More than half of the planners who include meetings in their group incentive travel programs either do so to maximize their investment in meetings and travel rewards, or to take advantage of having high performers in the same place as their top executives.  Only 10% of such planners said they integrated meetings and incentive travel to save money, reap tax benefits or to address possible media scrutiny.

Of the 52% of planners who do not combine meetings with their incentive travel programs, more than 2 out of 5 said they had simply never tried it for reasons they are unaware of -- in other words, because “it’s always been done this way.” 

Should Meetings Be A Significant Component Of A Travel Incentive Program?

This IRF Study, which included over 200 practitioners (program planners and managers) and 1000 participants (who earn the incentive trip) was conducted in the Fall of 2013 and revealed a nearly even split:  52% of respondents did not include meetings, while 48% did include them for at least a portion of the program. 

What were the determining factors in their decisions to include or not include meetings?  

A central finding from the study is that the decision to include meetings or not is largely driven by the culture of the sponsoring organization. In fact, the organization’s culture is strongly reflected in the very design and characteristics of its group incentive travel program.   

Cultural Drivers

The almost even split suggests that a deeper look into the specific needs, characteristics, and cultures of the individual organizations is required. 

Designing Based on Organizational Signposts

Qualitative discussions with planners helped the IRF produce support tools that outline the characteristics (Signposts), of different organization’s Incentive Travel programs and the design patterns that best fit each type of program. All Incentive Travel programs may display each of these signposts to some degree, but all programs will have at least one signpost that stands out most strongly.   The following lists several high-level design implications for each program type.

1. Program provokes strong and immediate emotional reactions. 

The program must have an immediate, visceral, emotional appeal simply based on the choice of destination, venue, and activities.   For these types of programs, time spent in meetings will be less important than time having fun; recognition will most likely not include parading winners across the stage; and communications require strong, vivid imagery.

2. Program creates advocates for business initiatives. 

Award winners may be a small slice of the overall target audience base in these programs, but they’re the most active and vocal, and will exponentially increase the adoption and success of business initiative efforts.  For these types of programs, meetings will be focused on business challenges, recognition will include simply being a part of new “solutions”, and communications will focus on past winner’s solutions. 

3. Program becomes “cultural shorthand” for a specific set of actions or values. 

Top Achievers represent such a distinct point of view in these programs that the very name of the program itself stands alone as a symbol for a defined set of values. The name becomes a reference point for how people identify themselves and their work world.

For these types of programs, meetings will be focused on sharing best practices, spotlights on earners will be an important part of recognition, and communications should focus on success stories of past earners.

4. Program incites conversation. 

In these programs, influential incentive travel program achievers spark conversations -- they are talked about and held up as examples by their peers.  For these types of programs, meetings will be focused on how earners can experience new initiatives and spark change.  Recognition should not be formal and communications should focus on how past attendees’ ideas are being implemented.

5. Program prods others to realign around the behaviors & activities of incentive program winners.

Award earners think, act and behave differently than others within the organization in these programs. Often, these people inspire other employees or partners to follow in their path.  These types of programs should be more focused on friends and family and less on meetings. Recognition in front of a spouse is a must and communications should focus on images of happy groups enjoying the destination together. 

What Motivates Award Earners?

While individual culture is a driving force in incentive travel programs, the study also uncovered several interesting broad reflections of award earner expectations and what makes award earners overall work harder for the travel award.

Surprisingly, the study found that while being recognized was the second most motivating factor, award earners were first and foremost motivated by the attractiveness of the destination.  Careful selection of the destination is therefore paramount.

What Doesn’t Motivate Award Earners?

Of equal importance is understanding what does not motivate award earners: 

#1: Time away from the office was the least motivating aspect of the trip

#2:  Having executives on the trip was in second place

Key Expectations of Award Earners

Three key expectations were cited: 

  • To have fun
  • To experience a great destination
  • To stay at first- rate hotel

Once planners have satisfied these three primary expectations, award earners said they expected “the opportunity to relax.”  In support of this relaxation, the aspect that award earners cared least about was the agenda of activities.  This reflects a desire by award earners for unstructured time.   

What Is Least Appealing?

Award earners cited “getting there and back” as the least appealing aspect of the trip. Accordingly, anything planners can do to make that experience more pleasant will improve earner’s reactions to the program.   This could include everything from providing passes to an airline club, airline upgrades, or expedited access through customs in foreign destinations.  

About Being Publicly Recognized 

While every culture and individual is different, a surprising finding from this study was that for award earners overall, being publicly recognized was not as important to them as other elements of the program. This was particularly interesting when you consider that the sponsoring organizations’ most desired outcome is to make the participant feel special and recognized.  This finding may reflect that award earners in certain organizations no longer desire the “public walk-across-the-stage.” 

Award earners want to be appreciated and treated like a VIP for a week.  This interpretation of the data was supported when award earner’s reported how incentive travel impacts their performance: participants felt that being able to participate in the trip is recognition enough -- they want to be “appreciated” for their contributions, not necessarily asked on stage.

Perceptions of Meeting Time

For those organizations that do include meetings in their group incentive travel programs, the amount of time spent in meetings revealed an interesting perceptual difference.  Meeting planners overall noted that they restricted meetings to less than 20% of the combined event.  However, award earners felt a considerably higher percentage of their total trip was spent in meetings. 

Almost as many award earners reported spending 40% or more of their time in meetings as those who said they spent 20% or less.  This finding could either mean the award earners perceive the time spent in meetings to be longer (because they are not experiencing value) or that planners under-estimate meeting times.  Additionally, award earners might consider unstructured business conversations to be “meeting time” while they are enjoying an incentive travel reward. 

Most importantly, as the study showed, an organization’s culture is distilled and reflected in the design and characteristics of its group incentive travel program.  Therefore, the important aspects of Incentive Travel programs (including recognition, meeting time, and experience design) require specific tailoring to individual organizational cultures. 

Contact Us

For more detailed information or to experience the design tools associated with this study, please contact the Incentive Research Foundation or go to

In recognition of their support, the IRF would like to thank:

Hard Rock Hotel Cancun
Hard Rock All Inclusive Collection
JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa
Secrets The Vine
Le Blanc Spa Resort
Amstar DMC
CEO Mexico

For a full copy of the whitepaper, click here.