Incentive Pulse Survey Reveals Focus on the Positive for 2021

Nearly two-thirds of planners intend to hold their next incentive travel programs by fall 2021.

Photo Credit: Illustration: Susan/Adobe Stock

Incentive travel planners are feeling guardedly optimistic about 2021, according to Northstar’s latest Incentive PULSE Survey, the complete results of which can be downloaded and reviewed here.

Following a devastating year when 86 percent of incentive travel programs cancelled or postponed, the outlook for 2021 is more upbeat. According to Incentive’s October survey of 112 industry professionals, 68 percent think they’ll hold their next in-person program next year, mainly in Q2 and Q3, according to 50 percent of the sample. Another 10 percent plan to hold one in the first quarter of 2021, while 13 percent expect their next programs to take place in the final quarter next year. Twenty-five percent don’t expect their next programs to take place until 2022 or later.

The United States is the top setting for respondents’ next programs: Fifty-seven percent will reward participants with a trip to a domestic destination. The Caribbean is the destination of choice for 15 percent of planners, with another 11 percent heading to Mexico or Canada.

That’s a slight forward jump from our June incentive survey, when 33 percent of respondents expected to hold their next programs in Q1 2021, 22 percent in the second quarter, 11 percent in the third quarter and 4 percent in the fourth quarter. Another 20 percent of incentive trips are being booked for 2022 or beyond.

There’s been little change between our June and October surveys in the percentage of planners (37 vs. 39) sourcing and booking future trips, though fewer respondents (29 percent vs. 39 percent) were conducting research for future programs, but not yet booking, in the current survey.

When, at the earliest, do you think you will hold an in-person incentive travel program?
Q4 2020                6%    
Q1 2021               10%
Q2 2021               23%
Q3 2021               22%
Q4 2021               13%
2022                    23%
2023 or later          3%

Are you currently planning future incentive programs?
Yes, sourcing and booking future business                                           37%
Researching for future programs but not booking                                  29%
Not planning, but staying in touch with destination and venue partners   22%
Not planning and not staying in contact at this point                              12%

Alternative Awards

More than half of program organizers are taking care that winners who opt not to travel are duly rewarded for their achievement. Topping the list of alternative rewards offered are merchandise/gifts (44 percent), followed by individual travel rewards (38 percent); cash (35 percent); inclusion in future incentive trip, and gift cards. One respondent is offering a weekend for two in a luxury hotel within driving distance of the winner’s home; the package includes spa treatments, meals and gifts. Another planner said those winners would be invited to next year’s trip, with an upgraded/elite package, if they qualified again.

Types of alternative rewards offered to participants who opt not to travel:
Gifts/merchandise                       44%
Individual travel rewards             38%
Cash                                          35%
Inclusion in future incentive trip   33%
Gift cards                                   27%
Rewards catalog                         21%
Other                                        10%

In other trends, groups will be smaller (according to 55 percent of respondents), while the majority (59 percent) expect budgets to remain the same.

Strong health and safety protocols at a destination and hotel/venue are the top considerations (according to 85 percent polled) when planners and companies determine whether to hold incentive trips. An organization’s travel policy is another extremely important consideration (82 percent), while a proven and accessible Covid-19 vaccine and rapid coronavirus-testing at airports ranked as extremely important, respectively, by 67 percent and 44 percent of respondents. Case studies of successful programs being held were highly valued by 46 percent of planners.

Looking Ahead

More than half of planners expect incentive programs to help drive an economic recovery, while 19 percent said the industry fully recover without much change at the other end of spectrum, 44 percent think many people will not want to travel.

Which of the following do you expect will apply to incentive programs over the next three years?
Programs will offer alternatives to travel.                             56%
Incentives will help drive economic recovery.                       51%
Itineraries will have more free time/individual components.  46%
Many people will not want to travel.                                    44%       
The industry will fully recover without much change.            19%       
Other                                                                                 9%