. How to Personalize Incentive Travel Experiences | Northstar Meetings Group

How to Personalize Incentive Travel Experiences

When it comes to today's incentive trips, the goal is to craft journeys offering experiences tailored to individual winners.

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Cooking classes focused on a destination's local cuisine are popular with groups. Photo Credit:NoSystem Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Planning an incentive trip used to be fairly straightforward: Pick a destination, organize a tour, arrange an afternoon of golf or spa, and cap it off with a fancy award dinner. Today, it's a different story: One-size-fits-all trips no longer cut it with participants; they expect choices in activities, menus, gifts and more.

"Personalization has become much more of a priority over the past five years," says Barbara Ward, vice president of travel and events for incentive and meeting firm One10. "People are looking for more and more of a personalized experience when they're within the group. Companies like ours have to think about not only what does that mean to the client and to the message they want to send to their attendee group, but what does that mean to each specific attendee? That's a tough question to answer when you have hundreds of participants who all want different things."

The key to gearing a trip for an incentive winner is fairly obvious, according to Dan Tavrytzky, managing director of the DMC Network: Find out details about who each individual is and what they like. "We do a personal survey of the winners, their likes and dislikes," he says. "We find out about favorite foods, hobbies and things like that, which we can incorporate into an on-site experience. For example, we'll ask what their favorite drink is, and when they arrive at their hotel, it'll be waiting for them. It might be a gin and tonic or it might be a hot chocolate. They'll find their favorite food in their room instead of the standard fruit bowl. The welcoming experience is very bespoke to them."

Kim Savransky of Fab at Incentives
Kim Savransky of Fab at Incentives
Raising the Gift Bar
The nightly room gift is quickly being replaced by a brand-name merchandise gift experience, where participants gather around a display of sunglasses, watches or even blue jeans and select the item that best suits their personal style.

"This trend has exploded in the last year or two," says Barbara Ward, vice president of travel and events for incentive and meeting firm One10. She recommends working with a third-party vendor to create these gifting experiences, as assembling them can be complex and expensive, and can involve shipping and tax difficulties, particularly abroad.

"This year, for one of our groups, we happened to be in a location where health and wellness was a big component of the resort, so we tapped into that and did a shopping experience with tennis shoes, yoga mats and clothing," says Kim Savransky, vice president of operations for incentive house Fab at Incentives. Each participant was given a budget of points to shop with. "There was a wide array of gifts, and I think that helped to personalize it a little bit more," Savransky adds.

1. Learn About Winners

Getting to know group members starts with demographics, but it's important to make sure you don't get too caught up in whether participants are Millennials, Gen Xers or boomers. For one thing, most groups will have a mix of ages. For another, generations don't define people the way they used to.

"It's less age-driven and more about the person,"  says Ward of One10. "There are plenty of baby boomers who are more active than their age might suggest. And there are certainly some Millennials who want to enjoy the spa or just hang out versus running out to do things."

Tavrytzky agrees. "We're finding that 'Millennial' really isn't defined by an age, it's more defined by a way of thinking, and a lot of so-called Millennial activities are being done by non-Millennial delegates, so we wouldn't assume anything when we get those demographics," he notes. "That's where the advance questionnaires really come into play."

The age and interests of groups can impact the type of destination that will best suit the winners. Attraction-rich cities have been growing in popularity for years, in part an effect of the growth of incentive programs catering to Millennials, who often prefer such locales, according to Ward.  

Yet, the destination doesn't matter that much from a planning perspective, she adds. "If you're buying an incentive program, whether it's at a resort or in a city, you still have a great mix of activities, restaurants and free time, so I think it's just a flavor to the program. There really isn't that much difference, other than what can be offered."

2. Choose Meaningful Activities

While some personalization has always been in play when it comes to creating a choice of activities for a group, it has grown more pronounced in recent years, and the variety of options has increased. And the key word here is experiential.

"It used to be just spa, golf and ATV-riding, and now participants want to go beyond that," notes Ward. "They like to experience more of the local flavor."

For high-end groups, that means activities individuals couldn't readily do on their own, such as dining in a Scottish castle or getting up at 5 a.m. to help open the gates of the Vatican to the public, Ward says. Interestingly, when participants are surveyed, one of the most popular options is free time. "It doesn't mean that they're not going to network with their peers or spend time with the executives, it's just more on their own," says Ward. "They don't want it to be so structured."

3.Make Dining Fun

Food-and-beverage events are another good chance for personalization. Starting with the obvious, buffets and banquet menus can offer both standard fare and local specialties to satisfy both picky and adventurous eaters. Regionally oriented cooking classes and tours of local markets or artisan-food sellers are popular off-site event options.

But with a little creativity, any group meal offers options for personalization. For example, a big awards dinner for a financial services firm in Tucson was organized as five individual dinners, hosted by five division presidents, according to Kim Savransky, vice president of operations for incentive house Fab at Incentives. "Depending on the president, we chose a restaurant that fit them best, ranging from a casual sports bar to a five-star dining experience."

The same group had personalized activities worked into the big send-off group dinner, which started traditionally enough at an outdoor venue with a private concert by a top-name act. As people got off the buses, their pictures were taken; walking into the lobby bar, they were handed a cocktail topped with a wafer featuring their own image. "It was one of those 'whoa' moments -- their iPhones were being whipped out to take pictures," recalls Savransky.

Another touch arranged by Fab at Incentives featured three stations staffed by professional poets who would take a few minutes to get details about each attendee, then whip up a personalized ode in five minutes.

4. Support Social Media

There are few ways to express individuality more popular than via social media, and there are plenty of opportunities for planners to incorporate Facebook, Instagram and Twitter into programs, says Dahlton Bennington, director of meetings & incentives for PROfound Planning.

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Dahlton Bennington of PROfound Planning.

More than a few people "think it's not real if it hasn't been posted so other people see it," Bennington asserts. "A lot of people feel that way unless something is validated with 100 likes."

One simple strategy is to create photo opportunities that showcase the destination or its culture while allowing attendees to capture the kind of selfies that they want to share on social media platforms. For example, Bennington recommends creating a photo opp on St. Kitts between winners and the local population of green vervet monkeys.

"Having monkeys with which people can engage [with the assistance of a professional handler] allows an authentic selfie moment that helps attendees showcase the destination," Bennington says.

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Winners visiting St. Kitts can capture a special moment with a monkey.

One problem with social media is perception: Many of her clients discourage posts, since they don't want to advertise that they have awarded incentive trips, Bennington notes. A common solution is to use an event app that mimics those sites in a private environment.

She adds: "Being able to offer a platform where people can post their experiences within the safety of a private online environment -- whether that's through Instagram-type photo sharing or a Facebook-like social feed -- where they're generating content and photos at the same time, gives individuals the ability to share it with their colleagues and peers, and validates that they are having an extraordinary experience."