Executive Summary

Most organizations (60%) offer travel rewards to top performers and nearly all (90%) conduct offsite business meetings. Since the “Great Recession,” interest in combining business meetings with incentive group travel programs has accelerated. The visceral reaction to the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the accompanying government bailout of large financial institutions brought intense scrutiny on those companies that received assistance. Specifically, the “AIG Effect” 1 highlighted incentive travel and its perceived extravagance − especially for companies that accepted government money.

The practice of including business meetings in incentive group travel programs is nothing new − organizations have been doing so for decades. However, it is widely believed that many more organizations are now combining the two in response to the negative perception of incentive travel brought on by the AIG effect, and/or for tax reasons. This research was conducted late last year in order to examine the trend and determine whether the combination should be considered a best practice.

Our research suggests that the combination of meetings and incentive events has been adopted by about half of US organizations as of late 2012. Yet the reasons for combining the two may be surprising. Only 10 percent do so to save money, reap tax benefits or to address the criticism surrounding incentive group travel. By contrast, more than four times as many (42%) do so in order to maximize their investment in meetings and travel rewards and/or or to take advantage of having high performers in the same place and at the same time as top executives (the remainder do so for a combination of all of the above reasons or they don’t know).

For those organizations that don’t combine offsite business meetings with incentive group travel, less than 7 percent of them have tried the combination and reversed the approach after experiencing poor results. 42 percent have never tried it either because it has never occurred to them, or for organizational reasons they don’t know. A small but significant group − about a fifth of respondents − have considered and rejected the idea without ever trying it.

Only about 10% of more than 600 respondents in our participant survey2 had participated in a combined incentive group travel/offsite business meeting program. Nonetheless, their feedback and insights are telling. From the participants’ perspective, attending business meetings during their trip is not a universally bad idea – indeed, far from it.

That said, reward earners continue to value the attractiveness of the location for their incentive travel reward and the simple fact of being recognized as the most motivating aspects of earning the reward. Participants rated fun, the destination and the quality of the resort as the top three most important aspects of a travel reward. By contrast, having executives on the trip was ranked as the second least important factor of nine. It is informative that the opportunity to network with other high performers and with senior executives ranked only above “time away from the office” in terms of motivation for earning the reward.

Yet despite participants’ low ranking of networking and time spent with executives compared to other elements of a reward trip, most welcome the insertion of at least one business meeting into their travel. A full third of respondents believe that “a meeting” during their trip would make the experience better for them and the organization. Some are less welcoming of business meetings (23%) but still agree that it’s a good idea, if mainly for the company. Only about 20 percent believe the combination is a bad one for both the company and the reward earners, and of those that had participated in a combined incentive travel/offsite business meeting program in the past, less than 6 percent felt it didn’t work well – almost 95 percent said that it was either a good combination or a nice way to recognize top performers in front of peers and executives.

Reward earners appear to accept and even prefer at least one business meeting as part of their reward travel as long as the meetings are meaningful and beneficial to their work. As might be expected, the “practitioners” of combined offsite business meetings and incentive group travel believe even more strongly in the benefits of adding a business meeting to an incentive travel program. For example, our practitioner survey respondents were about five times less likely than participants to express doubt about whether offsite business meetings have an impact on job performance (see Appendices B and C). Moreover, less than 7 percent of practitioner respondents had stopped combining business meetings with incentive travel while 19 percent of participant respondents who had experienced the combination did not believe it worked well.

Despite their openness to having business meetings as part of incentive travel, it remains true that reward travel earners are more reluctant to embrace business meetings during their travel than is the leadership. By all accounts, however, a significant majority of high achievers welcome a balanced, structured opportunity to network with their peers and executives, and to participate in meaningful discussions about the business with peers and senior executives. The better aligned the meetings are to the expectations and wants of the earners, and the better explained they are, the more receptive and engaged will be the participants.

According to our surveys and the results of our expert Delphi panels, organizations that actively follow up on the ideas and suggestions made during meetings and then communicate subsequent actions and decisions back to the participants, can expect that business meetings combined with incentive travel will be better received in subsequent years.

To be effective, combined incentive travel and business meeting designers must possess skillsets from both professions. Meeting professionals require an understanding of reward and recognition strategy – what needs to be included to have a successful incentive program. Incentive and recognition professionals should have logistical planning skills – selecting the venue, managing the meeting space, logistics, etc. All designers must have a good understanding of the organization’s culture in order to create a combined program that will be at least minimally successful. To succeed overall, however, they must also think about reward earners as individuals and appreciate that one size won’t fit all.

Program designers told us that in their view, the top two drivers that optimize the impact of a combined event are to ensure that the incentive reward attendees feel recognized, and to design the [meeting] content so that it is meaningful and relevant. Somewhat surprisingly, the quality of the hotel or resort was a distant fourth in importance. This might mean that even three and four-star properties have an opportunity to capture some of the combined program market if they excel in their support of the other drivers.

In general, organizations should consider the combination of business meetings with incentive travel a “best practice.” But the goal of any organization that combines business meetings with incentive travel rewards must be to turn the meeting(s) from a perceived obligation into a real reward. Having top performers together with executives presents an opportunity to generate useful ideas and feedback for the company. However, it is critical that the meetings present an even greater perceived professional benefit (i.e. reward) than the alternative activities reward earners could be doing, in an exotic location, with their spouse or partner. A tall order indeed – perhaps even impossible for some organizations depending on their culture – but one that many of the organizations we spoke with for this research have achieved.

Definitions

Incentive Travel is:
“a motivational tool to enhance productivity or achieve other business objectives. Participants qualify for the travel award based on achieving the level of performance required by the program.”
~ (Incentive Research Foundation, 2006).

Meeting is:
‘‘a gathering of three or more people who agree to assemble for a purpose ostensibly related to the functioning of an organization or group”(Schwartzman 61). Business meetings normally take place for individuals to gather to share information, debate or deliberate on issues and to arrive at decisions, while incentive travel programs are developed to reward employees who have invested extra efforts at work to achieve established goals.

Research Methodology

Original Research for this paper was conducted between August and October, 2012. In that timeframe, two surveys were developed and launched and two “Delphi” panels were conducted with a total of fifteen experts.

The first survey was a “Practitioner Survey,” which was sent to several thousand meeting planners, rewards and incentives designers, managers and executives across more than twenty industries and all sectors of the North American economy. 223 participated in our survey. In addition, fifteen experienced meeting and incentive travel planners were interviewed in panels or individually in the same timeframe.

To gain a perspective on reward earners, more than twenty thousand salespeople, sales managers, executives and non-sales professionals were sent our “Participant Survey” in the same timeframe. In total, 1,174 responded.

Secondary Research included a review of prior research relevant to the topic, some of which is cited throughout the paper.