. 5 Trends Changing Incentive Travel | Northstar Meetings Group

5 Trends Changing Incentive Travel

incentive travel programs evolve

Incentive travel is booming. According to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) study, "2016 Trends in Incentive Travel, Rewards, and Recognition," budgets are up, lead times are growing, and the destinations incentive planners are using are expanding.

"Budgets are up to over $3,000 per person on average, with 30 percent of budgets being between $3,000 and $4,000," reports Melissa Van Dyke, president of the IRF.

The incentive travel industry is healthy, and compared to last year, incentive travel budgets are increasing, agrees Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management at Minneapolis, MN-based Aimia, a leading incentive and loyalty marketing company.

"This will not only spur increased supplier competition, but will also force suppliers to meet the heightened expectations of their clients," says Boisner. "According to a survey by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), 70 percent of suppliers recognize they need to improve their incentive travel services and they are finding more creative ways to add value."

In addition, the demand for meetings and incentive programs is increasing as the economy has improved, which makes finding appropriate hotel space more challenging, as well as more expensive. "After surveying a number of our key partners in the event industry, they suggest booking large incentive programs two to three years in advance and medium programs at least one to two years out. Planning is critical in this demand-driven environment," advises Boisner. Executives and incentive planners who can't book this far out are advised to be flexible with their dates and destination choices, adds Michael Dominguez, senior vice president and chief sales officer of MGM Resorts International, and a past board chair of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

The IRF also reports that organizations are looking for properties and locations that deliver both distinctly unique and truly authentic experiences. Jo-Anne Helotes and Valerie Grady, partners of Progressive Inc., an incentive planning and destination marketing firm, are seeing increased interest in destinations like Central and South America, Asia, Iceland, and Croatia. "We are seeing a resurgent interest in international destinations, even given the recent events in Western Europe," they say.

In this robust market, there are very specific trends shaping incentive travel. Here are five of the most significant:

Experiential Travel

Hearing the roar of a lion during a South African safari… an afternoon spent immersed in the Maori culture in New Zealand… a car rally along the Monaco Grand Prix route… these are one-of-a-kind experiences unique to the destination. By incorporating the exoticness of the location the group is in, unforgettable experiences are created. When a group experiences the out-of-the-ordinary together, be that a meal, unique activity, or tour, the camaraderie -- not to mention the memories, created -- will be priceless.

"Overwhelmingly, creating an unforgettable experience continues to be everything," says Boisner. "We continue to work with our partners and suppliers to create unique and authentic programs. Participants are looking for incentive travel programs that cannot be replicated on their own. It is our job to continue to find new and creative ways to add value and wow them at every touch point. The future will continue to demand a higher degree of customization and heightened experiences for participants."

There is a demand for experiential program design, but quality cannot be compromised, say Helotes and Grady. "Today, planners must deliver programs that create truly immersive destination experiences by offering the unexplored and undiscovered while maintaining the luxury demanded by American travelers," the duo say.

Boisner adds that, "with greater diversity in program participants, we are driven to include even more flexibility and activity variance in programs. We must understand the audience and even the individual nuances of each participant."

Mark Sergot, senior vice president, global sales organization, for FRHI Hotels & Resorts, calls this trend, "Experience over commodity," adding, "Groups continue to be drawn to programming that embraces learning and unique experiences."

This is a trend that cuts across all participant generations, and it goes beyond fun activities, says Alison Taylor, senior vice president of the Starwood Sales Organization at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. "Making sure that people are part of the community when they travel, and are socially responsible -- that they contribute to the community -- is a must-have in this market. It's so important to have social responsibility be part of the experience," she says. "People want to feel they've made a connection, actually met people, and become friends."

In Lhasa, Tibet, Starwood works with a local school. Incentive groups "can stay with the children, they can sponsor children afterwards if they wish -- they're in desperate need of books and other supplies," Taylor adds. "There are also charities and NGOs we engage with, because they understand what the local issues are and feel like [groups] can contribute." And the company's properties have long-term associations with groups, so clients can be assured they have been vetted. "This is very important," Taylor adds.

All-Inclusive Properties

The days of unimpressive buffets and bottom-shelf liquor being served at all-inclusive properties are over. More than a few all-inclusives now rival the luxury four- and five-star properties.

All-inclusives simplify meetings and incentives from a strategic and budgetary standpoint as they include accommodations, meals, drinks, transfers, taxes, gratuities, entertainment, and the use, setup, and breakdown of meeting rooms. The company knows exactly what the program will cost going in. It's also reassuring to know your attendees can get a snack or a drink when they want one without digging into their pockets.

Those are important points that help explain why incentive business out of the U.S. and Canada is up 80 percent in the last three years, says Kevin Edmunds, vice president, meeting & incentive sales, at the Hard Rock All-Inclusive Collection. "With a true incentive program, you do not want to have participants reaching into their wallets for anything," he says, adding that as the general public is aware that high-quality all-inclusive resorts are available, incentive participants are asking for them as well.

Hard Rock's All-Inclusive Collection includes properties in Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Nuevo Vallarta in Mexico, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, with more on the way in both countries

Hannah Greenberg, CMP, director of conference services for Cherry Hill, NJ-based Meeting Mavericks, really wasn't a fan of all-inclusive resorts until she attended a retreat at Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. "I cannot imagine a higher quality of service, better restaurants, quality of amenities, and a lovelier resort. Each floor has its own concierge. What I thought was over-the-top service was that every morning the concierge would press the elevator button at the first sound of my footsteps so that I wouldn't have to wait."

Even properties that are not typically all- inclusive are adding this option for groups. Given the popularity of all-inclusive packages, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa and CasaMagna Marriott Cancun, popular, side-by-side sister properties that together form the Marriott Cancun Collection, have added an all-inclusive package for incentive and meeting groups. Together, the two properties have 898 guest rooms, a 35,000-square-foot Mayan-inspired JW Spa, numerous pools, a sprawling beach, first-rate restaurants, and 88,000 square feet of flexible event space.

Hyatt was the first major hotel chain to fully embrace high-end all-inclusives, creating the Ziva and Zilara brands, which now have properties in Los Cabos, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Event Technology

Technology continues to be at the forefront of incentive event trends because social technology has changed the way we communicate. "We create shareable moments through social walls, unique hashtags, and photo-sharing opportunities. Social applications are a great way to entice and engage participants -- especially those who are not at the event, but aspire to earn the trip the following year," says Aimia's Boisner.

Mobile apps are now expected at events. They keep participants engaged during the trip by identifying and recognizing top performers while also educating participants with event details and scheduling updates.

Hotels are aware of that. "We are always looking to provide more choice to our customers, while also staying ahead of the current trends in group travel, says FRHI's Sergot. "One area that continues to grow in importance is technology. For us, this means looking for ways to personalize the guest experience, even in a group atmosphere, through state-of the-art facilities and technology that is both seamless and very useful."