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

Incentive Travel in Search of New Objectives

Amongst the many interesting outcomes from the recent Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII) jointly conducted by Society for Incentive Travel Executives (SITE), Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) and Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) was the change detected in the objectives for incentive travel.

While the top reasons for having a corporate incentive remain sales, revenues and overall company profitability, it’s interesting to note how “softer” objectives have climbed the rankings and are starting to impact the design and desired outcomes for incentive travel.

In particular, “Better relationship between employees and management” has moved into 2nd position overall, having been at 5th position in 2017.

The ascent of softer objectives may also be seen on the verbatim, ie, the additional comments which respondents provided on the survey form: “Alignment around company culture”, “Recognition and generate a sense of purpose”. So how should this be interpreted? Have we abandoned “Return on Investment” as the ultimate objective for an incentive travel experience, replacing it with limp-wristed nonsense and a clarion call to assemble, join hands and sing “Kumbaya”?

Profitability is still Number One Objective for Incentive Travel

No is the obvious answer to that – look at the actual results above and you’ll see hard objectives are still the outlier (2.82 in terms of “how important?” versus 4.68 for the next important objective). So Financial Controllers, Procurement Officers and Bean Counters in general can relax in the knowledge that their hegemony in the boardroom is secure, at least for the foreseeable future.

What can be detected,  and noted as a “trend”, however,  is the fact that softer objectives are rising very significantly in the ranking. Not to the point, perhaps,  that board rooms will be overrun by guitars, joss sticks and kittens but enough to report a underlying change in mood, a recalibration, the faint but distinct sound of  the beginnings of a counter melody. With ITII 2018 we can definitely say that incentive travel is being used both directly and indirectly in the service of corporate culture.

Counter Melody in Business Literature

But this, of course, is not surprising at all. It’s been bubbling under in the corporate world for a while. It was, perhaps, first called out by the management guru and pioneer Peter Drucker over a decade  ago when he intoned his famous “Culture eats strategy for Breakfast”.  Pioneers are, by definition, ahead of their times and Drucker’s dictum may have fallen initially on poor soil. But it did eventually germinate, take root and start to grow and nowadays there’s a robustness about it as the culture conversation flourishes more and more.

These days the word “culture” appears more and more frequently on the pages of Harvard Business Review, a sure bell weather of what’s really happening in the corporate world. The April 2016 edition proclaimed on its cover in bold headlines “You can’t fix culture” while in  Jan / Feb 2018  “The Culture Factor” was the kick-off story for the year.

More telling, perhaps, are the culture – related stories that have featured recently across the hallowed pages of HBR – “A Great Place to Work” (January 2014), “The New Science of teamwork” (Mar / Apr 2017) and, significantly, in July / Aug 2018, “When work has meaning: How to turn purpose into performance”.

Incentive Travel & the Search for Higher Purpose

This last story chimes well with what Simon Sinek has been saying for the past decade and brings us back to the whole notion of incentives and motivation. What motivates me, increasingly,  is not  what I do or, indeed,  how I do it. More and more what motivates me, and many like me, is why I do it, that is, the higher purpose that I find at the core of my work. To use what has become a hackneyed phrase, it’s work as “vocation” or calling, work that binds me to a deeper sense of meaning, a reason more than money or recognition or collegiality to get out of bed, leave my home and my loved ones and spend 8 hours in an office.

What is the Incentive Travel Industry Index saying about Higher Purpose?

This all brings us back to the Index and to what the Index might be telling us about workplaces today. While, on the one hand, we’re seeing more of the same with the primary focus on profitability we’re also seeing an emerging picture about workplace culture as a massive area of concern for corporations.


There’s a growing acceptance that Drucker was right and a increasing realisation that Sinek is not a hippie and corporations are now trying to put their houses in order because employees, particularly the so-called millennials, are voting with their feet, leaving well paid jobs with free pizza and beer, not because the competition pays them more or provides a better catered breakfast but because it offers purposeful, meaningful employment.

It’s heartening to note how incentive travel is evolving so as to respond, as only it can do, to this shift in emphasis. I recall many years operating an incentive travel programme in Killarney for an FMCG company where the qualifiers all had standard rooms and the corporate officers all had suites. The officers were on hand to make the speeches and hand out the awards but rarely, if ever, mixed with the qualifiers, always eating and socialising together.

The Index tells us that this is a thing of the past with the incentive travel programme specifically facilitating connections between all attendees, with special emphasis on connecting C-suite and qualifiers. Increasingly, I believe, we’ll see this impact on specific aspects of programme design with, perhaps, place settings being used strategically to connect officers with specific qualifiers, smaller table configurations to improve the quality of communication over dinner. It may lead, too, to smaller but more frequent programmes with a shift from quantity to quality.

What changes are you seeing out there?

For a similar viewpoint from the owner of an incentive travel agency, please check out Mike May’s great blog here.

Pádraic Gilligan, Pat Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with Destinations, Venues and Hotels on Strategy, Marketing and Training for the Business Events Sector. Pádraic also serves as Chief Marketing Officer for SITE





4 thoughts on “Incentive Travel – the search for higher purpose

  1. w2igo says:

    Great read.

  2. Mike May says:

    Padraig, as always, you pulled a juicy nugget. Due to the overlapping survey options, the softer benefits probably split points and weakened their ranking from being even higher. Another validation of the softer benefits is indirectly shown in management not tracking ROI because the trip is entrenched in sales culture. I wrote similar thoughts on our blog & a few extra tips at:

  3. Allison De La Torre says:

    As someone who recently left a “well paid job with free pizza and beer” to pursue more “purposeful, meaningful employment,” I can attest to the rise in importance of the “higher purpose.” Even a really healthy company culture does not equate to fulfilling work. Everyone wants to know their time is well spent.

    Additionally, as someone who planned my team’s annual retreats, I read the survey results from everyone from the new hires to the seasoned senior managers and partner team stating that connection with co-workers was a key objective of the events. I agree with what you’ve highlighted, Pádraic – quality of time and connections between levels will take MICE to the next level!

    Thanks for posting.

    1. padraicino says:

      Allison – thanks for this beautifully considered comment. Really made my day. Best of luck in what you do. I’m making a presentation in Miami early next week on this stuff – I’ll quote you if that’s OK!

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