Will COVID-19 Kill Incentive Travel?

Programs can survive and thrive, according to one industry leader.

Incentive Travel COVID

Part of me loves the speculation, the permutations and combinations of the “if this, then that” logic that we indulge in on a daily basis. I’m referring, of course, to the endless chatter around what meetings 3.0 or incentives 3.0 will look like when COVID-19 finally gets run out of Dodge City. The “new normal”. The radically altered physiognomy of business events in the post-coronavirus era.

When it comes to incentive travel and the impact of the pandemic, however, we need to face the brutal facts:Many of the implications of COVID-19 — not least the restrictions on travel and the reality of social distancing — cut to the heart of what incentive travel is and justifies the provocative question: Will COVID-19 kill incentive travel?

There’s no global roadmap for when we’ll be able to travel freely across borders, seas and oceans. Over the next number of months, this situation will become clearer but, in the meantime, we’re in an endless holding pattern, going round and round like the Dublin – London flight over Heathrow Airport. 

Incentive travel under threat

Organizers of meetings and conferences can, at least, work around social distancing — respect the six-foot rule, reduce capacities, eliminate buffets, etc. — but organizers of incentives are left with the sinking feeling that social distancing could suck all the energy and joy out of the incentive reward. Would it really be a motivational experience if I couldn’t stand at the bar and celebrate freely with my fellow qualifiers?

Incentive programs also have the added complication of being linked to specific, time-based campaigns. With pervasive workplace disruption, the natural rhythm that marks out the year is severely out of kilter, impacting the ability to stage a proper campaign. Are the 2020 campaigns that would generate incentive trips in the months and years to come actually taking place?

And the other big issue that impacts incentive programs, of course, is the airline industry. Will some airlines go bankrupt? Will there be route networks to get folks easily where they want to be? And what about capacities and cost per seat if the requirement for social distancing persists? 

Without mentioning corporate travel bans and qualifiers’ own fears of travel, these are just some of the brutal facts that incentive travel professionals need to face up to and, yes, if you’re a small, specialist agency or DMC, this is not pretty at all. In fact, it’s ugly in the extreme, sufficiently ugly to cause nightmares or sleepless nights.

So what can incentive professionals do?

1. Accept the brutal facts 

The first thing you can, and need, to do is to accept the reality of the situation (yes, this is beginning to sound like the 12-step program for addiction recovery). There is likely to be a longer hiatus than we initially imagined or hoped, particularly for group incentives. How long we still don’t know but, failing the speedy discovery of a vaccine, I believe it’ll be some time and this needs to be factored into your business engineering and planning. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

2. Read the signs of the times

The second thing you can do is read the signs of the times. As individual countries re-emerge from lockdown you can see clear patterns emerging with travel resuming first at local, then national, then regional, then international, levels. You need to re-engineer your business in that way. If you’re a DMC in Europe depending on incentive business from Asia and the United States, then you need to start targeting closer source markets, as long-haul travel will be the last to recover.

3. Explore individual incentives

For the reasons previously outlined, group incentives are likely to decrease in the short- to medium-term. However, I believe there will be a short- to mid-term resurgence in individual incentives. While, for some, the term “individual incentive” is an oxymoron, I think the COVID-19 era is the perfect time to roll them out again. Upscale, individual travel, like leisure, will recover quickly and, remember, this type of incentive also ticks a millennial requirement for individuality, customization and personalization.

4. Think of the qualifiers

Incentive travel experiences are created to reward extraordinary performance. Thousands of qualifiers are missing out on the trip of a lifetime they worked so hard to win. What suggestions can you bring to your corporate client that allows the astonishing effort of these team members to be acknowledged and feted? Can you involve the destination where the trip should have been hosted? I’ve read some great reports of incentive agencies who staged virtual award and recognition ceremonies, even arranging for the delivery of themed gourmet meals to the qualifiers’ homes.

5. Breathe

In the overall scheme of things, this is an episode of scary turbulence on a long international flight. Start using mindfulness techniques to imagine a soft landing in a warm place and, while you’re pursuing this pleasant reverie, be sincerely thankful you can breathe without effort. Then breathe.…and breathe again.

COVID-19 has no chance of killing incentive travel because programs are integral to the core business models of so many organizations. Remember, it’s the only workplace reward that benefits both the giver and the receiver.

When you give an incentive travel reward, you give winners an extraordinary travel experience to share (often) with a loved one; you give them time together in a beautiful location; you connect them to other people and places; you enrich them in ways more enduring than if you gave them cash or merchandise.

But you also connect them with the company; You build bonds between the winners, their significant others and key company officers. You make them ambassadors for the company. You strengthen company culture.

Padraic Gilliganis managing partner ofSoolNua, and chief marketing officer for theSociety for Incentive Travel Excellence.