Authenticity, Wellness, and Sustainability: What Drives Today's Incentive Travel Programs?
With travel now firmly back on the menu, incentive travel programs have come back with plenty of enthusiasm and excitement. But as we discussed in our recent Incentive Travel Report 2023, the landscape is very different to what it was a couple of years ago.
Not only have attitudes towards travel changed significantly, but the way that businesses motivate and retain their employees has changed as well. Incentive travel planning needs to revolve around different intentions and priorities if it’s still going to be a useful and impactful way of incentivising a workforce, requiring a different approach.
In this article, we’re going to explore the new drivers of incentive travel programs and explain how businesses can adapt to the new landscape to ensure continued success, based on the ideas in the IBTM World Trends Report 2023. We’ll be focusing on the insight provided by Stephanie Harris, President of the Incentive Research Foundation, who highlighted that “Experience, authenticity, and wellness are driving the decisions for today’s incentive program owners”.
In this article:
The Changing Landscape of Incentive Travel
Travel has been back to ‘normal’ for well over a year now, but the high demand for incentive travel may still be a result of a backlog of cancelled trips. This may be countered by a renewed emphasis on the importance of travel, but it’s important to bear in mind that the market may not have yet returned to normal.
Contributing to this uncertainty are economic challenges faced by a range of countries but particularly the UK, meaning that businesses are having to be more careful with their spending and may be cutting back on incentive budgets. This could reduce the number of businesses able to spend money on incentive trips, as well as leading to companies seeking more cost-effective solutions.
However, it’s also important to consider the renewed importance that was placed on travel after the pandemic, and the fact that many businesses and people consider travel to be a worthwhile expense, even when money is tight. As countries like the USA came out of lockdown in 2021, a McKinsey survey highlighted that travel was the second-most-desired activity among respondents, with holiday bookings soaring and new priorities emerging as people realised what mattered to them in a travel experience. Travel, and incentive travel by extension, are seen as more essential, so even when money is tight, businesses may still see these programs as a worthwhile investment.
Another lasting impact of the pandemic was the displacement of teams as remote work became a necessity for many and then the majority of people remained working from home or working in a hybrid model. Having a workforce together in the same building is now no longer seen as necessary for a lot of companies, with some businesses forgoing a permanent office completely.
But whilst teams are now more remote, the importance of occasional, in-person connection has become more important because employees still want to see each other and enjoy socialising at work. Incentive travel programs are one solution to this, so many companies are now using this type of travel as a way to give employees opportunities to connect and collaborate, helping to strengthen and maintain a sense of company culture.
Finally, the current state of the recruitment market means that many companies are focusing their attention on employee retention at the moment, according to the IRF 2023 Trends Report. Today’s labour market presents a lot of challenges, and businesses are striving to develop strong organisational cultures, keep their workforce happy and retain valuable employees as well as attract talented new ones. Corporate incentive travel provides a great way to do this, and we’re seeing the impact of this focus on the industry at the moment.
What Should Incentive Travel Prioritise?
In our 2023 trends report, our synthesis of many incentive travel reports and predictions highlighted that some of the key things that are driving incentive travel at the moment are authenticity, wellness and sustainability. Here, we dig deeper into what each of these involves and why it’s so important in incentive travel management at the moment.
Authenticity has become a key driver for incentive travel programs because employees are tired of trips that are empty of value or that they don’t connect with. When you look at travel preferences in general, a survey by GetYourGuide highlighted that 45% of travellers are concerned they don’t have authentic experiences when they visit somewhere on holiday, and 51% want to experience a new place as a local. This desire for authenticity is just as present in incentive travel, meaning that companies need to consider what they’re actually offering employees.
Opportunities to connect with local culture, have meaningful experiences and also enjoy activities that align with personal values should be prioritised. Instead of classic travel destinations, chain hotels or resorts and popular tourist attractions and activities, consider locations that are more off-the-beaten-track and travel experiences that show a ‘real’ side to a place, with chances to connect with and support local people and businesses.
Instead of ‘Instagrammable’ travel experiences and all-inclusive opportunities, focus instead on incentive travel planning that facilitates genuine connection with a new place and that offers chances for trips that employees will actually find valuable and enlightening.
Wellness is a trend that is seeing a lot of attention across a range of industries, including travel. Expedia’s 2023 trend report highlighted that travel experiences focusing on wellness are on the rise, especially amongst millennial and Gen Z travellers. People are more conscious about caring for their mental, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing and want to pursue this through travel, so companies that want to help their employees feel cared for and supported should consider this in their incentive travel programs.
Consider how you can incorporate wellness activities into your incentive trips, focusing on things like fitness, mindfulness, and self-care. You don’t need to send employees on spa breaks, but instead give them options and access to a range of wellbeing experiences so that you meet a variety of needs and show a commitment to preserving their overall health and happiness.
Sustainability is a hot topic in a lot of industries right now, especially as global climate issues continue developing and more people realise the importance of making sustainable choices in all areas of their lives. 81% of global travellers agree that sustainable travel is important, and incentive travel planners should respond to this by incorporating environmentally responsible practices into their trips, such as reducing waste, supporting local communities, and promoting eco-friendly transportation options.
A survey from Avantio found that 78% of travellers want to stay in eco-friendly accommodation this year, with 64% considering less-popular travel destinations to help reduce the environmental impact of tourism and 76% stating a desire to reconnect with nature. Be sure to research potential incentive travel destinations to ensure you won’t be contributing to over-tourism, opt for accommodation and brands with sustainable values and practices, and help employees to minimise their environmental impact with the activities on offer.
Sustainability in incentive travel also involves ensuring that local communities are respected and supported through tourism, which connects with the principle of authenticity.
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Creating a Successful Incentive Travel Program
Now that we’ve gone over what should drive and be prioritised in incentive travel at this moment in time, we also wanted to highlight some of the other important elements of creating a successful incentive travel program.
Incentive travel is designed to motivate and reward employees, so one of the most important elements of incentive travel planning is ensuring that you’re offering something that your team is going to want. Building anticipation is a key part of this and contributes massively towards employee engagement, as well as helping to present a trip as more desirable.
Building anticipation about an incentive travel program begins as soon as it launches. You want to make it clear how employees can qualify for the trip, what they need to do, how they can keep track of their progress and the timeline leading up to participants being chosen. Continue to share updates on progress and show employees whether they’re in the running, suggesting what else can be done to gain a place on the trip.
You can also build anticipation by releasing the details of the trip slowly, in line with tracking progress. This helps to keep the incentive trip at the front of your teams’ minds, encourages long-term engagement, and helps to frame the trip as something really exciting and valuable.
Personalisation in incentive travel involves giving employees access to tailored experiences and providing opportunities that align with their personal interests and values. This aligns with working to provide more authentic incentive travel, but also increases the value of the trip and can boost motivation towards gaining a place on it.
It might seem like an impossible challenge to create an incentive travel program that is personalised to all of the employees on it, but all that is required is a flexible itinerary and plenty of opportunities for choice. Whilst things like destination and accommodation will likely be decided by the planning team, consider whether you can let employees choose the activities they’d like to do when they’re away, or give the chosen group of employees some choice over aspects of the trip.
When you’re putting together an incentive travel package, you should also remember to speak to employees about the kinds of things that they’d be motivated by and would like to do on these kinds of trips, so that you can be sure you’re offering something tailored to peoples’ interests from the start.
Value is an essential part of successful incentive trips. Incentive travel programs are designed to motivate employees to improve business performance, and you can’t motivate a team unless you’re offering something that they genuinely want.
Going back to our last point, remembering to actually speak to your team about what kinds of travel experiences they’d value is very important. You want to make sure you’re building something desirable from the start.
Then, take this a step further and think about other ways that you can add value. What kinds of exclusive activities could you organise? Where could you give employees access to experiences they’d never be able to find themselves, and how can you help them build connections and make memories that they’d never have access to otherwise?
Extend the Experience
In our 2023 Trend report, the founder of Anotherway, Andrew Rae, noted that more and more incentive travel programs are finding ways to extend the experience of an incentive trip to maximise the value it offers and help to build more anticipation. Once a group of employees have been selected, think about how you can share information and bring them together before they actually travel, or even offer things like branded merchandise for them to take on the trip.
After the trip, help to extend the experience and its impact as much as possible by following up with photos and memories of the trip or sharing updates on any projects or people that employees interacted with (if relevant). Some companies are starting to spread incentive travel programs over multiple trips and locations as well, which can be more cost-effective and also helps to elongate the experience and increase engagement.
Keep Profits in Mind
Partick Delaney, Managing Director of SoolNua, also pointed out in our trend report that businesses should keep the overall business impact of incentive travel in mind, and not get carried away with trying to plan the most exciting or unique travel experience. At the end of the day, the purpose of incentive travel is to help increase a business’s profits and this needs to be a priority as much as things like sustainability and personalisation are.
Before launching an incentive travel program, be clear about what business goals you’re working towards and the budget you have for the trip. There are plenty of other benefits to aim for as well, but now more than ever it’s important that businesses are making smart decisions with their spending and offering incentives that will deliver on their intentions.
The incentive travel sector is going to continue to change as both the travel industry and the state of the labour market impact how people feel about travel and their jobs. An awareness of trends in both of these areas is vital to creating valuable and impactful programs, along with keeping in mind what is actually driving them.
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