How To Fit In And Stand Out: Group Incentive Travel Program and Experience Design

To what lengths would you go for a shining moment in the spotlight, or to earn an exotic trip to a dream destination? A sense of selfworth and  ccomplishment is a basic requirement for a happy, healthy human psyche. This fact has been studied as far back as Sigmund Freud in the 1800’s, Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s, and more recently through the work of Daniel Pink, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, and others. In the workforce, acknowledgement and recognition of our accomplishments and skills motivate us to excel. The specifics of what an employee might do to earn a dream trip are the focus of interest for many organizations that use incentive travel in their business model. If you are a program owner within an organization that shares this interest, understanding and capitalizing upon the motivational appeal of group incentive travel is important. In fact, employing a mix of incentive group travel events offers appeal to multiple audiences and groups to drive business success. The Incentive Research Foundation has conducted detailed case studies to identify which elements must be included in order to “fit in” what works universally. At the same time, depending on program type, certain elements must not be forgotten in order for your program to “stand out” with the individual best practices that ensure program success.

Program Types

The Incentive Research Foundation has conducted a number of deep-dives with organizations that tap the power of group travel events to different audiences. Though each targeted audience is unique, each sponsoring organization aims to achieve specific, articulated results through a program that includes a group travel award. There are three primary program types that cover most applications of a group incentive travel program; each is covered in an IRF deep-dive study.

Sales Program: Targeted at an employee of the sponsoring organization directly responsible for the achievement of a revenue target.

Recognition Program: Targeted at employees of the sponsoring organization who are not evaluated on direct sales growth.

Channel Program: Targeted at Dealer or Channel Partner employees or owners (not an employee of the sponsoring organization) who are awarded a trip based on specific performance (i.e., purchases).

'Program' Design vs. 'Experience' Design

Capturing and clarifying the different component parts of a group incentive travel program is critical to success and should occur well in advance of boarding a plane with a suitcase full of accolades and suntan lotion. Activities performed up to the time of the actual travel experience are considered “program design” activities, involving these essential components:

• Program objectives, earning criteria, and key measurements;

•  Establishing the earnings period;

•  Rules structure, which outline the requirements for earning the group incentive travel program (what you have to do to earn your way onto the trip);

•  Communications plan and the communication’s materials from the announcement of the program and continuing throughout the earning period, the end   of program celebration and program summary;

•  Announcement of winners during a celebration that includes eligible participants who have not earned the group incentive travel award;

•  Experience of registering and booking your trip experience;

• Actual design of the travel experience including all of the logistics.

The actual group incentive travel experience begins when attendees arrive at the airport – the point at which the “experience design” takes over. In the remainder of this paper we call out distinctions between ‘program design’ and ‘experience design.'

Fitting In:  The 5 Basic Truths

Various IRF studies have highlighted five universal basic human truths required for running any group incentive travel program.

These include the following.

Basic Truth 1

It Starts And Ends At The Top, But Don’t Forget The Middle

Senior managers should be “designed into the program” as visible supporters. When performers believe their efforts are visible to people who can make or break their careers – and they care about it – it’s human nature to try to do one’s very best to shine.

“For the first-time earner, the impact of the trip provides the initial first impression of the executive management,   CEO, and other top performers throughout the company. This experience can be quite exciting and motivational when they realize who else has earned this incentive and begin to establish relationships with earners from other divisions in the company.”

Interaction and Engagement.

How senior management shows up in the experience design is one of the most critical elements of the program. Senior managers must clearly understand their roles during the experience design and the trip experience itself. It’s not sufficient that they merely attend – they need to interact and engage with participants according to what matters most to these attendees. Managers should reinforce how each individual performer’s actions have contributed to achieving the goals and objectives for the organization.

Middle Management Role. 

In addition to senior management’s involvement, middle managers play an important role as well; however, there are differences we’ll explore in detail as we break down the different audience types in your group incentive travel programs.

Basic Truth 2

Say It Right

Conveying expectations, guiding progression towards earning the trip -- and even the exchanges that occur during the group travel incentive experience itself -- significantly influence program success.

How To Earn. 

Upon announcing the trip, ensure participants understand exactly how to earn the trip award. One of the most critical determinants of a program’s performance is the organization’s ability to clearly communicate what’s expected of participants and what they need to focus on in order to guide their behavior.


 Eligible participants need to  understand how well they’re meeting the performance expectations and how well their efforts are progressing towards earning the trip experience throughout the program.

“For me it’s important because of the recognition and the kind of status being a winner earns. It drives behavior. I check the list every month. I’m talking to my team about who is on the list, and who’s almost there. You know I really use it as a motivational tool both personally and with my team leadership as well.”

On Site Reinforcement.

Once you’re together onsite during the group incentive trip experience, remind participants of their efforts and accomplishments and continually celebrate what their contributions mean to the sponsoring organization. It’s a red flag of poor program design if group travel award winners don’t understand what they did to get there; consequently, they may feel uncomfortable once they get there.

Basic Truth 3

Make It Fair & Square

Neuroscientist and leadership coach David Rock has developed a theory for understanding the five primary social dimensions in which our brains respond to perceived threats and rewards. As detailed in the Neuroleadership Journal “SCARF: A Brain- Based Model For Collaborating With And Influencing Others,” Rock defines five domains of human social experience:

Status is about relative importance to others.

Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.

Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

These five domains activate either the 'primary reward' or 'primary threat' circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one's status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one's life. Similarly, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. The “SCARF” model can be applied to the importance of fairness in a reward-based program environment – so important for engaging eligible program participants. Eligible participants must not only understand -- but also agree -- that the approach for qualifying for the group incentive trip experience is fair.

Basic Truth 4

Make The Trip A Real Head- Turner

Appropriate Destination. The attractiveness of the onsite group incentive trip experience either attracts or repels the desire to achieve it -- a destination must be one that suits the interests of participants.

“I have visited more places in my tenure with this company than I could ever have had the opportunity to without it. It is going to places that as a client service or branch manager or a director, whatever it might be, or even owner would never have gone otherwise.” “It was truly a trip of a lifetime. We still have pictures and mementos of the trip all over the house and our computers have screen savers of those same pictures. We still talk about it all the time.”

Audience Appeal.   If your group is full of young, single, active, beach-loving adults and your trip experience design calls for sending them to a subdued wine tasting retreat, no one is going to work very hard to earn that trip no matter how you structure the program. The destination and the design of the trip experience must be suitably appealing to capture the hearts and minds of your eligible participants. The timing and the logistics of attending the group incentive trip experience also weigh heavily into firing up participant energy and emotion.

Guests.  Often related to the timing and logistical ease or difficulty of a group incentive trip’s appeal is whether or not a participant can share the  experience with family or a special personal guest. If a sponsoring organization asks a great deal in terms of time and mindshare throughout the year, it is human nature to want to reap the rewards with those who’ve made sacrifices for the participant to achieve them. An understanding of (and consistency with) the organization’s culture must be maintained.

“Some employees feel spouses should be included in the incentive trip. The CEO is clear in the communication to employees that the incentive travel trip is not intended to be a vacation but rather a business experience. “It’s not meant to be a vacation. It’s meant to be recognition, an award celebration, and a learning vehicle to understand more about the company.”

Determine what performance drives your individual business success. For some organizations, that may mean awarding fewer performers but allowing them to bring spouses. For other organizations, an experience design aimed at optimizing the number of performers on the trip (without guests) may be the correct approach.

Basic Truth 5

Be Thoughtful About Executive Interaction, Networking & Learning

Award Suitability. Many high-achievers also gauge the amount of energy they’ll spend to earn an award according to how well that award suits their goals. If they seek a great deal of executive interaction and the group incentive trip experience provides that opportunity, they’ll do whatever it takes to share a unique trip experience with him or her.

Appropriate Levels of Management Interaction.

Alternatively, there are groups of high-achievers who are extremely uncomfortable in the limelight and would rather walk over hot coals than have to

generate dinner conversation seated next to a senior executive. Determining the right amount of interaction with which “level” of sponsoring organization executives must be considered when designing the trip experience.

Peer Interaction.   Additionally, consider the value of networking and learning from other top performers during experience design. Trip experiences provide unparalleled accessto a peer-set who may face similar challenges to other performers. The opportunity to learn  successful tips or alternative ways of dealing with similar challenges is a rich reward on its own.

Standing Out: Distinctions By Program Type

If each of the Basic Truths is included, your group travel program has a basic foundation for success. From that foundation, there are key distinctions to highlight based upon your desired audience that make the program stand out. The following presents important distinctions for:

• Sales Group Incentive Travel Programs

• Recognition Group Travel Programs

• Channel Group Travel Program

Sales Group Incentive Travel Distinction

The Importance of Networking and Best Practices

Collaboration.   If you have ever sat in the lounge of a conference hotel during a sales gathering, you get the sense of camaraderie and community natural to sales professionals. Award recipients seek opportunities to collaborate and network with peers as well as management. There’s a strong desire to share best practices and hear what’s worked well for others so that award winners can continue to achieve success.

“The networking opportunity with our peers and corporate executives is one of the things I like best about the incentive travel experience. Just to be able to be with the most successful people in the organization and the people that are driving the vision is great.”

“It gives me an opportunity in a three to four day period to network with the other you know top performers in the company. I meet people there and then stay linked to them, so that when I need help and support across strategic accounts, I know who’s in what market and who I can count on that’ll absolutely step up and deliver.”

Sales Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Reinforcing Culture

The sponsoring organization also provides the opportunity for influential high-achievers to foster and reinforce the culture of the sponsoring organization. A salesperson’s job is to spend time with their customers, so the opportunity to immerse them in the positive environment of the sponsoring organization provides a boost to morale, which cascades through to their teams and those with whom they interact on a daily basis.

Sales Group Incentive Travel Distinction


Financial Value.   An additional distinction between Sales Group Incentive Travel Programs and other program types is a more straightforward calculation of the program’s financial value, based on increased sales for the sponsoring organization. There are fewer complicating factors and subjective financial justifications for the program, which increases the defensibility of the program when budgets are scrutinized.

Overall Value.   The topic of business justification for incentive must be tackled program-by-program. For Sales Group Incentive Travel Programs, the good news is that the most direct contribution to business success can be articulated with this type of  program. Not only do these programs provide links to revenue contribution, but numerous additional important business drivers are also directly linked to Group Incentive Travel Programs. As an example, although not direct qualifiers of for participation in the program, The Channel Incentive Travel study found that Net Operating Income and tenure was significantly higher for participants in the incentive travel program than it was for nonparticipants. A separate IRF study 2 found that the total cost of the travel incentive program per qualifying person (and their guests) is approximately $2,600. Using the monthly sales average of $2,181 for those who qualify and an average monthly sales level of $859 per agent who does not qualify, the cost payout for the program was just over two months.

Recognition Group Travel Distinction

Clear Communication

In contrast to the relative objectivity of qualification for a Sales Group Incentive Travel Program, Recognition or nomination-based employee incentive programs have the most subjective criteria. Due to the unavoidable subjective qualifications, clear, specific communication is necessary to describe why winners were chosen.

Recognition Group Travel Distinction

Qualitative Measures

Quantitative measurement of program contribution to the sponsoring organization is exceptionally challenging with Recognition Group Travel Incentive programs. A broader non-quantitative view of success must be developed by the program’s sponsors to defend the program when budgets come under the microscope.

Recognition Group Travel Distinction

Cultural Alignment

Due to the freedom in choosing the types qualification criteria, the sponsoring 0rganization must be extremely careful to align award recognition with the desired organizational culture. The discussion above regarding fairness and your eligible participants agreeing with program qualification plays a more important role here than with any other type of group incentive travel program or audience. If qualification criteria are not consistent with the culture of your organization, there is a risk that the program will cause more harm than good for the organization.

Recognition Group Travel Distinction

Varying Role of Management

Another distinction with Recognition Group Travel programs comes with the role of Management.

“One of the advantages that we have thatwould not scale in some of these other organizations is we stay fairly close to what is going on. And so when projects come in, it is highly unlikely that we don't know about it. At the same time we also are aware of things that we would say, ‘why isn't that here, didn't that go really well.’ So we are close  enough because of the size of the company to be able to apply that.”

The variety and level of ability for managers up and down the ranks of the sponsoring organization to play a role in assisting with nominations, reinforce qualification criteria, encourage appropriate submissions must be taken into consideration.

Consistent & Positive Messaging.

At a minimum, all managers must be coached to avoid delivering a message at odds with the purpose of the program itself. Managers can easily deliver a destructive blow to morale by communicating, “you were nominated but now you’re not going.” Communication and promotion of award winners must be handledconsistently and with a positive message for all nominees as well as those selected for the group travel experience itself.

Recognition Group Travel Distinction


Contributions to business success achieved asa result of Recognition Group Travel Incentive Programs are more difficult, but not impossible to provide to program sponsors and Senior Executives. The inherent value of inspiring your employee population may be nearly impossible to quantify in financial terms, but most senior executives would understand the greater cultural good. For example, one case study indicated that while the program was designed to reward only the top 2-3% of employees, nearly half the potential winners indicated that they were inspired to improve their performance. Seek less formal but powerful stories from award winners about non-revenue-based contributions. Depending upon what resonates with program sponsors and senior executives, find stories from your group incentive program design affecting Increases in employee morale, engagement, job satisfaction, or retention.

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Relationship with Channel

Participants in a channel program are not employees of the sponsoring organization, and in many cases they also sell products/services that are competitive to the sponsor. They also may be in direct competition with other participants in the same program. As such, the extent and ways the award recipient views his relationship with the sponsoring organization must be a strong factor in program design and activity.

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Building Community

Depending on the group’s makeup, one of two possible group dynamics may occur during the group incentive travel experience. Award winners may not desire collaboration with other winners, and may be more guarded about disclosing information about their business if other winners are considered directly competitive within their market. Alternatively, a bond may form among channel participants that last long after the group incentive experience itself. A community of trust and respect as well as a camaraderie and rapport will often develop. This network can serve as an informal support system over time for sharing supply avenues, trouble-shooting issues, and collaborating to solve common business challenges.

“Whether it’s over dinner, drinks, or in general conversation you get a chance to discuss items that we run across and how we deal with it and also hear things others run across and how they deal with it. It gives us insight and if something comes up…I remember Joe telling me about that, I think I’m going to give him a call. These relationships create an unstructured support system within the industry.”

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Transfer to Dealership Employees

The Channel group is the only group that may decide to use the group incentive award experience for their own separate business purposes. For example, the Channel Partner Senior Management or Dealer Principal may assign the group travel experience to one of their employees. Given that different Channel participants could be anything from Seniormost management to more rank-and-file employees, the expectations could vary a great deal regarding the group incentive experience. This potential heterogeneity of attendee expectations means that special care and planning is necessary to design an appropriately wide variety of on-site experiences. Further, there is real value in the fact that the travel award is transferrable within a Channel partner organization. This business value can be highlighted in the program design communications to emphasize the strategic benefits of the event to Channel partner management.

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction


Another uniquely important insight for the sponsoring organization relates to any potential subset of the Channel group who elects not to participate in the  program. Sponsors must identify and address the drivers of non-participation through program design and most importantly the program communications. Given the Channel group’s potential affiliation with the sponsoring organization’s competition, they must be uniquely aware of what competition does in this regard. The sponsoring organization’s program must be more distinctively designed and discussed to capture the hearts and minds of the Channel group. If your competitors aren’t at the same level with their incentive offerings, you’ve got the advantage.

“I do know that because the incentive programs are set up, it’s part and parcel of a tool for us to develop and build stronger relationships, which a side-effect is that we bring more of their products in and thus sell more. We are more committed to that company.”

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Employees as Ambassadors

Others Who Interact. There is an influencing group involved with this Channel group that doesn’t play a role with the other types as well. That group is the sponsoring organization’s own employees, those who sell or interact with the Channel, Dealer, or Distributors. These sponsoring organization employees are critical ambassadors and cheerleaders who can greatly affect the reach and impact of the program. Their key role must be explicitly considered in the design of the communications plan, and these employees must be properly trained, motivated, and held accountable for support and communication of the group incentive travel program. This involves a clear opinion on the manner in which these employees should participate in the program, the circumstances under which they personally attend the group travel award trip, and their responsibilities and privileges on-site.

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Business Justification

Justifying the business contributions gained through the operation of a Channel Group Incentive Travel Program fall somewhere between the directness of  Sales Group Incentive Travel Program and the softer, yet important contributions of a Nominationbased Travel Program.

Loyalty.  An interesting correlation between Channel loyalty and a Channel Group Incentive program was found in the study of one company’s program. Loyalty among a Channel organization is a concept that most Senior Executives can easily grasp and would consider as a strong driver of business results.

“I think it’s lovely to have all the details taken care of for you. The companies that do a good job at this are the ones you want to try to earn again.”

Empirical results from the Channel Study showed there is an increase in motivation to sell more products based on 4 important variables. In this equation (unlike the others) there was a negative relationship between not putting in an effort to earn the incentive trip and motivation to sell more products, which is expected. Someone who is not interested in earning the incentive travel trip will not put in the effort nor be motivated to reach the required level of sales volume.

Other Benefits.  The other variables (positivity, recommendations, and positive word-of-mouth), all had a positive relationship with “manufacturer’s incentive travel programs motivate dealers to sell more products.” In essence, if dealers believe participating in incentive travel programs offered by manufacturing companies is positive for their business they will sell more products. In doing so, they recommend products from manufacturers that offer incentive travel programs and positively recommend other dealers try to reach the incentive program goal. However, the business value conversation for Channel Group Incentive Travel Programs should also include motivation to increase purchases, and overall increases in satisfaction with the Channel or Dealer’s relationship to the sponsoring organization.

Channel Group Incentive Travel Distinction

Motivation to Excel

It’s part of the human condition to feel pride in one’s efforts and to desire the acknowledgement and validation for hard work. As organizations provide that validation and supercharge the impact through the use of group incentive travel, it’s helpful to keep two complementary perspectives in mind:

1. Appreciate what’s universal -- build upon the foundation of the core common elements studies have shown to be valid and true regardless of the type of participant.

2. Celebrate what’s different -- capitalize on the distinctions and unique attributes of the target group you wish to inspire to action.

It’s About Managing Success

Incorporating this best practices approach will help you fit in with what works, and stand out by incorporating proven best practices. Applying them will help to ensure that your group incentive travel program has the power to impact the success of your organization.