Another country

‘Memorable experience’ is the catchphrase which is guiding incentive travel towards the millennium.

You’ve been taken to Katmandu, cushioned in five-star luxury and then ferried to the foothills of the Himalayas. You’re on the roof of the world and have planted your company colours on the summit of Everest. Can it get any better? Where do you go from here?

Old hands in the incentives business will tell of the excitement of working in an industry where some clients are spiralling out towards the ends of the earth and other novices are taking their first hesitant steps into incentive travel with one or maybe two nights in Paris for a lucky winner. There comes a point, though, where you run out of destinations which are at once desirable, practicable and memorable. You may even come full circle and attempt to convince your long-haul, long-stay client that Paris is, after all, very special.

So although it is true that new destinations are coming on stream every year, and new incentive frontiers are opening in established destinations like the US, the emphasis is also shifting more towards the actual activity. Whether the objective was team building, a presentation or simply having a good time, incentives have always had to be memorable. Now incentive companies are faced with better-travelled delegates as well as third-party salesforces whose hearts and minds are being fought over by different suppliers and their motivation programmes. Accurate targeting is more important than ever, with the aim of making the experience stand out from the crowd.

Along with a sharper focus on motivation has come a clearer formulation of companies’ objectives. “The approach used to be that if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick,” explains Sarah Webster, executive director of the Incentive Travel & Meetings Association (ITMA). “Those carefree days died with the Eighties. The money came back, but measurement of the results became very much part of the process.”

ITMA believes the business is expanding. “Companies are a lot more tactical, and the process is much more sophisticated than ten or even five years ago,” says Webster. “People are looking for incentives across the whole company, and travel will probably only account for the top tranche of that.”

There is a blurring of distinctions between the kind of incentive that used to be the preserve of the company’s best-performing sales people, team-building exercises, corporate communications and management training. And in the larger users of incentive programmes, at least some of the budget will be coming from human resources, says ITMA.

Research from 1996 published last month by Meetings & Incentive Travel magazine (M&IT) shows proportionately more clients going for a more ambitious option, with the numbers of long-haul groups increasing and the average size of groups growing slightly. Conversely, the average size of short-haul groups dropped between 1995 and 1996. In this sector 22.5 per cent of all short-haul groups went to France and 17 per cent to Spain. The US still dominates long-haul incentive travel with 63 per cent of all groups.

“This figure for the US reflects the fact that the country delivers on all counts and is uncomplicated,” explains Page & Moy Marketing Group managing director John Fisher. “People are saying, ‘I just want four days to relax, so please make it uncomplicated’, and there’s as much diversity in the US as there is in the whole of Europe.”

Fisher agrees with ITMA’s analysis of the client’s changing attitude towards budgeting for incentives: “Clients have a lot more reality about them than they had in the Eighties, but they’re not doing this silly penny-pinching of the early Nineties.” One reason for this change, he says, is incentives have returned to being a retention device, binding in a salesforce which is aware of other job opportunities.

A recent challenge for travel companies, says Fisher, has come in the form of over-achievement on incentives programmes. This has meant, in several cases, having to find an additional 50 per cent capacity on flights, accommodation and activities. One financial services client actually required a doubling of its capacity.

Motivforce is one of those travel companies that has sought new impact from incentives by shifting its focus. “We have looked at incentive travel all over again, turned it on its head and emphasised the activity rather than the destination,” says account director for business development Nigel Woods. The company organised five different events for one client, all based in London. Some events were overtly competitive, others much more co-operative, and delegates could choose which suited them best.

A similar approach was adopted with a group of 700 delegates, some of whom had dropped out of previous trips abroad, explains Motivforce group managing director Randle Stonier. “We decided to turn it around and ask ‘Where do you want to go?’ We came up with four different destinations, some sybaritic five-star options, others very specific.” The options were: a Mediterranean beach resort; sailing activities; an archeological dig in Jordan; and music and arts activities in St Petersburg.

Not all clients would favour this strategy of dividing the single group, says Stonier. “Purists would argue that this approach defeats the purpose of incentives. I disagree. This is something that will be very memorable for all concerned.” Of course, he adds, it does impose a certain logistical challenge on the hosts, who may have to be in four corners of Europe on the same day.

However much innovation stokes up the activities side of incentives, destinations will continue to fuel the imagination of potential delegates. Novelty is not everything, as The Travel Organisation points out.

This company has pioneered new destinations for the UK incentive travel market including Australia, French Polynesia, Argentina and Chile. But chairman David Hackett emphasises the need to balance the practical and value for money aspects of any trip with the motivational impact.

Discussions with one client about where to go in 1999, says Hackett, focused on finding a US destination which wasn’t Florida (they’d been there before), and where 600 people could be airlifted smoothly.

“It’s easy to choose a spot on the map, but there’s more to it than that,” he explains. “Incentive travel is about a series of experiences, not just a smart hotel.”

Research with Abbey Life showed that staff wanted a resort destination, says Hackett, but one offering fun and recreational activities rather than just the “sea, sun and sand” formula. US destinations such as Scotsdale, San Antonio and Palm Springs came up as possible solutions. The recognition factor is vital to any perceived value with delegates, he says. Scotsdale, for example, only became a resort with motivation value once a major hotel had begun promoting itself in Europe and the name became known.

Delegate aspirations can be met by choosing locations which can be used to create new experiences and which can offer the right mix of activities. Hackett cites the example of Cancun. “Because it is Mexico, you can build cultural experiences, bring Mexico to Cancun as a sort of caricature. Of course, Cancun is no more Mexico than Miami is,” says Hackett.

While some incentives may be little more than an elaborate thank you, others aim to put across a more complex message. According to ITMA, more than half of all incentives involve some sort of meeting element.

“In the corporate area, conferences are also becoming far more exciting. They involve a lot of interaction,” says ITMA’s Webster. “They are about getting people to experience the message, not just listen to it from men in grey suits. This can involve role play, interactive drama or entertainment.”

One gold winner in this year’s ITMA awards was a programme designed by Maritz for SmithKline Beecham (SB). The company wanted a vehicle to refocus the conventional role of the salesforce. Four plays, each of 15 minutes, showed a circus gradually adapting to its customers’ needs. Training seminars were then staged in the same location, keeping the circus as a theme for these activities and for further communications material.

On another occasion, SB Nutritional Healthcare communicated a series of complex messages to its salesforce using a programme of seminars, press conferences, exhibitions and one-to-one interviews over a single day. The sales philosophy drawn from all these sources was then used in the production by different groups of their own newspaper.

Whether it is seminars in west London or long-haul carrots dangling from even longer sticks, imagination continues to pour into the incentives and meetings market. Perhaps the real push at the frontiers of incentive travel will come with the millennium.

Already, say travel companies, clients are planning two-year programmes leading up to the year 2000. And where will they be going? Round-the-world trips have been mentioned – though it’s not clear whether that will be inside or outside the atmosphere.

The Meetings & Incentive Travel Show (June 25 – 26) is being used as the platform for the events industry to address the subject of the millennium and what it will mean to London.

British Airways predicts that within the next few months there will be no seat availability from the east coast of the US to London on its flights in the weeks before December 1999.

Nearly all London venues are booked and conference delegates from around the world are expected to flood in to attend millennium-themed events during the build-up.

The result will be a massive influx of people and money but there is a predicted shortfall of between 25,000 and 50,000 bed spaces.

Sir John Egan, chairman of the London Tourist Board and member of the London First group, will deliver the opening address on the morning of the first day of the conference. This will be the starting point of two days of discussion on how the events industry will tackle millennium issues.

M&IT Show director Penny Hanson says: “The fact that we have the Greenwich Meridian is luck. We should be using this as an investment opportunity to make London and the rest of the country a showpiece that will benefit us in the future. Instead too many people, including the Government, are simply unaware or seem to be hoping somebody else will take the lead.”

This year’s M&IT Show, being held at London’s Olympia will be 50 per cent bigger than in 1996 with over 200 stands and 400 exhibitors. Visitors to the exhibition for event organisers will get 20 cash if they travel 100 miles or more to attend the show.

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