A company's superstars deserve super events Cash is no longer king when it comes to motivating employees. An increasing number of corporations, from consumer products giants such as Coca-Cola to biotech firms such as Centocor, are rewarding their top performers with once-in-a-lifetime events and experiences. The most recent statistics from the Society of Incentive Travel Executives show that American businesses are pumping $22.5 billion into the economy annually with incentive-travel and -event programs that reward employees for outstanding work.
Incentive buyers expect custom-designed elements, the utmost in creativity, minute attention to detail and an overall "can-do" attitude that assures them you will accomplish the impossible without breaking a sweat. In return, incentive buyers usually have larger budgets to accomplish what they want, tending to spend $1,200 to $1,500 per person for the incentive experience, according to market research from SITE.
JUST SAY YES The foundation of incentive programs "is to give them an experience they can't have on their own," says Andrea Michaels, whose firm, Extraordinary Events, based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., specializes in group incentive programs. Anyone can buy a ticket to see Diana Ross perform. "But an incentive group would expect to enjoy Ross at a private concert with company colleagues, to meet and greet her afterward, to have their photo taken with her, have a song dedicated to them during the performance and receive an autographed CD of her songs as a special remembrance gift."
Knowing how to be flexible and going the extra mile are essential. Andy Gladstone, president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Show Me Arizona and SITE local chapter president, recalls a recent client who "was not happy with the space at the hotel for their big final-night party. On very short notice, we were charged with finding an elegant off-property venue. All the upscale venues were booked, so we decided to transform a rustic desert venue into an elegant `magical night.' Through the use of carpeting, specialty linens, entertainers, and an incredible lighting and special effects package, we were able to create an event that was much more memorable and unique than it would have been using the hotel ballroom."
Laurie Sprouse, president of Ultimate Ventures, a Dallas-based DMC, says, "One of the trends we're seeing nationally is shorter and shorter lead times to plan incentive programs, especially among technology companies and the Generation X-ers, who expect everything faster and quicker. We're also seeing an increased demand for fast-paced programs that are activity-intense. A few years ago a group might come in for three or four days. Now many groups are opting for just one night including a tour, a gala, breakfast the next morning, and they're gone."
THE ADVENTURE TRAIL "Offering events that are very experiential, that engage the participant in a very personal way, is what we find is most appealing to corporate incentive buyers," says Bonnie Hansen, executive producer, sales and marketing for GM Productions in Chicago.
Chicago-based iExplore began two years ago as a company designing individually tailored adventure vacations and quickly moved into the incentive market.
iExplore vice president of sales John McKeon points to the trend of "a high level of excitement but no real danger for the white-collar professionals who win the incentive trip. For some people, that means white-water rafting; for others, a good adventure is playing golf in an offbeat location."
Santa Monica, Calif.-based American Golf, which operates more than 300 courses nationwide, specializes as a service for foreign-based incentive buyers interested in offering their employees the ultimate golfing experience.
Reports John Sullivan, national accounts manager, "A lot of European pharmaceutical firms, telecommunication companies and financial institutions like bringing their employees to the U.S., and this international audience is a growing segment of the corporate incentive market."
MAKE THE CONNECTION To recognize their top performers, about 39 percent of companies choose group domestic travel and 36 percent choose special events of some type, according to SITE. Companies use a variety of methods to purchase incentive programs: direct contact with a special event producer, working with incentive houses that coordinate a custom-tailored program, working with ad agencies, and working with an incentive buyer hired to develop incentive programs full-time.
The Motivation Show, held annually in Chicago, is a major networking event on the incentive circuit. Industry publications such as "PROMO Magazine," which like Special Events Magazine is published by Intertec Publishing, print supplier directories annually.
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS Just as "location, location, location" is the success mantra for restaurants, "details, details, details" is the mantra for exceeding the expectations of the incentive client.
"You hear the horror stories about the liquor company hosting an incentive event only to find their main competitor's brand stocked in the hotel minibars," Michaels says. "From having one of your staff greet your client at the airport wearing a T-shirt with their company's logo to customizing a message on the hotel TV screens, the name of the game is pre-planning, triple-checking and nothing less than giving them your top-drawer effort."