Incentive Travel Programs Are Firmly on the Road to Recovery, Says Incentive Q2 PULSE Survey

Organizers continue to source and book incentive trips, and the U.S., Caribbean and Mexico remain their top destinations.  


Northstar Meetings Group's latest Incentive PULSE Survey points to the continued recovery of incentive travel. The second-quarter study of 155 incentive organizers, conducted online from April 27-May 7, 2021, reveals that all but 4 percent of planners polled are either rescheduling, researching, sourcing or booking programs now. For the most part, respondents are planning their next trips for the second half of this year (48 percent) or in 2022 (38 percent).

The enthusiasm for the return to travel is part of an overall trend: 77 percent of Americans plan to travel this summer, according to a recent Harris Poll. And that same excitement is driving the return to in-person travel rewards. “People want to get out there, back to face-to-face — there's nothing like it, you can't replace it,” said Brad Hecht, vice president, travel, at Motivation Excellence.

Among other key findings: Fewer planners are offering alternative rewards as group travel picks up. The most popular prize continues to be merchandise/gifts, while cash — the second-most favored alternative prize in our first-quarter Incentive PULSE Survey — dropped dramatically. As restrictions ease and vaccination rates climb, planners are organizing more indoor incentive trip elements, as well as group activities such as tours.

Planners Are Busy Researching and Sourcing

Twenty-nine percent of planners polled said their current, primary focus regarding in-person travel incentives was researching the programs; the same number reported they are actively sourcing programs. Another 23 percent were rescheduling programs, while 15 percent were booking new programs. Only 4 percent were currently not planning in-person events.

The Incentive survey findings are closely in line with those of the most recent Northstar Meetings Group PULSE Survey (conducted in April 2021), which queries planners across the meetings industry and revealed more respondents (19 percent) actually booking meetings.

Both studies signal that there is plenty of business in the pipeline that should soon be booked, a welcome recovery for the events industry as a whole.

Trips Are Happening Soon

There’s been little change from our Q1 survey on when planners will hold their next incentive program: Half of respondents (48 percent) said their next trips will take place in the second half of 2021, with Q4 (27 percent) being slightly more popular than Q3 (21 percent). Another 38 percent are planning their next trip in 2022, while 2 percent are holding out until 2023.

U.S., Caribbean and Mexico Remain Hot

The most popular destinations from the previous Incentive PULSE Survey continue to appeal to incentive groups. Half of the planners (50 percent) will hold their next programs in U.S. destinations requiring flights, a jump up from 41 percent in our Q1 2021 survey. That increase likely reflects the general increased comfort with air travel throughout the U.S.: On May 7, the Transportation Security Administration processed 1.7 million air passengers, the highest single daily number since the start of the pandemic.

Outside the U.S., the Caribbean is still the most popular incentive travel spot. Our Q2 survey separated Mexico from Canada, which revealed Mexico’s popularity but exposed Canada’s very low number on account of that country's strict travel restrictions. Another region that took a hit between the first and second quarter was Europe, where only 2 percent of planners intend to book their next program; in the first quarter, 11 percent were organizing programs in Europe. This number is likely to increase again, as the European Union has just announced its borders will open soon to vaccinated travelers. 

Fewer Alternative Rewards Are Offered

Less than one quarter (22 percent) of respondents will reward winners who opt out of travel programs. This is a significant decrease from our last survey, when more than a third of respondents planned to offer alternative rewards in place of group travel. Leading the types of alternative rewards offered, as per those providing them, is merchandise/gifts (58 percent), an increase from 51 percent in the Q1 survey.

The option for individual travel (rather than group) also proved popular (48 percent), while cash, which held the number 2 spot in our March survey, fell to 9 percent. The drop in cash prizes is not unexpected, as studies like the Incentive Research Foundation’s Event Alternatives and Their Impact on Culture show that cash is not as motivational as other types of rewards. Another reason for cash’s diminishing use as a reward is that it was viewed by some firms as only a temporary solution during the pandemic.

Also of note: Gift cards and winners’ automatic inclusion in future incentive trips were each offered by 33 percent of the organizers who use alternative rewards.

More Indoor Elements Are Returning

There’s been a shift in incentive program agendas and inclusions, as planners move things indoors: Our Q2 survey reveals that 61 percent of planners will include indoor meals and 45 percent will offer indoor activities. In Incentive’s Q1 PULSE Survey, just 48 percent of respondents were including indoor F&B functions and 34 percent were planning inside activities. Outdoor activities and dining are still quite popular, with 88 percent of planners including each on their agendas.

Gifts and gifting bars will be part of programs for 70 percent of planners polled. And group tours, which were not included as an option in our prior survey, are now being planned by 68 percent of respondents.

Health and Safety Come First

The top factor affecting a planner's decision to hold an incentive trip is the presence of thorough health and safety protocols at a hotel and/or venue, according to the 77 percent of respondents who deemed that extremely important. A destination's health and safety protocols, as well as a low number of Covid-19 cases, were each ranked as extremely important to more than 60 percent of planners. 

The Outlook Is Positive

Planners are feeling bullish about the future of incentive trips. Eighty-two percent expect travel will become a more desired reward by winners over the next three years. Still, about a quarter (26 percent) think programs will offer more and better alternatives to travel — leading one to conclude that no matter how desired travel becomes, creative alternatives will be an important component of future incentive programs.

Nearly four out of 10 (39 percent) respondents said trips will offer more free time and individual components, which reflects a rising trend in incentive trips moving away activities that include the entire group. One respondent shared that “individual activities, especially spa treatments, were very popular on our program last week. Small groups activities like kayaking and fishing were popular vs. chartering a catamaran for everyone, which has become a thing of the past.”

Lastly, while the outlook is positive, planners do expect change. Only half of incentive organizers expect programs to closely resemble those of the prepandemic era. "No one should expect to return to a pre-2020 format," commented a respondent. "All will likely be changed to adapt to new tastes, lifestyles and personal ideas about motivation."