Hotels, destinations, resorts, and DMC’s in the incentive travel industry are constantly seeking business that is a good match for their property or destination.  Suppliers also often want to expand the positioning of their property or destination to cast a wider net of potential program opportunities.   Recent research shows that although price is important, planners make decisions based on style, brand, experience and culture.   Specifically, an IRF study conducted in the spring of 2013 found that the design and experience of a group incentive travel program is a strong reflection of the sponsoring organization’s culture.

Are Meetings Integrated With Group Incentive Travel Programs?

  • 52% of planners do not include meetings
  • 48% do include meetings with their incentive travel programs.  

The Spring 2013 study revealed a fairly even split between those that do and do not include meetings.  It also found one key determinant on whether or not meetings were included: the culture of the sponsoring organization

Suppliers are a valuable partner in helping incentive program owners translate their culturally driven programs into onsite experiences. Understanding individual client cultures is central to making your property or DMC the best fit for them.

The study, which included over 200 practitioners (or those who plan and manage the incentive travel program) and over 1000 participants (those who earn the incentive trip) holds significant relevance for hotels, DMCs, and other supporters of the $22.6 billion dollar incentive travel industry.

Signposts of Incentive Travel

The IRF study found that all incentive travel programs share one or more of five distinct Signposts.  An incentive travel program functions as a distillation of the company culture and will therefore produce a program with at least one signpost that rises to the top.  

Five incentive program archetypes were identified in this study.  Matching them to your property or destination’s particular offerings can help ensure satisfied clients and engaged program participants.  

The IRF’s support tools, which can be found online, outline the characteristics of different organization’s Incentive Travel programs (Signposts), and design elements that match each.

The following presents the five organizational and program signposts and ideas on how suppliers can use them to attract the best-fit prospect programs to their locations in order to create outstanding experiences for those groups.

1. Program provokes strong and immediate emotional reactions.

In this type of program, imparting an immediate, visceral, emotional appeal -- simply based on the choice of destination, venue, and activities -- is a must. DMCs or Hotels might therefore want to consider how their destination or property and ambiance (including onsite transactions) make guests feel.

For example, at check-in the hotel certainly has specific information and transaction needs (information in exchange for a key), but what other ways, locations, and processes might be implemented to create a unique and captivating experience?  

Should the property consider partnering with a DMC to create a unique, authentic local experience at check-in?  What might a DMC offer in the way of transforming that space or punctuating what’s distinct and unique about the destination?  If the Hotel has fixed brand standards that are not negotiable in the space, what is the one-on-one interaction like? How can you address the first moment of interaction to delight the attendee on a visceral, emotional level?

2.  Program creates advocates for business initiatives.

In this type of program, the award winners may be a small slice of the overall target audience base, but they are the most active and vocal.  These award earners will exponentially increase the adoption and success of business initiative efforts.  One of the unique aspects of incentive programs is that although only a few actually participate in the trip, the promotional aspect reaches all participants. 

IRF research has shown that although (on average) the top 5-10% of an organization are usually recognized, as many as 50% of the population finds the program deeply motivating. Therefore, the marketing reach of the program can be truly motivating to upwards of 50% of the total eligible group.  In some tiered programs, your brand, image and messaging could be reaching large audiences well beyond your typical demographic targets.

How can you best communicate to that extended audience in a way that all participants (including those who don’t earn) maintain an aspirational view of the destination and property?  How do you help your client(s) ensure they are appropriately conveying their excitement to a wider audience during the qualifying time frame?  How can you help promote consideration for that wider group for a future visit outside of the program operation?  

This approach also dovetails with providing the best promotional materials and information to the client so they can convert those HD images, video and online communication media into purpose-focused promotions on behalf of your product or destination.

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

In these programs, top achievers represent such a distinct point of view that the very name of the program 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.  

Based on this type of program, look at the values your property conveys and look for organizations (or demographics within an organization) that fit your profile.  

For example, is your property LEED Certified, or a DMC with a strong farm-to-table program?  If so, target incentive programs for companies with publicly released, highly recognized CSR or sustainability programs. Just as the incentive program itself mirrors the culture of the organization, the audience of qualifiers who are also defined as top achievers, can bring that culture into sharp focus. And it’s not just the culture of the company that is traveling with these individuals -- it is also their personal values and tastes.  

Understand what comprises that value set and align your property or company’s cultural values with them.  These organizations will likely choose your destination because your values align. Taking time to call out these similarities can also generate additional opportunities to define your potential customer set. 

For example, if you are a mid-market resort property and seek business from the automotive sector (but perhaps don’t feel you are right for a dealer program) find out what programs the company offers their service managers. If you are a good fit (from a value and cultural standpoint of the organization and participants) then consider targeting all the division’s service manager programs.  Take that a step further, and move from automotive to construction, agriculture, and manufacturing, to distribution.  How can you apply this same thinking across all of your various targeted vertical markets?

4.  Program incites conversations.  

In this program, influential incentive travel program achievers spark conversations -- they are talked about and held up as examples by their peers.  For this type of organization and program, consider how you can plug into the “conversations” or social media streams of top performing “mavens” to amplify the best attributes of your property or DMC.

How can you leverage these attendees and their program’s unique design to extend your general marketing efforts? How can you create concentric circles of conversations to increase your social media footprint? Are you up to speed on newer methods such as social media outreach, blogs and online feedback forums?  Are you managing third party information to gain benefits in the broader incentive market?

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

Winners think, act and behave differently than others within the organization. Often, these people inspire other employees or partners to follow in their path.  The focus of these types of programs is on best practice sharing.  

How do you use the resources of your property or DMC to translate the organization’s best practices into experiences onsite?  What different areas would you highlight if the top performer’s most ubiquitous best practices were teamwork and persistence? Would you create a ropes course for teamwork, or perhaps a scavenger hunt highlighting persistence? 

The objective here is to use resources onsite to highlight the behavior or characteristics of these performers. For example, lining the ballroom hallway with banners to create a “Wall of Fame” will highlight what each individual did to achieve the trip.

The Broad View: The Destination Counts

The study also surveyed award earners to understand what motivates them as individuals.  A central takeaway for destinations and hotels is this:  Overall, award earners were most motivated by the attractiveness of the destination.  In fact, award earners said they were more motivated by the destination than they were at being recognized. 

The study found that award earners generally expect three primary things from their experience:  Fun, a great destination and a first-rate hotel.  Just as important, award earners said they cared least about the agenda.  There is key evidence here that award earners crave unstructured time at your destination and on your property.   

Drawbacks To Incentive Trips

Award earners said the primary drawbacks to incentive trips were “getting there and back” (the travel itself) and “being away from family.”  Suppliers who maximize convenience in the travel process can increase trip participation and overall enjoyment for top performers.  Can you make their travel easier (or even special) from the time they land at your destination through hotel check-in?

Decision-Making for Incentive Travel Programs

Suppliers should also pay attention to who is involved in the decision-making and planning around an incentive trip.  Although the sales target for hotels and DMCs is often the meeting planner, decision-influencers may vary depending on the size of the sponsoring organization:

  • In smaller organizations (fewer than 100 employees) there is more involvement from the CEO, CFO, COO and from Incentive Planning specialists. 
  • In larger organizations (more than 100 employees) planners work more closely with Sales and Marketing functions.

Qualitative interviews with practitioners revealed that Meeting Planners are often the influencers or those who make recommendations, but Sales Executives are frequently the final decision-makers.

Make sure that your salespeople cultivate relationships across the organization -- not just people within the event marketing organization.

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