Our Top 5 Takes From the IMEX Incentive Travel Index Panel

By: Ashley Bohnenkamp
incentive travel professional reading the 2023 index

Fall brings so many of my favorite things: Sweater weather, crisp vibrant leaves, pumpkin spice everything. And, of course, the release of the newest Incentive Travel Index (ITI) at IMEX. 

The ITI is conducted annually through a partnership between Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) in association with Oxford Economics. The results offer insights on the current state of incentive travel and forecast future trends, providing teams like mine with an actionable road map.

I was part of an expert panel during an IMEX “Smart Monday Panel” where we each unpacked the trends and reflected on what’s next for the incentive travel industry.  

Panelists brought knowledge, context and experience to help a crowd of industry pros interpret the data and gain insights. I’ll take you beyond the charts and graphs by highlighting some significant trends on the horizon. 

get your copy of the 2023 Incentive Travel Index

1. Retention Is a Rising Reason to Run an Incentive Travel Program 

Most of our clients’ incentive travel programs continue to emphasize monetary growth metrics, such as increase in sales year over year as the primary purpose for hosting trips. ITI refers to these as “hard power benefits.” However, we’re seeing an increase in the importance of the “soft power benefits” incentive travel provides for strengthening relationships and improving organizational culture.  

90% of ITI respondents agree that retaining talent is a primary reason for incentive travel’s strategic performance

The stat rings true especially for our clients across the tech, healthcare and telecom verticals, where employee retention is a top reason for offering a program. Recognizing roles who support sales (through a nomination or other process) allows for a certain percentage of the attendees to be non-quota carriers. This trend shows retention is a significant priority in highly competitive industries that face a more challenging economic climate. 

The increase in “soft power benefits” is no surprise to us. With our global clients, in particular, organizations are working diligently to infuse their brand values into the overarching story of their event experience. Soon, the growing demand to create emotionally relevant and meaningful brand experiences during an incentive travel program will become the standard. Especially as the desire to infuse these elements within organizational culture grows.  

Related: See our award-winning Ecolab program in Singapore that connected the trip to its brand values and sustainability goals.

2. Maximizing Budgets in FY24 Will Help Offset Industry Challenges

We agree with the ITI findings and predict our FY24 will likely be flat or even slightly down because of several factors.

  • COVID-19 continued to push ’22 programs into ’23. That shift is no longer happening, and the program cycle will return to normal.
  • Inflation continues to increase costs. 
  • It’s a seller’s market. The strength of a rebounding leisure travel industry will continue to impact air and hotel prices. 

To mitigate flat budgets and increasing costs, we’re working with our clients to maximize their spend in the most impactful ways. Some clients in competitive sales markets are exploring rule structure changes and program re-evaluations to lower participant count. This allows for an increase in per-person spend while staying within the overall budget. 

We expect a strong FY25 with our existing programs and new business activity. As the labor market continues to strengthen, so does the competition for talent, and incentive travel offerings will be a differentiator in attracting top candidates.

Related: Learn how to make the most of your per-person spend by personalizing and enhancing the participant experience.

50% say a good DMC is increasing in importance

3. Partnerships Matter More Than Ever to Design World-Class Incentive Travel Experiences  

As incentive travel becomes increasingly globalized and participant expectations demand more thoughtfully designed experiences, the planning complexity grows. Collaboration is key when working with destination management companies (DMC), destination marketing organizations and international suppliers to build more meaningful experiences. 

The ITI findings show a desire for open lines of communication and transparency in the planning process. Having strong, reliable partnerships with DMCs, hotels and security teams is critical for a successful program.  

Relationships are at the core of what ITA Group does. We’re known throughout the industry for taking a human-centric approach to events. We care about how our partners feel about working with us, and consistently hear that the supportive and friendly vibes our teams bring to the table mean as much as their expertise. 

Throughout the effects of the pandemic, I’m proud ITA Group has retained a majority of our tenured purchasing team. Those same team members are helping coach or train the new staff of our partners because we’re all working towards the common goal of seamlessly serving clients. 

Related: From logistics to group air, sourcing to travel direction, view our tenured team’s capabilities to accommodate almost any request. 

71% of buyers are increasingly seeking new destinations

4. Curiosity About Incentive Travel Destinations in Emerging Markets Comes With Risks & Rewards  

Emerging markets are intriguing but require more diligence around safety and security. Our tenured buyers traveled the globe to gain firsthand knowledge of destinations like Colombia, Iceland and the Middle East (UAE/Cairo, Egypt) long before glossy travel magazines named them as up-and-coming places. Contracting with vetted global security partners is our top priority to continuously monitor risks, pre-trip and on site. Some of these destinations may also require extra care to address diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) concerns while communicating the destination’s cultural awe, power and educational benefits. 

An emerging destination may not be the right fit for every organization. Western Europe and more familiar destinations are also rising in popularity. Based on new ways to explore urban areas and our unique event design approach, cities like Madrid, Spain can deliver a new take on an old favorite and capitalize on the budget with a strong U.S. dollar. 

53% of ITI respondents predict an increased use of all-inclusive resorts

We agree, especially with new brands getting into the all-inclusive market and elevating that experience to meet high-quality expectations along with convenience and budget controls. 

Related: Dive into the “dos & don’ts” of selecting incentive travel destinations.

5. Exchange Rates Will Influence Incentive Travel Destination Selection 

The Caribbean is holding steady as a top destination for U.S. buyers, and Western Europe is up to #2 from #5 last year. The Caribbean will always be strong with our U.S.-based clients not only because of the strength in the dollar to combat current inflation concerns but also because of the ease in lift. 

The new challenge lies in how to rediscover these areas and go deeper than “sun and fun” to create culturally relevant experiences.  

We recently created a compelling incentive travel experience at Etéreo, a new luxury resort in Mexico's Riviera Maya. The hotel (part of Auberge Resorts Collection), our DMC partner AmStar and décor partner So Fine Design, helped us showcase the Mayan influences of the region. We curated experiences like an “Abuela dinner” serving only recipes from the staff’s grandmothers. Custom-made decor from fabricators in local villages set the scene. And guests loved learning about the mangrove preservation initiative to leave 90% of the property’s natural environment untouched.

As I mentioned earlier, Madrid also remains a strong choice for culturally relevant experiences. Art, cuisine, nightlife, architecture—Spain’s capital city has it all, along with a rich history to impress. Our buyers recommend: 

  • Zipping around the capital city via e-bike. It's the best way to go beyond the typical tourist spots and take in Parque del Retiro, an expansive urban park.
  • Dining at Lhardy Restaurante, with its famous broth, or popping into one of the many small cafes serving hot chocolate and churros.
  • Curating a private, exclusive tour of the world-famous Prado museum, with works by the Impressionists and Pablo Picasso.
  • Day tripping to Toledo to explore its unique cultural history and sampling the local delicacy, marzipan, which dates back to 1512.

Keep Exploring ITI Insights With Help From Our Team

We’ve only scratched the surface of this year’s takeaways—there’s so much more to uncover by industry and global region. If you’re curious about how to get ahead on incentive travel planning, reach out and chat with our team. We’d welcome more conversation about trends we anticipate and how best to design future experiences.  

Whether you made it to IMEX America 2023 or not, download your copy of the 2023 Incentive Travel index Report and dig into the industry data about what’s on the horizon. (Up to you whether you peruse this year’s results over a pumpkin spice latte!)

Get Your Copy of the 2023 Incentive Travel Index
Ashley Bohnenkamp
Ashley Bohnenkamp

Ashley brings over 15 years of experience in leadership, business development, marketing, advertising, publishing and events. In her role as Event Solutions Manager, Ashley is focused on working with our event team of over 250 members to align and implement our client-centric strategies for growth and vision for success. She has a passion for building relationships, solving problems and being an agent of change. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, live music, volunteering for arts organizations in the community and bringing Pinterest-inspired projects to life around the house.