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More companies mix meetings with incentive travel

Participants don’t mind as long as the destination is attractive and the meeting is useful

Six out of 10 companies offer travel rewards to top performers and nine out of 10 conduct offsite business meetings. Since the economic collapse of 2008, interest in combining business meetings with incentive group travel programs has accelerated.

The visceral reaction to the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and the accompanying government bailout of large financial institutions brought intense scrutiny on those companies that received assistance. Specifically, the “AIG Effect” turned the spotlight on incentive travel and its perceived extravagance — especially for companies that accepted government money.

The practice of including business meetings in incentive group travel programs is nothing new — organizations have been doing so for decades. However, it is widely believed that many more organizations are now combining the two in response to the negative perception of incentive travel brought on by the AIG effect, and/or for tax reasons.

Research by the Incentive Research Foundation (Theirf.org) examined the trend to determine whether the meeting/incentive combination should be considered a best practice.

The findings suggest that the combination of meetings and incentive events has been adopted by about half of U.S. organizations as of late 2012. Yet the reasons for combining the two may be surprising. Only 10 percent do so to save money, reap tax benefits or to address the criticism surrounding incentive group travel.

By contrast, more than four times as many (42 percent) do so in order to maximize their investment in meetings and travel rewards and/or or to take advantage of having high performers in the same place and at the same time as top executives. (The remainder do so for a combination of all of the above reasons or they don’t know.)

Of those organizations that don’t combine offsite business meetings with incentive group travel, less than 7 percent have tried the combination and reversed the approach after experiencing poor results. A small but significant group — about one-fifth of respondents — considered and rejected the idea without ever trying it. Forty-two percent have never tried it, either because it has never occurred to them or for organizational reasons they don’t know.

Location remains a primary contributor to success

Only about 10 percent of more than 600 respondents in the participant survey had participated in a combined incentive group travel/offsite business meeting program. Nonetheless, their feedback and insights are telling. From the participants’ perspective, attending business meetings during their trip is not a universally bad idea. In fact, far from it.

That said, reward earners continue to value the attractiveness of the location for their incentive travel reward and the simple fact of being recognized as the most motivating aspects of earning the reward. Participants rated fun, the destination and the quality of the resort as the top three most important aspects of a travel reward.

By contrast, having executives on the trip was ranked as the second-least important factor of nine. It is informative that the opportunity to network with other high performers and with senior executives ranked only above “time away from the office” in terms of motivation for earning the reward.

Despite participants’ low ranking of networking and time spent with executives compared to other elements of a reward trip, most welcome the insertion of at least one business meeting into their travel. One-third of respondents believe that “a meeting” during their trip would make the experience better for them and the organization.

Some are less welcoming of business meetings (23 percent), but still agree that it’s a good idea, if mainly for the company. Only about 20 percent believe the combination is a bad one for both the company and the reward earners, and of those that had participated in a combined incentive travel/offsite business meeting program in the past, less than 6 percent felt it didn’t work well. Almost 95 percent said that it was either a good combination or a nice way to recognize top performers in front of peers and executives.

Reward earners appear to accept and even prefer at least one business meeting as part of their reward travel as long as the meetings are meaningful and beneficial to their work.

Despite their openness to having business meetings as part of incentive travel, it remains true that reward travel earners are more reluctant to embrace business meetings during their travel than is the leadership. By all accounts, however, a significant majority of high achievers welcome a balanced, structured opportunity to network with their peers and executives, and to participate in meaningful discussions about the business with peers and senior executives. The better aligned the meetings are to the expectations and wants of the earners, and the better explained they are, the more receptive and engaged will be the participants.

To be effective, combined incentive travel and business meeting designers must possess skill sets from both professions. Meeting professionals require an understanding of reward and recognition strategy — what needs to be included to have a successful incentive program. Incentive and recognition professionals should have logistical planning skills — selecting the venue, managing the meeting space, logistics, etc.

All designers must have a good under-standing of the organization’s culture in order to create a combined program that will be at least minimally successful.

Program designers stated the top two drivers that optimize the impact of a combined event are to ensure that the attendees feel recognized, and to design the meeting content so that it is meaningful and relevant. Somewhat surprisingly, the quality of the hotel or resort was a distant fourth in importance.

In general, organizations should consider the combination of business meetings with incentive travel a “best practice.” But the goal of any organization that combines business meetings with incentive travel rewards must be to turn the meetings from a perceived obligation into a real reward.  

The full report can be found at TheIRF.org.