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Padraic Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, SITE & SITE Foundation

Divided by a common language

When I reflect on the content of some recent conferences, webinars and podcasts, I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s much quoted comment about the US and Great Britain being “two countries divided by a common language”.

The great divide, this time, however, is not about the correct way to pronounce tomato or spell colour or whether a “fanny pack” is a perfectly legitimate way of describing an item of great personal value. It’s neither orthography, linguistics or semantics. This time it’s about the relative importance of CSR and sustainability as incentive travel recovers following the pandemic pause.

SITE Global Conference, Dublin, April 2022

Views on sustainability from SITE Global Conference

This emerged forcefully in April 2022 at SITE Global Conference in Dublin during a panel discussion chaired by Jennifer Attersall, Director, Incentive Travel at Destination Canada in which UK based Chris Parnham, Managing Director, Absolute Corporate Events and US based Patty Karsten, VP, Industry Relations, Event Solutions, BI Worldwide reported diametrically opposing positions on the relative importance of CSR and sustainability for incentive travel.

For Karsten, progamme elements featuring sustainability, or highlighting sustainability proactices were not asked for or required by her clients while for Parnham these were increasingly central to event design.

The great divide was touched on again in a more recent SITE webinar, again faciliated by Jennifer Attersall, where Patty Karsten and Canada based, Ellie MacPherson of Creative Group reported no real change since pre-pandemic days in how their North American client-base regarded incentive travel, or how success was defined and understood.

Views on sustainability from UK

In his report on a recent UK roundtable that brought together opinions from across the incentive industry – agencies, corporates, venues – Alistair Turner, Managing Director, Eight PR and Marketing, sketched out a dramatically different set of industry trends with CSR and sustainability decisively to the forefront.

Turner spotlighted how the roundtable pinpointed a massive transition in the incentive travel industry from “corporate junket into something more sustainable, embracing transformative travel, wellness, and cultural enrichment”. He reported how “you can’t have a conversation about events (with a client) without talking about sustainability”.

The great divide is borne out too in the results from the global Incentive Travel Index, an annual study of the incentive travel industry conducted in June / July 2022 by SITE Foundation, Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP).

When asked to evaluate the relative importance of 14 ingredients or activities to a successful program, CSR is three times more important for UK buyers than US buyers and sustainability is two and a half times more important. This isn’t a mere fissure, it’s a veritable chasm the width of the Grand Canyon!

Incentive Travel Index Presentation at IMEX America

During a panel discussion at IMEX America involving a DMO, a global hotelier, and two US based agencies (one a DMC, the other an incentive agency) a different note was struck with both Craig Caron of DMC chain, 360 Destination Group, and Craig Dooley of SDI Meetings & Incentives making impassioned statements about the importance of sustainability and CSR. But their strongly held views are simply not borne out by the data with North American buyers largely unconcerned by sustainability, DEI and climate change when asked to rank future challenges:

From Incentive Travel Index, 2022

Fundamental Question

This all begs a deeper, more fundamental question. As agency professionals is our job simply to meet client needs or do we have a duty to lead clients and meet, as yet, unidentified needs?

Many corporations are proactively evaluating their positions in relation to such macro issues as the environment, eco-systems, climate change, consumption, diversity, equity, inclusion – issues generally categorised under the generic labels of sustainability and CSR by our industry. Corporations are signing charters, making public their commitment to these values and aligning with the concerns, and demands, of their stakeholders and customers.

For those corporations who choose to ignore the signs of the times, do we as agencies not have a duty to lead by highlighting how sustainability and CSR can be incorporated into programme design for the benefit of all, most especially our common home?

Pádraic Gilligan is Chief Marketing Officer at SITE and Managing Partner at business events advisory, SoolNua. An earlier version of this article first appeared in Conference & Meeting World (C&MW).


2 thoughts on “Do U.S. incentive planners care enough about sustainability?

  1. Anne says:

    A really interesting article, Padraic. Have you found out if there is a reason for this? We live in a global world and one should think that trends would affect all players…

  2. This is a really interesting post, thanks Padriac and something we need to think about when selling to our clients. What a ‘chasm’ as you say and surprising too. Most of our UK & Irish DMCs have promoted our CSR & sustainability efforts on our websites for more than 5 years or so now and yet we read about your findings above….

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