Reimagining the future of your incentive travel program

By: Erica Lalk
incentive travel attendees shop at onsite gifting experience

I often hear clients resistant to make changes to their incentive trip structure because their winners love what they do now. If they are happy with what’s being offered, program owners think it’s best not to tamper with anything. They think: What if top performers don’t like the changes that we make? Why mess with a good thing?

It’s important to step back and remember why we are doing what we are doing. It’s to motivate your audience to produce more. It’s to reward and recognize your top talent. When companies execute on their goals their top performers are left feeling valued and motivated. There’s nothing better than hearing the following comments during a program operation:

  • I did NOT see that coming!
  • That gift was so thoughtful!
  • You thought of everything!
  • I can't wait to see what you all do next year! How can you top this?

How do you ensure those sentiments are heard? By keeping your people on their toes!

Personalizing the incentive travel experience

You’ve heard us say this before, and we’re saying it again: Personalize everything.

We’re not talking about adding their name to anything you can print it on and calling it a day. It means tailoring the experience and message to the personality of each winner.

Related: If you haven’t seen our blog post yet on how to hyper-personalize the attendee journey, check it out!

A survey is a great way to find out what incentive travel winners like and dislike, then you can tailor their amenities to them. Remember, music, smells, tastes, all transport us back to a memory. We want to pique their senses so they return to the trip time and time again. Ask them for their preferred beverage of choice, and have it waiting in their room upon their arrival. Ask them what song comes to mind when they think about the upcoming trip, and build a customized a playlist that plays during activities.

Focusing your budget on impactful on-site moments

If you’ve always traveled internationally consider the choice to stay domestic. A luxury experience can still be created with less travel time. Plus, this more than likely opens up money to enhance the on-site experience and focus on the small touchpoints throughout the way.

Maybe you don’t go to a destination that everyone is aware of, or even consider going down a tier in hotel accommodations. Try taking them somewhere less obvious and focus on memorable moments along the way, such as activities like cooking class with celebrity chefs or getting the VIP treatment. This will surprise them and have them sharing on their social handles, “I didn’t think [insert locale] could be that much fun!”

Recently, we’re seeing the trend of people wanting personal time on these trips. If you allowed a full day of unscheduled activities on their own, does that open up money to extend your trip by a day? Is this something your group would value? Or, perhaps find a private island and send everyone there for the day as a group and let them plan their own day with exclusive opportunities to enjoy water sport activities or simply relax on the beach. Go a step further with beach towels and chairs with their names embroidered on them.

Or flip that—is your group busy with family activities and carry heavy work schedules? Maybe cut a day, and take care of the itinerary for them by maxing out every single second of their time away from home.

Enhancing your on-site experiences

Creating highly memorable and authentic experiences is what incentive travel is all about. Trips build lasting memories, improve workplace camaraderie and provide tangible experiences more memorable than monetary bonuses.

But how exactly do you take those small touchpoints along the way and amplify them into something more memorable?

When planning your incentive program be sure to incorporate the surrounding culture into your itinerary as much as possible. Travel is all about experiencing new cultures and stepping out of your comfort zone. If you hear a street musician that is unique and exciting while on your site inspection, book them as your welcome entertainment! See a local artist on the street painting something spectacular? Ask them to craft up a custom piece of art for your attendees. Better yet, have them come and be part of your program and tie the gift back to that experience. You guests will be blown away: “You mean, they created this art just for us?”—talk about a holy “wow” moment.

Don’t underestimate the element of surprises. Scientific studies have shown that unexpected incentives and rewards tap into parts of the brain connected to learning and motivation. Here are a few you can try:

  1. Switch them to first-class and/or business airfare—no matter the individual, sitting in first-class makes you feel special!
  2. Upgrade your final night's entertainment to be a headliner before they take the stage—this is how you get that response, “I did not seeing that coming!”
  3. Offer your top performers an upgraded suite and one-on-one time with executives

Real-world example

You can go a step further and design nightly amenities that tie to their day—or tease them for what’s going to happen the next day.

We had an event in the location where scenes from Top Gun were filmed. When they returned from the event we had the infamous Ray Ban sunglasses that Tom Cruise wore waiting in their rooms. Along with the sunglasses was a note reminiscing of the memory together: “We hope that every time you wear these aviators you’ll smile and remember all the fun we had tonight together.”

(And if you’re wondering—yes, we did think about the fact that those sunglasses would be too big for some people's face. On the amenity card we offered the option for them to come down the next morning at breakfast and swap them out for an alternate pair of smaller aviator glasses, which led to many smiles and comments of, “You guys think of everything!”)

Reimagining your gifting experience

Instead of the newest and greatest tech gadget, think differently. How can you make the gifts more thoughtful and creative? There are many ways to provide a unique and cost-effective experience. Consider these ideas:

  1. Support local vendors. If you know your people have spent the day walking around and exploring a new locale on their own and are ready to put their feet up, why not offer locally made health and beauty products to help them relax?. Incorporating local businesses will help you have a big impact without breaking the bank. (For example: "We know you had today to explore the city on your own, so please relax tonight and put on this foot relaxation cream created right here in Prague by local vendors!")
  2. Alleviate an annoying challenge. We've all been there. Open up our luggage only to realize we forgot a hat. So why not offer a hat gifting experience on site to snag something that fits their vacation vibe. You can also include a packing tip on the amenity card to get the hat home safely to really nail that notion, “Wow, you thought of everything!" (For example: "We know that remembering to pack a hat can be a challenge—please enjoy this pick a hat gifting experience to snag something that fits your vacation vibe.")
  3. Personalize based on activity feedback. Take note of those who are signing up exclusively for R&R activities, and offer a pop-up shop for them to pick out some super comfy athleisure attire. The same goes for those choosing adventurous activities. Celebrate their zest for life with a chance to pick out a new active gear piece.
  4. Provide the opportunity to give back. Giving makes you feel happy. Talk to your local contacts and find a project that ties back to your company's passion projects—or just do something that is locally of much need. For example, donation of school books to a local school, you could have the principal come and give thanks as well as see if the kids want to come and share a their gratitude. (I did this once in Tanzania and it's a memory that I'll never forget. The kids loved performing and showing off in front of everyone.)

Avoiding stagnancy by curating new experiences

When I'm asked, how do you continue to amaze your winners year after year? My simple answer is: Always make it feel different. It's impossible for your winners to compare year over year when the trip each year feels incomparable. And you can never lose when you make your winners feel special.

The current potential for experimentation and engaging and exciting through new experiences should not be understated. If anything, you should be more afraid to NOT make changes to your current incentive travel program. Constantly evolving and changing up your incentive travel not only makes planning the trip more fun, but it also makes for uniquely personalized journey for your winners year after year. Leave them with something to talk about. Most importantly, leave them wanting more!

Learn how you can create a program that is ready to emotionally connect with your attendees so they feel known and appreciated with our white paper. 

Erica White
Erica Lalk

Erica’s passion for events and incentive travel can be felt immediately upon speaking with her. With 15+ years' experience planning and operating global travel and incentive experiences, she’s been well prepared for her role as Event Design Leader. From day one of working with clients, Erica prioritizes building strong, trustworthy relationships while offering original ideas that elevate the attendee experience. When she’s off the clock, you can find her laughing with her family or chatting with her Husky, Naya. And if you have a Peloton, send her your username, so you can become best friends.