Incentive travel for the new millennium

Bob Vitagliano

Executive President/CEO, Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE)

When phrases like 'the new millennium' and the' 21st century' are tossed about the natural instinct is to conjure up images of far-off events and a world that bears little resemblance to the one we know today. Filmakers like George Lucas and sci-fi authors like Ray Bradbury have put fantastical images in our heads that are hard to shake.

The we are caught up short when we realise that the countdown to the new millennium is now little more than 1,000 days away. How different will the industry be once we pass this magic threshold? What rewards will be used to motivate a workforce that takes for granted technologies that leave some of us running at Olympic speed just to keep up? Here are my predictions based on equal parts of reasoned observations, cyclical business trends and some old-fashioned, finger-crossed optimism.

I believe that the dollars, pounds, yen, deutschmarks, whatever, will flow back into incentive budgets. While we may never see the dollar volumes that we saw in the high-flying 1980s, I believe that the knives used to slash away at budgets will be sheathed as companies take a hard look at their business decisions of recent years.

For more than a decade, economies have championed the notion of global economic improvement based on a 'productivity led' recovery. This led to round after round of corporate downsizings and restructurings that produced what at first blush seemed to be higher levels of worker productivity. But, if higher productivity levels can't be sustained, can victory be claimed?

US economist Stephen Roach, a champion of this business philosophy, has begun to second-guess his own productivity views. As he noted recently, "It is increasingly clear to me that the improvements in operating performance and profits have been built on a steady stream of downswing and cost cutting that is just not sustainable. If all you do is cut, then you will eventually be left with nothing, with no market share." While acknowledging that growth and profits have been real, Roach added. "The fatal flaw is that they are built on the back of hollowing out labour."

Businesses have already begun to feel the effects of worker backlash - a frightening reality that, ironically, could create a boon for our business. Short-sighted companies that for years equated the concept of 'employee incentive' with the phrase 'they're lucky, they still have jobs', will be looking for answers to problems caused by employee burnout, disgruntled workers and unrealistic productivity goals. Programmes that balance the very real need for improved performance and business profits with realistic goals and worker respect will be a necessity if companies hope to survive beyond the year 2000.

Even the most enlightened companies, those that understand the real business benefits achieved through well-designed incentive campaigns, cut back their programmes in recent years as they sought to balance the image of employee pink slips with extraordinary travel experience as rewards for their outstanding efforts. And, while employees clearly understand cost cutting measures when times are tough, they won't be nearly as understanding when they see profit margins and management compensation packages start to rise to new heights. Incentive programme qualifiers will be looking to see some of the niceties added back into programmes that were lost along the way in the belt-tightening 1990s.

While new opportunities may exist for incentive professionals, they must be prepared with programmes that meet the needs of a new generation of workers. The fun-in-the-sun group incentive programme that was a staple for generations of workers does not fit the mould for a generation weaned on cyberspace capabilities.

Individual incentives, once an anathema within the incentive industry, boomed in popularity with the growth of two-income households and single parent homes - providing a flexibility and understanding of lifestyle needs. Experiential incentives, representing a small percentage of the market today, should see an equally rapid rise in popularity - catering to a generation that seeks options, personalisation and adventure.

Experiential incentives can be incorporated into the group travel experience which provides the camaraderie that corporate sponsors crave or standalone as the focal point of an individual incentive. Options and individualisation must be key components of the incentive travel programme aimed at this new generation of workers. Incentive professionals will need to devote increasing time in the research-gathering stage to identify the desires and interests of potential qualifiers.

Be it jet fighter pilot school, private cooking lessons from a world-renowned chef and kitchen tours of the most exclusive restaurants, or archaeological digs, the experiential incentive lets qualifiers move from the passive viewing stage to an active, hands-on role.

Virtual incentive programmes? While it is unlikely that we will be replacing the actual travel experience with a reasonable facsimile anytime soon, cyberspace will clearly have a major role in the incentive programmes of tomorrow. Planners can already browse the Net for information on destinations, hotel options and airline availability that help them create the incentive reward. Although few quality destination presentations exist on the World Wide Web at the moment, advances in this area are happening daily. (An added advantage that technology has brought: qualifiers can remain in constant contract with the home office through computer links even while enjoying their travel reward - a bonus for companies that worry about having all their best workers away from the office at that same time.)

In the not too distant future, incentive clients will 'virtually' inspect their hotel rooms before signing contracts and distribute progress reports on qualification status through e-mail messages. CD-ROMs will replace the video cassette as the medium of choice for promotional materials sent to programme participants to maintain levels of excitement throughout the campaign and to serve as lasting reminders of the reward they achieved.

High-tech features will alleviate some of the more mundane aspects of travel planning including flight arrangements while providing a high degrees of interactivity for qualifiers. The moment they qualify participants can be given passwords or account numbers they offer them to simple inter-active forms that let them make their own flight arrangements, seat selections, meal choices, etc. Currently planners spend vast amounts of time tracking this information down with follow-up phone calls, letters and faxes. Thanks to technology, that will soon be a thing of the past.

The future can be bright indeed if we stay alert to the opportunities and challenges that await us.

Prior to assuming leadership of the international association, Bob Vitagliano held positions on both the design and delivery side of motivation campaigns. He is one of only 40 people worldwide to earn the professional designation 'Certified Incentive Travel Executive'