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IRF 2023 Outlook: More Focus on Culture, ROI, and Experiences

IRFThe Incentive Research Foundation releases its 2023 trends report, based on insights from the organization’s research team and board, and announces the dates and location of its 2023 Invitational.
The increasing focus on people, culture, measurement, experiences, and an increasing focus on sustainability are all key trends for the coming year, according to the Incentive Research Foundation recently published 2023 Trends Report.
Here are highlights of the findings. The report echoes many of the themes of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance’s 2023 IRR Industry forecast, but with much more detail on trends related practical industry practices.
An expanded role for the IRR industry. “Culture is key. Incentives professionals play an important role in providing channels of communication, offering experiential, face-to-face rewards, and providing frequent manager and peer recognition. Their job now also encompasses helping companies demonstrate concern for employee well-being with time off rewards, access to wellness resources, and wellness merchandise rewards with the goal of helping address loneliness and burnout.”
Measurement. “The growing role of incentives provides the opportunity for more measurement, analysis, and proof of success, including predictable and measurable ROI.”
Emphasis on experiences. “Experience is considered the new luxury and is a top driver of destination choice among buyers today. There is a renewed emphasis on creating unique experiences that are memorable for all participants. Private access to normally crowded venues, exclusive guides and inside stories, meals in places that are unexpected, and more have higher perceived value now for program participants.”
Downtime, relationships are key. “As incentive travel participants come back together, and many are now used to working from home, the need for downtime has emerged as a priority. Being given ample time to relax was ranked as most important quality of an incentive trip by participants…The Incentive Travel Index reported that 72% of respondents indicated that relationship-building activities were important to a successful program.”
Inflation enhances perceived value of rewards. While inflation has been a challenge for businesses and employees alike, incentive professionals are responding with program adjustments, especially with gift cards, merchandise, and points programs. The IRF’s Industry Outlook for 2023: Merchandise, Gift Cards and Event Gifting reported that 50% of North American respondents believe high inflation increases the value of non-cash incentives. While gift cards may not buy as much as they used to, receiving a non-cash incentive may be a particularly welcome gesture when household incomes are stretched, and discretionary spending is more limited.  
Sustainability. “Almost 80% of respondents to an IRF survey report at least some pressure from clients to provide more sustainable options in meetings, events, incentive travel venues, and transport. Hotels and DMCs are often expected to be at the forefront of implementing sustainability practices. The IRF’s Social Responsibility & Sustainability study revealed that sustainable practices are becoming more important to clients and more prevalent in RFPs….Environmental sustainability of travel to the destination was a consideration of 32% of North American respondents compared to 40% of the rest of the world… Cost is the primary barrier to the sustainability movement. Even when sustainability is a stated concern, leadership and clients may reconsider if there is resulting increase cost or compromises in venues and reward choice.”
Labor shortages continue. “While the demand for incentive travel continues to come back, economic and staffing issues are often forcing incentive program owners to scale back. Compression in hotel inventory, reduction in staff, and increased costs are common barriers to delivering an incentive trip on the same scale as 2019. Limited hotel inventory continues to be a challenge.”
Shorter planning timelines. “Corporate enthusiasm for the return to incentive travel can often create urgency. Lead times are decreasing, and the decision to move forward with an incentive program has been described by many as last minute.”
Less understanding and patience from planners. “The industry-wide attitude that we’re all in this together during the Covid crisis is waning. Suppliers have noted that incentive clients who were once accepting of Covid related issues are increasingly losing their patience. Incentive travel planners are pressured to put together programs on compressed schedules, so they expect suppliers to respond to RFPs within a few days.”
Covid issues linger on. “Covid protocols are still changing in some areas. CES 2023, one of 2023’s first major events, had to update their Covid-19 testing policies when the US government announced that as of Jan. 5 all inbound passengers from China, Hong Kong, and Macau test negative before boarding a plane to the United States.”
Closer to home but Europe beckons. “North American incentive travel buyers have been looking closer to home since 2020, showing a preference for US destinations, including Hawaii, as well as closer locations: Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada. Airfare remains an influencer as costs and route availability continue to be a challenge. While decreasing distance to travel, buyers are still looking for new destinations they have not used before. Despite these challenges, incentive programs are returning to Western Europe at an increasing pace.”
In other news, the 2023 Incentive Research Foundation Invitational will take place at Resorts World in Las Vegas, Mon., June 5 – Thu., June 8.

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