Dawn Ryburn, this year's Incentive Grand Motivation Master Award Winner, has one main goal in mind when it comes to Ricoh Americas Corporation's Services Team Annual Recognition (STAR) program -- making every employee in attendance feel like a star. Each year, the skills-based recognition and incentive travel program culminates in a STAR Main Event where the top 200 services team members convene for an intensive two-day competition; the top 100 go on to enjoy an incentive trip.
Even though the annual meeting, held at the Sonesta Gwinett Place Atlanta hotel, involves a competition, it's also a celebration for Ricoh's deserving employees. This year, Ryburn, the director of program management for managed and technology services, relied on a little something extra to make sure each attendee knew just how important they were to the company's overall success and customer satisfaction ratings.
"This year was the five-year anniversary of our STAR program, and we wanted to do something special for the winners in hitting this milestone," Ryburn explains. "So, I selected the Maui Jim Experience to tie to the theme -- that all employees are stars -- and we kept it a surprise until the end."
The traditional Maui Jim Experience usually involves a setup in which Maui Jim specialists help attendees pick, choose, and fit the sunglasses of their choice. For Ricoh Americas' STAR program, however, Ryburn made a few changes.
During the welcome and registration period, she and Maui Jim set up a table where attendees were asked to be fitted for a pair of sunglasses that would later be raffled. What the employees didn't know was that as they were being fitted, Maui Jim's specialists were taking special notes on each individual's pick.
Later, on awards night, the gifting experience was a true highlight. "The double doors opened, and the waitstaff came out with these trays of sunglasses, and they gave out the glasses to each person," Ryburn says. "It was Oprah-style, you could say."
Assigned seats and meticulous note taking helped Ryburn and Maui Jim ensure that each employee received the pair of his or her choice. "The excitement level and the delivery of it -- it was just such a surprise, that it took the program to another level," she says. "It gets them excited for next year, and that excitement doesn't stop at this event. Those sunglasses will carry on."
She adds, "Taking things to a personal level was new and different to me. When we gave them what they chose, that meant even more to that employee than a standard gift. After receiving the sunglasses, so many employees came up to personally thank the senior executives. That whole personal experience does mean a lot."
As Ryburn's experience demonstrates, incorporating a customized, personalized merchandise experience into an on-site incentive travel program can have a huge impact on your incentive's value and ROI.
"Without a doubt, the single biggest trend sweeping the incentive industry is the movement away from giving the same gift to all attendees toward creating a custom live experience that gives them a unique, one-of-a-kind gift experience," says Tom Taraci, founder of New York-based Taraci Motivation. "People want to feel special and they want the freedom of choice; that's what these experiences provide."
So, what's the best way to have these gifting experiences in your on-site incentive programs? We spoke to experts in the industry to ask them for their tips. Here's what they had to say.
1. Know Your Audience
Making sure you have the right merchandise for your audience is absolutely crucial.
"Think about that group and who those people are," says Tom Romine, founder and president of Boulder, CO-based Cultivate Premium Corporate Gifts. Cultivate coordinates a variety of different merchandise experiences at meetings and events that include brands such as Adidas, Fitbit, Ray-Ban, Tumi, and OluKai sandals. "It's just like giving a gift to your friends or your family."
"Planners really need to know their audience," adds Mike Landry, vice president of special markets for Tumi. "If you have a bunch of road warriors, that's a certain set of demographics. But what if they're internal folks who don't travel as much? They may not want any luggage. Also, are your recipients primarily male or female? All of these things really have to be communicated."
Spencer Toomey, senior vice president of Westport, CT-based Luxury Lines by MMSC, also says it's important to find out the status and background of each of the participants. "Are ages similar, or is it a mix of Gen Y to Boomers? Is the incentive in the U.S. or outside the country?" Luxury Lines by MMSC coordinates gifting experiences that include brands such as Nike sunglasses; Tommy Bahama watches, luggage, and handbags; Calvin Klein watches, luggage, and handbags; Lodis leather accessories; and Swarovski.
2. Make It Thematic
Follow Ryburn's lead and make connections between the merchandise and your incentive's overall theme. "Merchandise can really tie in well with those themes," says Matt Burdette, B2B sales and marketing manager for Omaha Steaks B2B. "For Omaha Steaks, for example, if the incentive is in the summer, our Omaha Steaks Experience can be melded into an evening event where the guests can be outside and taste freshly grilled Omaha Steaks foods."
During the Omaha Steaks Experience, the gourmet specialty foods provider can work with the venue to give attendees a taste of what they can purchase with their gifted Omaha Steaks certificates. "Normally, you might not get to try all those different cuts of steak at a time, but with the Experience, you get to taste and pick what steak you like best," he explains. "The chef can also help the person in choosing the right cut, and knowing how to cook it."
"I really think that tying the theme together with the merchandise is one of the best ways tie in merchandise," Burdette notes. "You don't want something out of place. That merchandise can create memories. It's that experience of not only tasting the steaks on site, but also that enjoyment when they're at home with family or friends, remembering how or why they received that gift."
"We've done programs where it's all about listening to the client's customer, or the market," says Patrick Corley, vice president of event experiences for Maryland Heights, MO-based Incentive Concepts, LLC. "What's a more natural tie-in than a Bose welcome reception where everyone walks away with a set of Bose noise-canceling headphones? Or if you're encouraging health and wellness, what better way to get people motivated to move than with a new Trek bike?"
3. Go With Luxury
When it comes to using merchandise in on-site incentive programs, always choose quality over quantity. "Brand-name merchandise with a high perceived value enhances the program," says Adrienne Forrest, vice president of special markets for Bulova. Bulova offers a special Gift in Time program during which a Bulova representative sets up a branded display from which recipients can pick and choose their own watch or timepiece.
"To be able to select a gift from a brand with high perceived value makes the whole experience more interesting and more relevant," she notes. "If it were a no-name watch, they might not be that excited to pick it out."
"Brand recognition is a huge thing," adds Jennifer R. Long, senior director of strategic customer engagement for St. Louis, MO-based Amerinet. For Amerinet's customer appreciation meetings, she makes sure to pick merchandise from brands that are "household names." Working with Incentive Concepts, she has incorporated merchandise from brands such as Bose. "Everyone knows what Bose is; it's a good quality product."
Taraci adds, "It's critical to have a great luxury brand that is totally onboard with the on-site effort, and will have samples, displays, signage, and whatever technical support you need. Luxury brands are very important; giving a luxury item tells the recipient how much you value their loyalty or hard work."
4. Go Bespoke
For a truly unique, one-of-a-kind luxury gifting experience, Taraci suggests incorporating custom merchandise, from personally designed shoes to individually personalized in-ear headphones.
"We work with Shoes of Prey from Sydney, Australia, and they'll bring design concierges to the event with a computer station and sample shoes," he explains. "The attendees then get to design their own custom shoes at the event -- they choose the silhouette, heel, materials, etc. And then a few weeks later, they receive the shoes in the mail. Women go bonkers for this."
Another company with which Taraci Motivation works -- Los Angeles-based The Left Shoe Company -- creates bespoke men's dress shoes handcrafted in Portugal. During an event, The Left Shoe Company will take 3-D scans of an attendee's feet, make a cast, and eventually create a pair of shoes based on that person's design and style preferences. "This is something most men would probably never get on their own," Taraci notes.
Another product that Taraci's clients have enjoyed are custom headphones from New York City-based Normal. The company creates custom-fit, in-ear headphones by taking photographs of an individual's ears and then 3-D printing a pair of earphones based on the photos. "You can give people a gift card to do it, or Normal can also bring the equipment to the meeting and do 3-D scans at the meeting and create custom earphones on site. It's unbelievable," Taraci notes.