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

I was delighted to share a stage at IMEX Frankfurt with my friend Rhea Stagner of Maritz Travel. We doubled up on moderator duties for a brilliant panel discussion on trends in the incentive travel industry and were joined by SITE colleagues from all corners of the globe – Daryl Keywood,  Walthers DBS (South Africa – MEA), Selina Chavry, Pacific World, (Singapore – ASIA), Merina Begg, ATP DMC, (Argentina – LATAM). It was a great session with a huge amount packed into the 50 minute duration and, thanks, to Slido, we managed to get valuable input from the packed audience who successfully navigated to our room high up on the 3rd floor of the labyrinthine Messe Frankfurt.

There was unanimity across all regions that incentive travel is in rude health these days with budget increasing despite an on-going focus on cost management. There was also consensus amongst the panel and attendees that destinations for incentive travel experiences are selected on the basis of overall destination appeal and not ease of access or infrastructure (hotels, venues, visitor attractions):


To be truly successful, incentive travel experiences need to inspire and motivate and, of course, the destination in which the experience is being staged plays a vital role in this.

Incentive Travel – North America

Rhea Stagner underlined how, globally, most incentive travel programmes remain with their region of origin – thus 80% of US incentives remain in US, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean. This fact is true for other regions too.

In relation to regional trends, Rhea said:

We are seeing a significant shift in the supplier landscape.  It started years ago with airline mergers, then hotels and now DMCs.  In addition to the continual increase in mergers, acquisitions, alliances and franchise partnerships, the reduction in commission by three large hotel chains, has all areas of the industry watching to see what the effects of these reductions really mean.  Will we see more programs move outside the US and Canada to ensure the commission is kept whole?   Will client’s shift share?


Incentive Travel – Europe

The “global” trend that I highlighted (I was speaking on behalf of Europe) was the continued focus  on second and third tier destinations – Bordeaux instead of Paris, Sevilla instead of Barcelona etc. We then polled the audience on second and third tier destinations and Slovenia was the clear outlier in terms of being talked about in our industry:


The regional trends in Europe that I called out were, of course, Brexit (which nobody has a clue how it will play out) and GDPR which has now come into effect and could still have huge implications in relation to how incentive travel companies handle and manage qualifiers’ data.

Incentive Travel – Middle East Africa

Daryl Keywood, member of the SITE Board and Managing Director at Walthers DBS stated how incentive travel was now, more than ever, synonymous with experiences. The core requirement from travel, even at consumer level, has move from passive to active, from observer to participant and this is even more the case with incentives where authentic experiences are the sine qua non.

Daryl also highlighted a regional issue that’s impacting hotel and venue selection in less mature destination:

…in many countries the concept of an online RFP is still in its infancy. Many local hotels are not yet on CVENT or if they are respond slowly or not at all due to a lack of understanding of the concept. Many receive large numbers of enquiries with few if any confirmations and as a result do not take these requests seriously and seldom make the effort to follow up on provisional bookings to create availability for an enquiry.

Many hotels with a leisure focus receive up to 90% of their business through local tour operators and quote higher rates when dealing with an international client. These tour operators receive much lower rates based on annual volume and it can be far more cost effective to buy through them.

Incentive Travel – Asia

Selina Chavry, MD of Pacific World and Trustee at the SITE Foundation picked up on Rhea’s point about market consolidation and stated how it’s happening in Asia too. This is also impacting on destination selection with decisions now being made regionally and not at global HQ.

Selina stated too how incentive programmes in Asia are continuing to evolve with the advent of  “Bleisure” (business + leisure), adding education to tours and activities in the incentove agenda. There’s also a increase of having on-site event technologies for higher interactive engagement along with adventure driven team building and activities rather than pure cultural tour experience.

Incentive Travel – Latin America

Finally Merina Begg provided the Latin America perspective and, once again, called out the shift from passive tourists to active participants. She eloquently stated:

With today’s over-scheduled and always-on culture, travellers are evolving to incorporate smaller transformative moments into their travel.  We are seeing people around the world regain control of their time and routine, and realign their priorities to put their well-being first.
In a world increasingly dominated by technology, more and more people are looking to “live” their lives, be transformed by their travel experiences. They want to be participants, not tourists. They crave something meaningful to which they can connect on the most personal level, and in doing so, undergo an actual sense of transformation.

And transformation, surely, is the ultimate purpose for incentive travel? Yes, it’s all about achieving tangible financial goals within corporations while also dialling up the intangible corporate goals around brand alignment and engagement. We know incentive travel does this and does it uniquely well – much better than other workplace rewards like cash or merchandise or gift cards.


But travel, at its best, forces us out of our comfort zones – there’s a brutality to it, as the Italian writer Italo Calvino says. It makes us confront other people, other ways of doing things, other ways of living and being. As Mark Twain says, it’s the enemy of bigotry. As incentive travel professionals increasingly interested in sustainability and CSR, maybe this is how we should be talking about our value?

[For another report on SITE’s Global Trends seminar see Eda Özden’s article here]

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training. Pádraic Gilligan also serves as Chief Marketing Officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE). 


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