Although more planners are looking to hold international programs than in years past, domestic programs are still incredibly popular with U.S.-based organizations. While this year's top five domestic incentive travel destinations are perennial favorites, there are indications that groups are looking for more off-the-beaten-path locales and experiences, too, whether it's glamping at a luxury resort in Montana as Rice's clients plan to do this year, or savoring the low-country cuisine of Charleston, SC, like some of the clients served by Joost de Meyer, CIS, CITE, CMM, ACC, and chairman and CEO of Orlando-based First Incentive Travel. Still, warm-weather destinations with a wide-ranging variety of activities and attractions were the No. 1 destinations for incentive travel programs this year. Here's a closer look at the top five states for domestic incentive programs:
Given Orlando, FL's record-breaking number of visitors in 2014 -- more than 62 million, a new all-time record for U.S. tourism -- it's no surprise that the state of Florida continues to be the most popular domestic destination for incentive travel programs. According to Incentive's 2015 "Travel IQ Survey," the Sunshine State garnered 54.6 percent of votes, up 7.2 percent from last year's survey.
"Florida is a fantastic domestic choice," says Kurt Paben, president of channel and employee loyalty for Minneapolis-based Aimia. "It not only boasts a number of new and renovated hotels each year but also offers affordable and convenient airlift, great golf, and top dining and entertainment. Orlando is an excellent spot to host larger incentive groups. Orlando is always adding something new to their repertoire, and people want to be the first to experience the latest and greatest attractions. Optional theme-park buyouts make large parties extra intriguing."
Beyond Orlando and traditional incentive destinations like Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Paben says cities like Miami and more off-the-beaten-path locales like Naples and Amelia Island, are also ideal for incentives. "Naples and Miami present diverse beach scenes," he says.
The incredible range of experiences to be had in the Golden State continues to make it one of the most popular spots for incentives.
"California offers something unique for every participant," says Paben. He notes many of Aimia's clients choose to do programs in Southern California, in cities that include Dana Point, Newport Beach, Santa Monica, and San Diego. "Southern California has a diverse culture, fantastic culinary options, and great weather year-round. There's easy air access and lots of options for exciting group activities and evening events."
Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Sales Organization Senior Vice President Alison Taylor also named Southern California as one of the top domestic incentive destinations for her customers, while CWT Meetings & Events Americas' VP Tony Wagner says Northern California was popular with his clients.
CTP Group CEO Marilyn Murphy and The Performance Group Senior Travel Buyer Kate Rice both listed Napa Valley as their most requested domestic incentive destination. "It's the single-most popular request that we get from clients," says Murphy. However, Murphy notes, she often suggests slightly more affordable wine country regions in the state because Napa can be a bit expensive, especially on weekend dates. "We might consider the central California wine region or Santa Barbara, which is every bit as spectacular as Napa," she says. "Sonoma is also just over the mountains from Napa, but offers some great wine experiences as well."
Hawaii Says Aloha to Groups
Ranking third on this year's "Travel IQ Survey" is the Aloha State. "Hawaii is always a fan favorite," says Paben. "The plethora of outdoor activities, world-class resorts, and an unmatched beach scene will always help this location top the domestic charts."
At Starwood, Maui was the No. 1 domestic destination for incentive groups this year and Taylor believes its combination of retreat-like experiences and adventurous locales propelled it to the top spot. "Increased airlift into Hawaii and strong value continue to drive demand there and, within Hawaii, Maui continues to rank as the most popular destination for group incentives, with Hawaii Island group trips also on the rise," she says.
Marty Doyle, senior director of travel experiences for New Brunswick, NJ-based Dittman Incentive Marketing, echoes Taylor and Paben's sentiments on Hawaii, saying, "This is a dream destination for many incentive program participants, and our clients are able to tap into that motivating power and offer an unforgettable experience, while still in the U.S., which remains a post-recession requirement for many financial services organizations." At The Performance Group, Rice says Hawaii was the No. 1 domestic incentive destination based on numbers.
Viva Las Vegas
Rising from fifth to fourth on this year's "Travel IQ Survey" is the state of Nevada, with 25.2 percent of votes. Las Vegas, in particular, continues to attract groups with its diverse accommodations, world-class entertainment, incredible dining, and plenty of attractions.
"Participants love Vegas," says Paben. "The variety of eclectic hotels provides distinctive accommodations for any type of participant or client. Vegas has the space, built-in entertainment, and easy transfer access. It continues to boom, and every year has a new and exciting property or attraction for clients to explore." Dittman Incentive Marketing's Doyle and First Incentive Travel's de Meyer also listed Las Vegas as one of their top domestic incentive destinations.
Welcome to New York
While the Empire State's ranking dropped slightly in this year's "Travel IQ Survey" from last year, it's still at the top of many incentive planners' and clients' lists. "New York City is a city most people want to see first," says de Meyer. CWT's Wagner also listed New York as one of the top five domestic incentive destinations for 2015, noting it possesses "cultural activities and tours, world-class cuisine, high-end entertainment, accommodations that range from boutique to over-the-top luxury and service, and finally, good airlift."
Western U.S. states such as Arizona (16 percent), Texas (14.5 percent), and Colorado (11.1 percent) also ranked highly on this year's "Travel IQ Survey," just as they did in 2014.
In Arizona, Scottsdale, in particular, was noted by Paben and Taylor as a top spot for incentives. In recent months, the Greater Phoenix-Scottsdale area has seen a number of new developments and renovations.
"Scottsdale can accommodate many traveler types with easy airlift to Phoenix as a bonus," Paben says. "It tends to be more targeted for participants interested in a traditional program with opportunities for world-class golf and spa facilities. For the explorers and adventure-seekers, nearby hiking and activities in the desert make this intriguing as well."
Taylor notes The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale, "has been, and continues to be, a top incentive destination primarily for leisure, with its relaxing and serene setting, and also for group incentives."
In Colorado, she notes, "Aspen and Deer Valley continue to draw not only winter incentives but summer has also become a very highdemand period in these traditional ski spots."