Guide, Help, Costs, Ideas,
and Tips for Incentive Trips
Planning an Incentive Trip
So you’re thinking about hiring an incentive travel agency? Good for you and better for your audience! Incentive travel is a tried-and-true tactic for nearly half of all businesses in the United States. Whether you want to boost sales, retain your top-performers, or simply build a more cohesive corporate environment, incentive travel will be the catalyst that moves your goals to the finish line.
With US businesses spending over $22.5 billion on incentive travel annually, you can rest assured that an investment in a top-class incentive trip is going to pay off. However, like everything in life, there is a right way to plan and execute incentive trips, and a lot of wrong ways.
Spent on incentive trips from US companies per year
Of US businesses have an incentive travel program
courtesy of The Incentive Research Foundation
Who am I motivating?
There is no one-size-fits-all incentive trip. Understanding your target audience is the first step in designing an effective set of program rules and selecting a destination that will keep your participants excited.
It’s time to put your personal preferences aside and take the time to examine who you’re motivating. Start with the demographics (the data) and psychographics (the feelings) of your audience to focus your thoughts keenly.
It’s easy enough to collect data on gender, age, and income to form a demographic profile, but it’s only one half of the full picture. Psychographics are the often overlooked attributes of an audience that play into deciding how to properly incentivize and delight your group. On average, are your participants more intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? Do they have the capability to improve their performance? What’s their current level of motivation without the possibility of winning a trip?
Once you have a better understanding of not just who your audience is, but how they think, you’re ready to start organizing them into what the marketing world calls “personas.”
“Probably no aspect of program design has a greater impact on outcomes than understanding the audience.”
Incentive Research Foundation
Who is your
Personas are fictional profiles of a standard member of your target audience created using the most common demographics and psychographics from the group. Using these personas helps those managing and executing the incentive trip get a feel for who they’re trying to reach.
From the below three personas, we can see the differences in what it takes to motivate them, how they’ll each take advantage of a trip, and the impact it would have in their everyday performance. Most importantly, we have a better grasp of what destination would serve as a prize worthy of their aspirational goals.
Selecting an Incentive
As you’ve seen from understanding your audience, selecting a motivational destination can be a delicate mix of both science and art. This is where the expertise of an experienced incentive travel professional can be extremely valuable.
Professional incentive travel managers and meeting planners are well-versed in matching audiences with the right destinations, as well as flight options, “incentive-quality” hotels, and activities that are crafted specifically for the trip.
They’ve traveled all around the globe, seen plenty of resorts from the inside-out, vetted amazing experiences, and built strong local partnerships. They know the hot-list of new openings and the properties with not-so-hot service.
Hot Spots for Incentive Trips
Keeping up with the top incentive travel destinations is a part-time job in it itself. Knowing the trends, risks, and value of each destination is just another strong reason why hiring a professional incentive travel planner is worth the line in the budget.
Here is a list of the top 20 incentive travel destinations for 2022, 2023, and beyond to draw inspiration and provide fresh ideas.
Avoiding Common Mistakes
NOT a CEO Getaway
Many CEOs are avid golfers, so the 4-handicapper thinks the most motivational destination would be Pebble Beach or last year’s British Open. However, golf is on the decline with Millennials and Gen-X. It can be difficult to steer the ship away from the boss’s favorite course, but always keep the true purpose of the trip in front of everyone’s mind.
NOT an Executive Committee Retreat
The Sales VPs love the 5-star brands of Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton, but the rank-and-file folks live on 3-star budgets and feel uncomfortable with $40 breakfast buffets, $30 cheeseburgers, and $20 drinks. Sometimes there’s no need to use up the budget on high-end accommodations or dining options, especially when it comes to the comfort of attendees.
NOT the Meeting Planner Favorite
If you’re the corporate planner tasked with choosing destinations, avoid projecting your personal preferences too – whether it’s beach or mountain, historical or metropolitan, Mexico or Europe, etc. Always hold your audience’s preferences above your own (as difficult as it may be.)
Incentive Trip Itinerary
Staying on schedule can be one of the most difficult parts of managing an incentive trip. Providing itineraries that foster relationship-building, celebrate accomplishments, and offer some freedom and flexibility of choice will keep your group happy and organized.
Building a Budget
How much should we spend
on our Incentive Trip?
However, the number of nights and locations will drastically impact the budget. For example, $2,000 per person might be enough for a domestic 3-night trip to Miami, San Diego, or Las Vegas for retail managers or call center reps. But, a budget of $6,000+ per person would be necessary for a Hyatt resort in Hawaii or a 6-night trip to Italy to motivate a six-figure sales audience.
The average cost of an incentive trip per person
Number of trip qualifiers (and guests)
3, 4, or 5-star Hotel
Duration – # of Nights
Events, Receptions, and Gala Dinners
Decor & Entertainment
Other Meals or Meal Allowances
Number of Activities
Gifts & Giveaways
Zero Net Cost
Some may be intimidated by reaching out to incentive travel companies fearing cost or long commitment contracts. Rest assured that incentive travel companies work diligently to keep your business year-over-year by adding fresh ideas, impeccable service, and stringent negotiating to meet your bottom line.
In fact, when most clients ask if hiring an incentive travel company is more expensive, they discover that the ~15% agency fee is offset by savings generated by an incentive agency’s expertise in finding better rates on lodging and events, local partnerships with the best discounts on activities and dining, and avoiding hidden costs and fees ahead of time.
More often that not, clients realize there’s zero net cost overall by hiring an incentive agency due to these advantages, and that doesn’t include your valuable time as the owner of the program internally. Freeing yourself from having to plan an entire incentive trip alongside your day-to-day responsibilities can prove to be invaluable for both you and your team.
Calculate your Budget
The budget drivers are helpful in realizing what factors will need to be considered before making your cost projections, and ultimately, what your incentive trip will include and what will be left out.
But how much does each budget driver affect your bottom line?
Luckily for you, we have a handy incentive trip budget calculator that gives you a decent starting point. Play around with different “what-if” scenarios, like increasing your number of winners or choosing a domestic over international.
Creating Unforgettable Events
Extraordinary, memorable events are what separates a top-notch incentive trip from a mere corporate-funded vacation. For new trips, experienced planners can be a huge help in crafting superior, and budget-friendly, events.
A typical schedule will open with a welcome reception on-property to facilitate new relationships and keep the schedule light after a day of travels. Creative planners will highlight the best venues, whether it’s poolside, on the beach, or on a patio or lawn with jaw-dropping views. Don’t be afraid to ask resorts if you can utilize space outside of the ballroom.
Mid-trip evenings are often filled with “dine-arounds” to take winners off property to experience popular restaurants. Or, incentive planners will tap unique local venues for a creative group dinner experience, like a Napa wine cave dinner or renting a celebrity’s private estate. You can dive even deeper into local authenticity by finding dining club parties where locals prepare a meal for guests in their own homes.
The final night is traditionally a gala dinner filled with recognition of top achievers, step-and-repeat photos, a refined menu, and upscale décor and entertainment. Creative planners will recommend the best spot, whether it’s on the beach, dressing up a ballroom, or a unique venue nearby.
Activity Options for
Unique, local, and authentic experiences are becoming the biggest trend of successful incentive trips. In years past, activities usually included golfing, spa days, and a catamaran sail. Today, it seems every destination has a zip line tour, a snorkel sail, and an ATV excursion!
Incentive travelers crave new experiences, especially the up-and-coming Millennials. Many travel planners are adding new twists to the traditional tours to stray from the beaten path and keep participants excited.
CMPs (Certified Meeting Planners) will collaborate with destination partners to offer activities that are unique to the location – such as cenote cave swims in Riviera Maya, Napali coast boats in Kauai, or Lord of the Rings tours in New Zealand.
Gifts that "WOW"
Gifting is an Art
Room gifts, or “pillow gifts,” are a fun way to surprise and delight newer winners. They are simple to administer because everyone gets the same item, and they are often less expensive at $25 to $50.
Individualization was the first trend in gifting by engraving or monogramming the standard pillow gift, such as a monogrammed bathrobe, an embossed leather item, engraved wine glasses, or a Waterford crystal bowl.
Choice became the next trend in personalization. Maui Jim pioneered gifting experiences by bringing 12 styles of their high-end, polarized sunglasses and letting attendees pick their favorite pair of shades. Recent entrances to the gifting category include other sunglasses brands, Bose headphones and Bluetooth speakers, watches, shoes, sandals, handbags, and more.
One word of caution: executing a gifting experience in a foreign country or small island is not as easy as shopping your local megamall. Adequate inventory, shipping challenges, and high import duties can create headaches quickly.
Localization is the most recent trend where gifts are sourced locally with artisans, which can be unique and cost-effective in foreign countries. One of our all-time, most popular gifts were custom-fitted, Italian-leather gloves in Florence.
Don't Let Your Trip be
the Best-Kept Secret
Far too often, the incentive promotion strategy is an afterthought. Like any successful marketing effort, an effective incentive program needs a comprehensive campaign strategy, creative theme, and rhythmic messaging to create top-of-mind awareness.
In today’s world, people are bombarded with media. Emails stuff inboxes at the rate of 200+ per day. Users glance for a nanosecond, with their index finger on the delete-key, rapidly clicking like a teenage video gamer.
It’s vital that your promotional strategy does not depend solely on a few emails. Your message must break through the clutter.
Create a Trip Website
A trip website offers dual benefits – good promotion during the qualifying period and an efficient registration form after winners are announced. A pretty web design can be easy because travel is visually engaging. A microsite serves as a central portal for the schedule, hotel info, activities, rules, and a contact page.
During registration, the online form automates data capture of the winner’s information including guest name, flight departure airport, passport numbers and expiry dates, activity selections, food allergies, and dozens of other preferences. While a microsite provides pull communications, motivational push communications must be sent too.
A clever, attractive theme can go a long way. Use the natural attraction of the travel destination for visual interest. Here’s a quick list of communication recommendations:
Teasers. Before officially announcing the program, distribute a teaser — something that hints of events to come. It might be a small promotional item or a visually-appealing mailer to pique interest. We recommend one giveaway at kickoff and another at program mid-point to serve as an effective reminder.
Kickoff Announcement. Custom design a promotional flyer to generate excitement and share high-level details. Promote the trip and direct everyone to the incentive website for full details.
Sales Kickoff. If you have an SKO (sales kickoff), put together a video or PowerPoint slides. One client rolled in iced buckets of Jamaican Red Stripe beer to announce a Caribbean trip.
Graphical Email. Create an HTML email template for year-long use.
Postcards. Direct mail postcards are making a dramatic comeback. Email marketing is over-saturated with declining open rates and click-through. Mail an inexpensive postcard each quarter. Mail it to their home, and you catch the attention of the family too!
Posters. 18×24 sized posters are super billboards in large offices.
Leaderboards. Track achievements, promote competition, and give recognition with regularly-updated, online leaderboards.
Winners’ Kits. Make your qualifiers feel like VIP’s before the trip begins with a themed winner’s kit that has some destination-specific gifts and information on what’s to come.
On-Site Management is Key
While we focus on on-site logistics and hospitality services, it would be a big mistake to overlook the many, many more hours of pre-trip meeting planning. A globe-trotting incentive planner gives valuable advice, manages the hundreds of pre-trip planning details, and guarantees your program goes off without a hitch.
An on-site, travel manager serves as a single point-of-contact, ensuring the highest level of service. The experienced manager will coordinate transportation to the hotel, host the hospitality desk, and supervise support staff and suppliers. Additional “TDs” (Travel Directors) will ensure your winners are treated like VIPs and oversee all functions and activities.
CAUTION! Be careful when sending internal corporate employees to manage the trip as a perk. Not only will they lack the expertise, but more importantly, if their travel was presented as a perk, they will not want to stay up until midnight waiting for delayed flights, advance breakfast preparation at 6 a.m., or sweat with vendors on event décor setup.
Just how much needs to be managed on-site?
Attendee Flight Arrivals
Transportation and Pickups
Hotel Room Check-Ins
Hosting the Hospitality Desk
Food & Beverage Management
Arranging Room Drops and Pillow Gifts
Directing Support Staff
Security and Emergency Planning
Setting Up and Checking Audiovisual
Enforcing the Schedule and Itinerary
VIP Services for Winners and C-Suite
and so much more…
The ultimate responsibility of any meeting planner or incentive travel director is safeguarding the health and safety of their travelers. Incentive travel companies are certified experts in preparing for all possibilities because they’ve seen everything that can impede on your incentive travel plans.
Work with a professional agency to create contingency plans for everything: What if a participant gets sick or hurt onsite? What if transportation breaks down en route to an activity? What about if a weather catastrophe forces a cancellation?
There are seemingly endless questions to ask yourself when preparing ahead of time to manage your incentive travel program’s risk. Hiring an incentive pro will take the guesswork out of the equation and insure you and your group focus on having an amazing experience rather than worrying about what could go wrong at any moment.
Hire an Incentive Pro
How to Hire an Incentive
If your incentive travel group is larger than 40 people (usually 20 qualifiers and 20 guests), we highly recommend that you hire an incentive travel company to take the reigns and work with you on creating an unforgettable trip.