When it comes to incentives – particularly incentive travel programs and all the possibilities they offer – today’s new market realities have totally changed the game
The average employee population these days encompasses at least three distinct generations, and within each you’ll find a bewildering array of age and lifestyle segments with very different needs, goals and reward triggers. Baby Boomers. Baby Busters. Gen-X. Gen-Y. Families. Empty-nesters. Single twenty-somethings. You name it, it’s represented in today’s workforce. And things are growing more segmented every day.
People in the incentive, rewards and recognition industries understand that this diversity creates a dilemma when it comes to motivation. To be fair, they’ve been saying for years that a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t always best, but many continue to push the benefits of group incentives and programs with a predetermined, finite set of rewards.
After all, if that’s what the client wants…
Welcome to the brave new world of incentives, where customization and choice are the watchwords that drive the market. There’s just one problem: A lot of the corporations that offer incentives to their employees are still mired in the past where group programs rule.
Aside from workplace demographics, people’s preferences have also changed. As an example, let’s look at travel. Years ago a large percentage of Americans used to travel in group tours. Today more and more prefer to travel on their own. And with the increase of two-income families, people have less flexibility in their schedules, so they can’t always travel when a group is supposed to go. The same is true of incentive travel. Where once it was dominated by groups, many travel reward recipients now say they would like their award to be a trip “away from the workplace.”
Given this new reality – and coupled with the emergence of employee engagement as a bona fide human capital initiative – planners are reexamining their incentive programs from top to bottom, looking specifically at three things: individualization, integration and innovation.
Here’s another example of how travel incentives have changed in recent years: Traditionally, a top performer considering a travel reward might have been able to select (with enough rewards points) a pre-packaged resort vacation in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, or Virgin Islands from the program catalog. Airfare/hotel, but that’s pretty much it. A “choice” of one airline and one hotel chain. Maybe it included a spouse; maybe that involved an additional surcharge. Perhaps an “all-inclusive” resort, or a gift card to cover meals and incidentals. The employee did a lot of the packaging and detail work to get things squared away, usually working with an outside provider to book flights and room nights.
That’s the old model. Today employers are increasingly going for a more personal touch. Let’s say your top performer is an art lover or a wine connoisseur. How do you know this? “You can take some of the mystery out of your search for a worthwhile employee incentive program by discussing the topic with your employees and asking them individually what motivates them – either one-on-one by having them list items on an index card or by completing a simple questionnaire,” says best-selling author and motivation guru Bob Nelson. “This will help you learn more about those things they value.” In other words, find out what they’re fanatical about and build a program just for them.
Personalization. That’s what it’s all about. How much more motivated do you think that person would be to achieve their program goals if, instead of handing them a catalog full of merchandise and vacation packages to places they’ve already been, you told them “Hey, I know you’re really into wine. How about if you meet your targets this quarter we send you and your spouse to Burgundy to spend a week touring six different French vineyards? Something we designed just for you.”
Or for the art lover, how about a week in Paris, all expenses paid, with a private guided tour of the Louvre and admission to three other major museums/exhibitions like Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie and the Musée National Picasso? Think that might get their attention?
Can you imagine what that person would say to such an offer – how they would feel? Can you imagine what this would do in terms of employee/employer engagement and loyalty – binding them to the company? Can you imagine how much encouragement that person would get from his/her spouse once they heard about it? Talk about motivation!
“A manager [needs to] answer the question: What’s the best way I can reward this specific employee if he or she does what we both agree needs to be done?” says Nelson. “The most effective incentive programs are individualized to those who are participating in the program.”
That, in a nutshell, is why custom-tailored incentives are becoming more commonplace – both in the workplace and in the rewards & recognition industry. Today’s employees increasingly want to know the company cares about them as people and understands what motivates and engages them as individuals.
So you’ve figured out what makes a particular employee tick – what they’re fanatical about. How do you know the individualized program you’re about to put together for them will really work the way you want it to?
“For incentive programs to be effective, they need to be well integrated with performance management strategies,” says Nelson. And that doesn’t always mean individual travel is the best choice. Despite the move toward more personalized incentives, there’s still a place for group experiences, as long as they make sense as part of the big picture.
Proponents of traditional programs (and there are still quite a few) argue that individual travel fails to address one of the key objectives of incentive travel: building camaraderie and mutual understanding between management and top performers. They say that individual travel doesn’t enable companies to create the sort of unforgettable travel experiences that people could never do on their own. And that’s true to a certain extent.
“Group travel overcomes a lot of the formal barriers of business relationships and transforms them into personal ones through shared experiences,” says Jim Dittman, President of Dittman Incentive Marketing. “It allows an employer to recognize each winner and to create memories that will be forever associated with the company. There will always be enormous benefits to group travel.”
And don’t forget about objectives, budgets, measurement, logistics and other key factors. All of these have to be integrated into whatever type of program you ultimately select.
The good news is that virtually every major hotel chain, airline, cruise line and travel provider now offer services geared to individual incentive travelers. Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, for example, has what it calls an Individual Incentive Rewards program that offers “group packages and pricing without the group,” giving planners the ability to customize unique packages featuring various room types and accommodations, round-trip transportation from Nassau International Airport, spa treatments, seaside golf, dolphin interactions and world-class dining options. And the major program providers like Travelink by American Express, Royal Caribbean, Maritz Travel, Roadtrips, Travel Awards Online and others all now have the capability to deal with personalized and individualized awards.
No matter what kind of incentive you’re considering, the biggest issue is how to make sure the whole experience is unforgettable, pushes all the right buttons with recipients and ultimately achieves the business goals any good incentive program should.
These days that requires some doing when it comes to travel incentives, given the much broader range of experiences, destinations, details and specialized options people have at their disposal. This isn’t 1980 or even 2000. Travel has come a long way in the last few decades, and that means you’ll need to think creatively if you want to make your program stand out.
One way you can do this, of course, is to make sure you have up-to-date information on all of the people involved, and that means knowing their recent travel history, their preferences for destinations, their hobbies and interests – essentially anything and everything that can help you make an inspired decision on what kind of trip to offer. The same is true for merchandise or gift card programs – know your audience.
Do a little homework prior to setting up your incentive program. Survey everyone on your list about their favorite brands (airlines, gift cards, luggage, cameras, cruise lines, etc.), preferences, likes and dislikes so you can use this information in unique and creative ways to design a custom-tailored program that also includes merchandise, gift cards/certificates, apparel and other key add-ons to a travel incentive.
And don’t forget that innovation isn’t just about where you send winners, it’s also about how you get them there, what they do once they’ve arrived, what kinds of amenities accompany their trip – all the small and seemingly insignificant details that can turn a standard trip into an seamless, unforgettable experience. Remember, most people don’t have either the money or the time to pay attention to this kind of stuff. But you do. Make sure you cover all the angles and consider all the details.
Naturally, seeking out the advice of an experienced incentive professional can be a big plus here – they’ve done this before and can help make sure that your next program is an unforgettable combination of people, places and products, no matter what kind of incentive you choose.