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Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Conversations at IMEX, Frankfurt, May 2024

In a recent session at IMEX Frankfurt, I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion with fellow business events professionals Irina Graf (The MICE Blog), Gregory Baur (Zurich Convention Bureau) and Marvin Zemp (Luzern Convention Bureau).

The focus of our session was on aligning event objectives with sustainable event planning, particularly when dealing with multiple destinations. Drawing insights from real-world case studies such as the Go Sustainable educational trip by Lucerne Convention Bureau and Zurich Convention Bureau, and SITE’s Incentive Summit Europe in Andermatt, we shared  a host of innovative sustainability strategies.

Towards the end of the well-attended discussion, Irina asked me if, for “incentive travel, sustainability itself could serve as a key element of the overall award?” I gave what I thought was my answer during the panel discussion but, days later, I’m still thinking about the question and wanted to offer some further thoughts in this blog post.

Sustainability should be sufficient reward but …

By the way, before delving into any further exploration, let me state that the answer to the question is, or, at least, should be a big, massive YES – sustainability itself could, and should, serve as a key element of the overall reward. But, in fairness, that’s the same as saying that world peace and harmony should prevail at all times. Of course they should. But they don’t, and we’re left with way more questions than answers. In an ideal world we’d have peace and harmony and sustainability would indeed be intrinsic to the incentive process comprising a key element in the reward. But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?

Like peace and harmony, sustainability is aspirational, something we strive for and towards, based on a shared understanding of what it is, and how it’s essential for the future of our existence as a species. And therein the core issue. We don’t have a shared understanding of what sustainability is, and, therefore, no common platform from which to agree that it’s essential for our future survival. But within the context of incentive travel, there are additional complications linked with its nature, purpose and direction and that’s what I want to highlight here.

Qualifiers want gratitude and gratification

For qualifiers, the incentive trip is gratification after graft, prize after perspiration, ease after effort. I push myself beyond my natural limits, I work consistently harder than my peers, all to make this dream destination a reality for me and my significant other. I’m spurred on and motivated by what awaits me at the end of the incentive journey – relief, rest, relaxation, recognition, reward … and freedom! The antidote to effort, self-denial, sacrifice, postponed gratification – all the qualities necessary to keep me on track as I pursue the travel prize.

Sustainability, on the other hand, whether it’s ecological, social, economic, cultural, operational or health focused, involves effort, conscious choice, the limiting of one’s freedom in support of some bigger purpose. You can see where this is going. The pursuit of sustainability is fundamentally at odds with the aspirations that drive the pursuit of the incentive travel prize. In two words, they’re irreconcilable opposites.

Mike May (Owner and CEO of Brightspot), an experienced and wise incentive travel professional from Texas, said as much to me many years ago during a presentation on incentive travel where I bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm for sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) elements in incentive travel program design

The corporations may want it, even if it’s only for box ticking and window dressing”, he explained, “The agencies often include it in their creative pitches. We’d love to do it but the qualifiers themselves just want quality time with their guests. They’ve worked hard. They don’t want any guilt laid on them. They want to be left alone to enjoy the destination.

And, of course, Mike’s comment is borne out in Participants inSITEs, a survey of qualifiers undertaken by SITE with help from the business school at SMU in 2022. When asked to rank a typical list of activities and program inclusions in order of preference CSR ranks towards the end of the list:

Need to alter perception

But back to the original question and leaving aspirations aside, can sustainability realistically serve as a key element in the incentive reward? Despite Mike’s comments and the evidence implicit in the data, I still believe that it can. But we need to alter the perception of these “irreconcilable opposites”. The travel incentive itself needs to be perceived as a “reward with responsibilities” and “sustainability” needs to shed its over-earnest, head valedictorian image, and be seen as natural, desirable, even sexy.

Somehow we need to dispel the image, bought into, I’d conjecture, by the majority of qualifiers, that the incentive trip is all about pool parties, unlimited complimentary adult beverages and surf & turf. In ways we’ve only ourselves to blame for this as our default marketing to potential incentive qualifiers has tended to lean on superficial leisure outcomes as opposed to the deeper, more transformational impacts of travel.

By the same token, when we talk about sustainability, it’s usually accompanied by a wagging finger and a stern tone and where’s the fun in that? How could we possibly imagine that that’s motivational?

We have much work to do. We need to make sustainability more fun and incentive travel less frivolous and this, I’m certain, is all down to marketing and messaging. As an industry are we ready to change our approach and make sustainability the reward?

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua and Chief Marketing Officer at SITE


4 thoughts on “Can sustainability itself serve as the reward for incentive travel qualifiers?

  1. Cindy McLane Hartner says:

    Padraic, this is such a smart article. It’s so thought-provoking and it boldly calls out the disparity between reward and responsible travel. Your message is one that we need to buy into to help it permeate throughout our industry. Let’s keep this conversation top of mind.

  2. padraicino says:

    Thanks Cindy – appreciate the comment …

  3. James Latham says:

    Great conclusion Padraic – if anyone can navigate incentive travel through the sustainability matrix, it’s you. A huge challenge for sure.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks James – it’s so important that this conversation takes place!

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