The hard choices for incentives

Director of Client Relationships at the Grass Roots agency, Simon Maier, shares his insights into the planning of incentive travel programmes.

The continuing fiscal crisis features prominently among the acknowledged external threats to any business. We’re not out of the woods yet. Loss of capital and confidence is affecting (and will affect) a number of sectors, prompting challenges within both the workforce and the supply chain.
Risks related to the loss of skills as a result of a downturn in human capital will be a big problem, as will the pressure on the remaining workforce.
You’d be quite right that the word ‘problem’ should maybe read ‘opportunity’ and it yet might. Motivating a workforce is key and any methodology to produce better results has to be in the mix.
Underinvestment in motivation is a leading factor in terms of future risk and the impact that this will have on the business sector, if ignored, is potentially catastrophic.
Despite the political instability of some parts of the world and rising costs of others, there is a thriving demand for excellent incentive events and we don’t see that diminishing, even with caution surrounding the planning of some programmes.
Now the imperative is beginning to garner the attention of those with responsibility for ensuring that people in businesses (at all levels) are motivated, not just for a few days, but always.
There is some interdependent risk in travel and offshore programmes, but there is also opportunity, and the world of incentive events is linked closely with allied communication strategies. Recognising this is the starting point to making them great.
Employee engagement is a key determinant in the management of successful businesses. While many would agree, not all consider incentive events or travel as important. A 2009 YouGov survey maintained employee motivation was “essential for company growth” and while this does not suggest for one minute that the solution is always incentive events, they do have a place at the company growth top table. Worldwide, the incentive event market is looking good. World Economic Forum research (2010) says so, as does the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE).
And we’re finding at Grass Roots the demand for information on ‘exclusive to the destination experiences’ continues to grow.
We can see the incentive travel and events market increasing, although potential attendees do want more influence on a programme. Companies are paying attention to the way employees want to be recognised and I think we can all agree now that one size does not fit all.

The Gen X and Y people in businesses have influence and demographics are ever-changing and so is the need for agencies to understand the wide choices for wider tastes.
Legislation may sometimes prove to be a barrier, but it can be managed. There’s also help in the pipeline. For example the Tour Operators Margin Scheme (TOMS) will undoubtedly be reformed to reintroduce a B2B opt-out option.
There will likely be a more efficient visa processing system for visitors to the UK.
The proposed European Bribery Act will be undeniably hard to get our heads around, but the industry will cope.
Those are important side issues. The key is content and strong messaging. Destinations with good resorts, excellent weather and a strong infrastructure will continue to lead the pack. Resorts know that they must invest and expand their offerings to meet the demand for new experiences.
Beneficiaries of the thirst for ‘new experiences’ are Europe, Asia Pacific, China, India, some of South America and the UAE in particular. All are currently favoured, as is the US, visas permitting.
Client organisations are much more knowledgeable when it comes to understanding destinations, properties, activities, teambuilding, motivation and communications. Even with that insight (if it is shared properly and it often is not), it’s important for an agency to really understand the client organisation’s culture or, more difficult, a prospective client’s.
Knowing a great deal about the audience, the modus operandi, the expectations, the real reasons for the reward or motivation are super-important and, if the information is in any way wrong or skewed, then what’s put forward by an agency will be off beam, too.
There are some in large corporations who still regard an incentive event as just another name for a business ‘jolly’ and a necessary evil.
Of course, if any incentive activity is regarded as pointless, then something’s not quite right in management or communications. In Grass Roots’ experience, clients are aware they need to deploy customised, high-impact incentive programmes that reinvigorate how they go to market, motivate their people, retain and grow business and measure results.
We know that the solutions we offer must engage target audiences and inspire them to raise performance, lift sales if that’s the aim, have a role in boosting customer satisfaction, grow loyalty or add to the bottom line. Measurement is fundamental. Without it you can’t plan properly for future activity. And that’s dangerous?and expensive.
The core solution to ensuring that the incentive event process is right begins with the response to a brief. Potential clients may (but actually may not) know of the huge amount of work, research and detail that goes into the preparation of a proposal. And the work really is huge: reatively, logistically, financially and all stops in-between. There are a plethora of elements to consider, all of equal importance including aviation, hotels, partner programmes and risk assessment.

The pitching process doesn’t need to be fraught, provided the supplier agency knows the potential client’s culture, the strategy into which the event fits, budget parameters, demographics, thought-through objectives and the nature of bespoke possibilities.
The majority of clients want something that is specific for a particular group; something that recognises age, likes and dislikes, purpose, experience – what will refresh, what won’t. Also key is an agency’s understanding of event or programme legacy. Clients don’t want their people to have forgotten an experience before they get home.

Mission critical
Understanding brand is also mission critical, both at the pitch stage and beyond. If I’m going to manage a brand in some way, then I want to understand it. It’s one of a client’s most treasured assets. Communicating brand on message every time is what organisations want and internal audiences are just as important as external ones when it comes to understanding a brand and its meaning. All brands require internal communication, otherwise employees will have no real interest and the excitement that an organisation trusts that external audiences feel just withers on the vine internally. Changing people’s thinking, refreshing attitudes, heightening brand exposure, promoting loyalty and building long-term brand relationships can be important parts of an incentive programme. Being creative in this process is as important as the creativity of the event itself.
The creative element of any proposal is one that Grass Roots takes seriously. Creativity necessitates the fun, craft, sense, sensibility and magic that a good agency can bring. We exist to help our clients grow their business in some way. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve turned attention to detail into a bit of a fetish and measurement is essential. That’s why we look at business messages and client or potential client ambition first. That’s why we collectively define what success will look like; it’s why we prepare scrupulous options and plan a programme that we know will entice, delight and work. Talk is cheap, but failed incentive events are expensive.
Successful incentive events require a vast number of considerations. For example, discussions no longer only apply to hotel or property contract negotiations and cost control considerations. Air travel security is clearly much tighter than ever and clients want, as much as possible, to ensure that their event travel is hassle-free.
Currency fluctuations can impact events booked a long way out and fuel surcharges can hike prices up. Additionally there’s the growing need to consider the technology available to use pre-event and during it (Facebook, Twitter, iPads and the like).
Corporate responsibility is again an important ingredient. And clearly attendee demographics matter. Some clients may want two events back-to-back at the same destination. Similarly, they may want to book events in longer cycles. Then there is date flexibility, multi-year contract options. Clients may also want to consider some aspect of London 2012 and the obvious opportunities therein.
Delivery is a multi-faceted thing now.
And most clients will want all the facets as well as the thing. That’s good.
Are incentive programmes fun? Absolutely. Innovative? Yes. Creative? Certainly. Challenging? Well, to paraphrase JFK, whose brilliant speechwriter Ted Sorrenson died recently, we like incentive travel, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. Kennedy said that, of course, in the context of ‘landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth’, so it isn’t really that appropriate in the context of incentive programmes. Yet.

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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