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

More questions than answers

Last year at SITE we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our formation in 1973. One takeaway for me after a golden year of celebrating incentive travel excellence was the realisation that, in 50 years, incentive travel hasn’t really changed that much at all.

And that, of course, posed the $64,000 question: is that a good or a bad thing?

The world we lived in, and did business in, in 1973 was significantly closer to the world of 1923 than 2023. Planes flew significantly faster and further in 1973 than they did in 1923 but, despite rapid advancements in technology, that incremental progress didn’t persisted in the intervening years: the distance between New York and London in 2023 is still 8 hours – sometimes even more – despite super-sonic travel and the Concorde experiment.

If, however, the modalities of travel today are pretty much as they were in 1973, everything else has changed. The advent of the internet is, arguably, the single biggest catalyst of change in that 50-year time span, impacting our lives in the 21st century like Gutenberg’s printing press did 6 centuries previously.

As a result of the internet and the Pandora’s box it opened, communication is now unfiltered, unexpunged and unedited. It’s immediate and real time, with information and ideas, both good and bad, spreading instantaneously, transcending physical borders, and, often, the dictates of tyrants.

So how is incentive travel being shaped by this new zeitgeist as we move through the third decade of this new millennium? How is the nature, purpose and direction of incentive travel responding to radical new ways of thinking about, for example, the relationship between human beings and the work they do?

How is Incentive travel responding to changes?

Incentive travel started within a company’s reward and recognition program as a means of inspiring exceptional performance in the workplace. But if, for example, incentive travel is all about rewarding extraordinary, exceptional individual performance, how is this understood in the context of equity, diversity and inclusion, the new trifecta required by most progressive workplaces?

How is incentive travel navigating the challenge of multi-generational workplaces where the “one size travel reward fits all” of the 1970s is clearly obsolete? Individuals in the early 1970s rarely travelled outside their zip code whereas these days, most European students have been all over Europe, Southeast Asia and Central America before they can legally order a martini in the United States. How do you find a motivational destination that your qualifiers haven’t been to already?

More to the point, how is incentive travel responding to the supreme crisis of our time: the potential destruction of our planet due to greed, exploitation and over-production? Is it acceptable for a company to “reward” its qualifiers with a 15-hour flight to an exotic location simply for sun, sand and sea?

It would be incorrect to state that there haven’t been changes in the design and execution of incentive travel programs since the early seventies. There have been significant changes; they just haven’t matched the pace of change in information, insights and ideas.

And, of course, it’s also important to acknowledge that the changes in relation to information, insights and ideas are not uniformly accepted, neither locally, nationally, regionally or globally. This is the era of heightened pluralism, and one expression of this is a simple lack of alignment and agreement.

What has changed since 1973?

So what has changed since 1973? Straight up we can say that now, in 2023, many companies place their focus more firmly on customisation for the individual qualifiers, and much less on obligatory group activities and the primacy of the corporate brand. This, of course, is a good thing, putting the qualifier front and centre and tailoring the reward to the recipient.

Secondly, it’s clear that incentive travel today for many corporations is increasingly more inclusive, taking a holistic view that rewards the performance of teams, not just individuals. Or, more accurately, this team reward is an additional layer in the structure, with individual rewards persisting in many settings.

Thirdly, corporations launch incentive travel programs these days because of their multifarious intangible benefits, not just their hard dollar ROI. They still want the hard dollars but the soft power is an acknowledged, and intended consequence, and seen as important in terms of building corporate culture.

All of the above demonstrate keen awareness of DEI on the part of those corporations that practise it. This is good overall and the hope would be that the progressive attitude of these companies will inspire others to do the same — before the law catches up and they’re forced to do so!

What hasn’t changed

But what hasn’t changed? With only minor exceptions, destination selection these days appears to happen with no thoughtful filter other than the obvious one — is the destination basically safe? Little account appears to be taken of the destination’s political position, its human rights record, for example, or other criteria such as its attitude to migrants and, vitally, its commitment to sustainability. 

And program design hasn’t really changed much either. Yes, program elements and experiences increasingly reflect individual qualifier preferences as opposed to company objectives but this often leaves us with banal, ultimately uninspiring incentive travel experiences, not ones that transform individuals, corporations and the destinations they visit. It’s the “bread and circuses” approach, not the supremely elevated “how can we effect profound change with this program?”

And that, surely, is the end game. Qualifiers may want sun, sand and sea; surf & turf; and sugary drinks — but that’s unlikely to be transformative, is it? What do you think?

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


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