2021, the Transportation Security Administration reported five consecutive days of more than one million U.S. air travelers, including the single highest days for passengers since March 2020. Among the top domestic places that will host respondents' programs this year are Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, California and Wyoming.
Outside the U.S., the Caribbean remains the most popular spot incentive travel spot, followed by three destinations that planners are booking slightly more now than they were in the fall: Mexico/Canada (13 percent), Europe (11 percent) and Central/South America (4 percent).
Alternative rewards are still being offered
More than a third (36 percent) of respondents will reward winners who opt out a travel program, while more than half are unsure if they'll follow suit. Leading the types of alternative rewards offered, as per those providing them, is merchandise/gifts (51 percent), also the most popular non-travel option in the fall survey.
Cash takes second place. One respondent noted that their company is offering cash rewards equal to half the value of the incentive trip to winners who would prefer not to travel. The IRF's recent Event Alternatives paper revealed that the majority of organizations who gave alternative awards in 2020 also favored merchandise and cash. IRF president Stephanie Harris noted that cash "doesn't carry the same trophy value or memorability that other tangible rewards do," confirmed the IRF's research.
Both money and gift cards (35 percent) edged out individual travel rewards (33 percent); the latter was the second-most popular alternative prize in our fall study. More than a quarter (27 percent) offer winners automatic inclusion in a future incentive trip, while 25 percent will let winners choose their prize from a rewards catalog.
Health and safety protocols remain a top consideration
Not surprisingly, thorough health and safety protocols at hotels or venues are a key factor in program decisions, per 85 percent of those polled. A destination's level of Covid cases, as well as strict health/safety protocols, are also extremely important, followed by widely accessible Covid vaccines.
Forty percent of PULSE Survey respondents highly value case studies of successful programs held recently. According to one planner, "People love to see travel successes during Covid and what meetings look like now."
Outside is in
Program inclusions have changed as a result of new health and safety protocols. As a result, many planners are including fresh-air functions: 91 percent of planners will include outdoor group activities and 88 percent will hold outdoor meal functions for their next program. While groups are longing to be outdoors, planners still need to book backup space in case of weather issues, noted Mandi Graziano, vice president global accounts at Hospitality Performance Network.
Reflecting on the future
Respondents do expect some changes in travel programs as a result of the pandemic. One planner believes individual awards will replace some group travel, with recipients choosing their destinations and travel dates. Another suggests that in promoting programs, organizations will need to provide reassurance that the trip will be safe.
"Incentive travel is important in helping corporations meet their goals," a respondent commented. "Tweaks to programs will be made, but I don't believe that incentive programs will go away."