Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

8 Must-Knows to Navigating the New Incentive Landscape

By Larry Hanson

While incentive travel, like meetings, basically ground to a halt during the pandemic, just as leisure travel is surging now that most of the U.S. is fully reopening to travelers, so are incentive travel programs. “We’re seeing a big uptick in incentives,” said Noelle Grinley, Global Account Executive with ConferenceDirect. “Companies feel the need to get back on the bandwagon after not being able to get in front of their top employees for a couple of years. It’s more important now than ever to show them that the company appreciates them and the value they bring to the business with an incentive trip. Cash payouts just don’t have the same appeal.”

Noelle Grinley, Global Account Executive with ConferenceDirect

Noelle, who has been planning incentives since the 1980s, is one of ConferenceDirect’s top incentive planners, so I sat down with her to get her thoughts on what has changed, and what hasn’t, when it comes to planning incentives in the newly emerging normal.

Incentive Travel Is Bigger than Ever

Companies that weren’t able to reward their top employees last year due to the pandemic are planning trips now to reward both 2019 and 2020 performers, she said. “Many of the programs I’m working on now are much larger than in the past. We’re blowing out our blocks and renegotiating contracts to account for the increases.”

Site Selection: Think Domestic

While far-flung and fabulous destinations tend to score big with incentive winners, in the near term anyway, plan to stick to Hawaii and the continental U.S., she advised. International destinations that usually are in demand, such as Australia, Europe and Singapore, still are a little uncertain right now in terms of COVID-19 and related restrictions, while most people can travel freely around the U.S. “Clients don’t want to have to deal with the red tape and COVID testing requirements to go to an international destination,” she said. Even with domestic trips, you still need to be careful, she warned. “Insurance companies are not going to cover anything related to the pandemic, and you need to have solid policies around COVID-19 so you’re not obligated financially to penalties should a future outbreak occur.”

And since most upcoming incentives are now being planned for spring 2022, warm, beachy destinations are the hottest ticket around.

Expect Some Competition on Rates and Dates

Unfortunately, the leisure crowd also is flocking to the same warm and beachy spots, such as California, Florida, Texas, Las Vegas and Hawaii, so expect some competition for space. And, likely, some inflated pricing. “Hotels that are typically in the $300/night range now could be $600/night now that they’re at 90% occupancy,” Noelle noted. But, she added, hotels she’s working with are open to negotiating. With most incentives now being planned for Q1 and Q2 2022, hotels know that the tide could still turn, especially with the uncertainty around the new COVID variants. It also helps that they also still have to hit their numbers for group business. One thing that can help is to consider booking multiple years at the same property. With the likelihood that Europe and other popular international destinations will open up in the next year or two, the incentive landscape is likely to change as well. “They are eager to capture that business now,” she said.

Party Like It’s 2019

For incentives she has already managed for clients, she has seen some pretty jubilant attendees — they want to make up for all that lost time networking and enjoying themselves, she said. “Not only are we seeing increasing numbers, but we’re also seeing people wanting to linger at parties, wanting to extend a 10 p.m. stop to 11 p.m. People are hungry to have that face-to-face contact again.” Also expect more requests for pre- and post-stays, and more incentive winners wanting to bring along their families, she said.

Leverage Your Concessions

Before you begin sourcing your venues, be prepared with a list of your client’s top list of concessions, whether it’s room upgrades or discounts on F&B or AV, don’t hesitate to ask for more than you think you can get. The more food and beverage and other services you can book on property, the better the deal you’re likely to get, she said. While this isn’t specific to today’s post-COVID environment, it still holds true.

Consider Using an All-Inclusive Property or Cruises

All-inclusive properties and cruises provide a one-stop resource planners are beginning to see an increasing demand for these days. All-inclusive resorts and cruises are excellent for managing budgets, especially when attendees are bringing families and want to keep their out-of-pocket expenses low. While cruises are just now restarting, they also offer a good all-inclusive package, she added.

Ask About Staffing and Service Levels

Many properties have had to furlough and lay off employees during the pandemic, and many are still struggling to staff up in the face of burgeoning leisure and group demand. “Make sure you have clauses in your contract dealing with the service and staffing levels your group can expect,” from housekeeping to restaurant service, she said. And don’t forget to ask about the spa. That most popular incentive perk is one area that many hotels have not yet been able to get fully operational. “It’s vital to get a commitment in your contract about the core services and staffing levels your incentive group will require.” Noelle also gets to know her clients’ top producers — “I have pictures of them, I know what they like to eat and drink, I know their kids’ names, so I can determine what properties and other vendors will be able to deliver that personalized service.”

Treat Your DMC with the Same Level of Due Diligence as Your Hotel

Destination management companies, or DMCs, also have been hit extraordinarily hard by the pandemic and may have the same staffing and service issues as hotels — as may the transportation and activities companies they subcontract for your group. “The two vendors you are going to rely on most are your hotel and your DMC, so treat your DMC the same way you would your hotel.” This means including them in your initial conversations and site visits, and even asking about their financial stability. “I would ask them for assurance that they’ll still be in business in a year, as well as staffing and service levels,” Noelle said. And ask about pricing, because some of those subcontractors are also, like hotels, increasing prices fairly steeply to take advantage of the surge in leisure demand. Even rental cars are increasing prices dramatically, at least for the short term.

“Many clients tend to book the location first, then confirm the DMC,” she said. “You need to be looking at your DMC on your first site visit and confirm pricing and logistics, etc. Don’t wait to do it until after you sign the hotel contract.”

There are so many unknowns right now that incentive planners don’t normally have. “Now we need to think about all of these things.” In some ways, it’s a different world, she said. But one thing has not changed: Incentives are still all about creating experiences and memories that winners would not be able to create on their own. “It’s still all about making them feel appreciated.”


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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 4,400+ associations, corporations, and sporting authorities through our 400+ global associates.

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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