Incentive travel – a force for good

Expert Opinion
Incentive travel – a force for good

SITE chief marketing officer, Padraic Gilligan, takes a rhyme and makes the reason.


“When she was bad, she was horrid”

There’s a touch of the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead about incentive travel. You know the one… “When she was good she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid”?

When incentive travel is bad, it’s definitely bad. It can easily descend into a lowest common denominator kind of stag or hen party with as much booze as you can consume, all paid for by the badly misfiring, sponsoring company. Then, for journalists who hear about it, it’s a feeding frenzy and suddenly you have a torch-bearing, baying, lynch mob rounding on the unfortunate corporations and individuals who have been caught with their trousers down around their ankles (and maybe not just metaphorically). 

Just when we thought these practices and reports were buried back in the nineties with DJ Shadow and TLC, another raises its horrid head and, last year, we had the UK’s Financial Times crawling all over a story of crass corporate excess at a dinner in a posh London hotel. So the cycle repeats itself and, once again, incentive travel and motivational experiences are dragged into the mire.

So, yes, when it’s bad it’s decisively bad. It is, indeed, horrid. But what about when incentive travel is good? Is it ever “very, very good”? I believe it is. Indeed, I’d be so bold as to suggest it can be so good as to be transformative. Transformative for the participants who qualify for the trip, for the corporations that stage them and the destinations that host them. 

Transformative for qualifiers

About a decade ago, I was part of the delivery team in Vienna for a very high end incentive experience. En route to the Gala Dinner venue, the spectacular Hofburg Palace, I fell in with a group of qualifiers among whom was Tom, due shortly to retire, on his last trip. “It’s been a blast,” I heard him say. “When I see my high school buddies for our annual meet-up, I’m always struck by how none of them has really been outside the zip code where we grew up. Because of New Life (not the real name of the insurance company for which he worked), I’ve been all over the world: Sydney, New Delhi, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Shanghai,  and I’ve connected with people and places so radically different from where I come from. I hear my buddies giving their opinions about Europe or China – places I’ve actually been to – and I smile to myself at their naivety. Winning these trips with New Life has opened my eyes to the world, made me a different person.”

Transformative for corporations

The Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII), a joint initiative of SITE, IRF, and FICP with research partners Oxford Economics, has been tracking the evolving nature of incentive travel over the past number of years. In that time we’ve noticed a clear migration away from tangible ROI objectives such as financial return and increased profitability, to intangible outcomes like engagement, relationship building, the fostering of company culture. 

This is clearly an unintended consequence, perhaps another example of economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” where, in seeking only financial gain, a company is led by an invisible hand to promote “an end which was not part of its intention”, ie, corporate collegiality, engagement, brand equity, culture and so on. 

Judging by the responses to the last edition of ITII (2020), corporations are now actively prioritising these intangible outcomes and altering the design of the incentive programme so as to foster what previously happened by chance, serendipitously. 

Transformative for destinations

Corporate excess, extravagance and conspicuous consumption has been called out constantly over the years and, as a result, even in the noughties, there was a proliferation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) outreach. This, too, impacted on incentive travel and, in fairness, if there were orphanages needing a lick of paint or a playground, then corporations were delighted to mobilise the troops and do the decent thing. 

I remember spending a day with Arthur Andersen (UK) at Barretstown Castle near Dublin where Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang had a facility for sick children. I think it was the late 1990s. Not an inch of the place went unpainted.

While this type of activity was worthwhile, worthy and noble, there was an ever so slight whiff of insincerity about it as it was all once-off, the CSR version of green washing. 

Fast forward to 2021 and we’re in a much different situation. Corporate hypocrisy is called out within a nano-second of it expressing itself and corporations go deeper now. CSR is very much front and centre in relation to EDI – equity, diversity, inclusion – a core area of concern for all global behemoths. 

CSR is increasingly at the heart of incentive travel programmes and destinations, often, are selected on the basis of the contribution or legacy that the corporation can leave behind, post trip. According to ITII 2020 this will be even more accelerated in a post pandemic era with the top four elements defining success for future programmes ranked as 1. Bucket List Experiences 2. CSR 3. Wellness and 4. Cultural Experiences. 

All’s changed, changed utterly 

Yeats’s immortal lines have been quoted extensively since the pandemic stole our meal ticket over a year ago. However, in relation to incentive travel the utter change is good change, transformative change and I’m so looking forward to getting that meal ticket back and joining Willie Nelson on the road again! 

Stuart Wood is a news reporter across the Mash Media editorial portfolio. He writes for CMW alongside sister publications Conference News, Exhibition News, Access All Areas and Exhibition World.

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