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Executive summary

External shocks bring powerful moments of change, creating new norms. During a widespread pause on travel, the incentive travel sector has sought its bearings, wondering what incentive travel will look like on the other side, including:

  • What’s changed?
  • What is more true now than ever before?
  • How are we responding?

In some ways, the sentiment of industry participants is common across regions and roles—confirming a shared global experience. But as one looks closer, signs of regional and sub-sector differences stand out. These local, regional and sub-sector narratives will likely assert even greater influence in the months ahead, as incentive travel recovers anew.

Renewed prestige of travel

A year without travel has sharpened our appreciation, confirming travel’s intrinsic merits and elevating the prestige of travel as a prize. When the time comes, our appreciation for travel will help fuel the recovery. This is borne out in the survey, as the desire to travel is far and away the greatest net positive factor expected to influence the recovery.

The case for incentive travel is changing, reflecting the inspirational and transformative capacity of travel. Buyers (incentive travel end users and agencies) report shifts emerging for a post-COVID world, with “soft power” purposes—improved engagement, customer satisfaction and relationship building—becoming more important goals, even as hard dollar goals—sales and corporate profitability—continue.

Buyers re-orient programs to manage risk

Safety is the watchword and buyers are shifting to match traveler sentiment. Sanitation and health security have joined emergency preparedness as top risk management strategies, while location preferences have shifted temporarily away from more dense, urban locations, cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts, and toward destinations perceived as safe.

Stakeholders’ durable commitment to incentive travel

As a testament of support, 83% of buyers report senior management and other stakeholders remain committed to incentive travel. But commitment isn’t the same as rigidity. Many also expect incentive travel will need to fundamentally change to reduce risks.

Road to recovery

Buyers estimate activity this year at just 23% of 2019 levels, with hope that 2021—fueled by activity in the second half—can recover to 59% of 2019 levels. Recovery expectations hinge on virus containment, as a majority of respondents (66%) expect a one to two year recovery of incentive travel once post-COVID conditions are reached.

How to plan? Regional situations differ

Given varied experiences with the pandemic, it is clear that local and regional differences will determine the shape and timing of the recovery. Optimism for the recovery timeline once we reach post-COVID conditions remains dependent on region—Western Europe expects a slower recovery (only 54% expect a one to two year recovery), with North America (74%) and South America (71%) more optimistic.

In a post-COVID world, will incentive travel resume where it left off? Individual views differ, but aggregate views are similar across regions. Across most regions, about 23% of respondents expect travel, once it’s recovered post-COVID, will be fundamentally different, and about 65% expect it will be moderately changed, and the rest see it very similar to before.

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