Research shows the business case for and use of incentive travel is strong. Trends point toward strong growth ahead. 

The Business Case for Incentive Travel

For decades leading executives have sought to optimize the performance of their people. Tools have changed. The economy has changed. But interest in engagement and performance has not. Today, with strong job growth, the entrance of more generations in the workplace than ever before, and the extreme specialization required within virtually every job, this executive interest has heightened in recent years. Consultants now focus on helping executives calibrate the cash-based and non-cash motivators available to maximize performance.

Not surprisingly, a 2015 market research study by the Incentive Federation found that 84% of all U.S. Firms now use non-cash awards in some manner to motivate and engage their workforce. (1) According to this same study, 45% of all businesses using non-cash awards use incentive travel awards in some manner. What do these businesses see to make their investment worthwhile? 

First, travel has emerged as a top motivator for the modern workforce. In 2015 a study of a national cross-section of 452 working adults used experimental design to more deeply understand the motivational preferences of U.S. employees. The study clearly showed that when being rewarded for 'above and beyond' performance lasting over a year, on average U.S. employees preferred most often to be rewarded with travel or experiential awards - beating out cash significantly. (2)

Successful businesses already know this. According to Aberdeen Group in 2013, 100% of "Best in Class" companies (meaning those with the highest year over year sales increases and highest customer retention) use group travel to reward and recognize year-end sales success. (3) A strong testament to travel as a motivational tool.  

Individual Travel and Group Travel - Striking the Balance

When designing a non-cash incentive travel program, program designers have two choices: individual or group travel. Data shows U.S. firms' use of each tool varies based on program goal and business size.

A study of 234 U.S. firms using non- cash awards showed that where sales associates were concerned, program owners more often used individual travel to reward discretionary accomplishments, but used group travel to reward team-based success. Where all other employees were concerned, program owners preferred individual travel for goal -based or team-based awards. (6)

U.S. firms balanced use of both individual and group travel is most evident in how they split their incentive travel budget. The budget for individual travel tends to be higher for smaller businesses. For example, $1 Million - $10 Million sized businesses reported their travel budgets for employee, sales, or channel programs were roughly split 2/3 to individual travel and 1/3 to group travel. The converse was true for large businesses (over $1 Billion) with 50- 65% of their incentive travel budgets going to group travel the rest to individual travel depending on the audience. In addition 29-41% of firms who use award points include individual travel as part of their portfolio, which means firms are using individual travel in multiple ways. (5)

According to U.S. planners, there is a very moderate move to individual travel from group travel anticipated in the coming years. (7)

Sales and Employee Programs Lead the Way for Incentive Travel

A 2015 study of over 1000 U.S. firms revealed organizations currently spend over $90 Billion annually on non-cash awards and recognition to motivate their sales people, customer, employees and channel partners. Not surprisingly $14.43 Billion of this spend is concentrated on incentive travel with U.S. firms spending $3.96 Billion annually to motivate their sales people with incentive travel and $3.91 Billion annually to motivate employees with travel. A full 60% of U.S. firms now have non-cash sales programs of some manner and 34% of these firms use incentive travel as a motivator. (5)

This study revealed the market for employee incentive travel programs to be strong as well. Almost three quarters of U.S. firms (72%) have non-cash reward and recognition employee programs with a full 30% of these using incentive travel in some manner.

While a relatively smaller portion of U.S. firms were using non-cash awards for channel and dealer programs, of the 41% of who do use them, almost a third use travel as a motivator spending $3.37 Billion annually. Likewise, while comparatively a slightly higher portion (45%) of U.S. firms use non-cash awards to recognize customers, only 25% of these use travel, spending $3.19 Billion annually. 

Budgets are on the Rise

The economy continues to have a large impact on the use of incentive travel programs in business. On a positive note, 61% of 190 respondents to a current survey on trends in incentive travel said they believe the economy is having a positive impact on their ability to plan and implement incentive travel programs. The elasticity of the incentive travel market in response to the economy is evident as 67% of these planners also said they are slightly raising their budgets. 

Budgets for incentive travel continue to increase since the recession with a recent MeetingsNet/IRF study finding the average per person spend on an incentive travel program is now at $3,165. (9) Concurrent research found corporate end user budgets tend to fall in the $2000- $3000 per person, while budgets at major third incentive houses tend to be $3000-$4000 per person. (10)

Experience and Destination

With the rise of the experience economy, the emergence of a more experienced traveler, and the existence of larger program budgets, it would be expected that U.S. planners look outward for different and intriguing incentive travel destinations. While the USA and the Caribbean are still top destinations (50% of U.S. planners report using them in 2016), Europe now rivals Canada as a very close second tier option, with respectively 38% and 40% of programs headed there in 2016. Canada continues to be a more prevalently used destination with third party incentive houses. Mexico is most popular with corporate end users and is still a highly rated option with over a third of planners using it in 2016. 

Major Trends in Incentive Travel

A recent trends study by the Incentive Research Foundation revealed the following important trends in Incentive Travel (11):

  • Accommodating rising F&B and rooms costs was the biggest change to program budgets in 2016

  • Very few planners are reducing the number of rooms and length of their program; continuing the downward trend.

  • Since 2013 the trend has been for more planners to move from domestic to international locales than vice versa.

  • Starting in 2013, the trend has been in favor of covering all air costs with 46% of planners now covering all air-related costs.

  • Lead time to book an incentive travel program now averages well over a year

  • The amount of time organizations use to qualify participants to earn an incentive travel program is predominately 12 months or more 



1. Intellective Group, The Incentive Federation, Incentive Market Study, 2016,

2. The Incentive Marketing Association, Participant Preferences Study, 2015, Presen.pdf

3. Peter Ostrow, Aberdeen Research, Non-Cash Incentives: Best Practices to Optimize Sales Effectiveness, 2013 practices-to-optimize-sales-effectiveness-2/ or practices-to-optimize-sales-effectiveness/183/

4. Incentive Federation, Program Design & Support: End User Survey, 2015

5. Intellective Group, The Incentive Federation, Incentive Market Study, 2016,

6. Incentive Federation, Program Design & Support: End User Survey, 2015

7. QRA Analytics, Incentive Research Foundation, "IRF Fall Pulse Survey 2015

8. ibid.
9. MeetingsNet, "Incentives Rally" April 2016

10. QRA Analytics, Incentive Research Foundation, "IRF Fall Pulse Survey 2015

11. ibid.