Last year, an automobile manufacturer brought all of its top 45 dealership owners and their guests to a recognition event at the end of a year-long incentive campaign. After all the plates had been cleared at the end of the final night's dinner, waiters came out one more time, this time wearing white gloves and bearing gleaming silver platters. On those platters were 45 clear plastic blocks, each holding an American $1,000 bill.
While still technically considered legal tender in the U.S., the $1,000 bill features President Grover Cleveland and was last printed during World War II. The Treasury has been destroying any bills it can get its hands on since 1969. They are currently available only through collectors and dealers, and can sell for several times their face value.
"The $1,000 bill is out of circulation and extremely rare," says Chrissie Walsh, an account director at Minneapolis-based Aimia, a global loyalty and incentive firm. "These winners are extremely wealthy and have everything, so to be able to think outside the box, and to be able to come up with something they most likely do not have -- something they have most likely never seen -- is always a challenge. A Louis Vuitton bag? They probably have 12 of them. They may not have known the $1,000 bill even existed. They understand how rare this is, and the lengths to which the client went. It's not a standard 'thank you.'"
The goal of any incentive award is to excite program recipients so much that they are motivated to work incredibly hard to win it. That's why brand-name merchandise like electronics, watches, cameras, sports equipment, luggage, jewelry, and luxury travel are so popular among incentive winners and make incentive programs so successful. Almost everyone has some item they want that is too much of a luxury for them to justify splurging on.
"The great challenge with the selection of rewards is the uniqueness of each eligible employee," adds Susan Adams, director of engagement of New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing. "While a huge flat-screen TV might be a highly prized reward for one winner, it can be an unnecessary space hog for another. In order to leverage the power of personal aspirations and dreams for an incentive program, it's critical to get the rewards right. The ability to select connects the individual's desires to their professional efforts, making it a meaningful motivator."
The Award Experience
Enough recipients are motivated by something a little different that most large and medium-sized incentive houses have a special buyer or concierge who specializes in unusual requests from winners.
The concierge service that Atlanta-based incentive house USMotivation offers in many of its programs has helped winners go "off-catalog" with prizes ranging from Botox treatments to a Harley-Davidson. USMotivation even managed to deliver a snow blower to a snowbound participant, says Scott Siewert, the company's divisional vice president of sales.
"Tying the recognition or reward directly to the employee's life and interests creates a deeper impact and increases their loyalty to the company," Siewert says. "For one of our catalog programs, we actually set up a hot-air balloon engagement ceremony. We arranged for the employee to ask his girlfriend to marry him while soaring in a hot-air balloon. It was a marvelous occasion!" And, Siewert adds, it is something both the winner and his (now) wife will always remember.
Turning a merchandise award into an experience is a growing trend in the industry, thanks to on-site "merchandise bars" that replace traditional incentive trip room gifts with a single, higher-end award from a selection of different styles -- such as sunglasses, watches, and even electronics. But this is not the only way to make merchandise awards even more thrilling and memorable.
St. Louis-based Maritz Motivation Solutions has been offering its Run Through the Warehouse reward experience for more than 35 years at the company's Las Vegas distribution center, says Kathy Randall, the firm's brand communications director. "In the past two years, Maritz has hosted more than 1,500 teams in this experiential award that participants often talk about for years to come," she says. "As the adrenalin is pumping and the competitive spirit ignited, teams of two race up and down the aisles of a Las Vegas warehouse filled to the brim with brand-name merchandise. They load as much as they possibly can on their cart, limited only by the sixty seconds on the clock."
The game show-style excitement of this event has consistently led to post-event survey results showing that the experience is "beyond the norm," she adds.
Gift cards can also be a part of this one-off type of experiential award. The personal shopper at Maritz Motivation recently arranged a gift card for The Pickled Pedaler, an Indianapolis-based company that rents a 14-person contraption that can best be described as "a 14 passenger pedal-powered pub," says Randall. The open-air vehicle, which has a driver and an electric motor in case participants get tired, tours the city while the peddlers, facing a central bar on their padded bike seats, are drinking and enjoying a tour of the city.