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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

The value of Incentive Travel?

Meetings & Incentive Industry Professionals will find lots to love in the Events Industry Council’s (EIC) recently released Economic Significance of Meetings to the US Economy. Just consider these top line results. On overall revenues we generate $325 billion (eight position) for the US economy, ahead of car dealerships, oil & gas, music & movies. In terms of impact on direct employment, it’s even more impressive as we’re ranked second to healthcare (specifically hospitals) across all industries. This is all good stuff, underlining beyond doubt that, as an industry, we’re not laggards and more than pay our way.


Authored by those highly respected global rock stars, Oxford Economics, this exhaustive study goes into forensic detail around the economic value of “meetings”, defined as gatherings of 10 or more people for at least 4 hours in a contracted meeting room. “Meetings” include company meetings, incentive travel experiences, conferences, congresses and corporate events but social, educational and recreational activities are excluded.

Incentive travel professionals will be happy to note that “incentive meetings” are included as a specific category within the survey, comprising  7% of overall meeting activity. In the survey Oxford Economics estimates the aggregate value of  these “incentive meetings” to be $22 billion or $1,438 per attendee, a figure 12% higher than the average spend for all other types of meeting. When compared with the average attendee spends in annual surveys of incentive travel activity conducted by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), however, this figure seems low. The IRF has an average spend per attendee of $3,915 while the SITE Index for 2018 (see illustration below) has values between $4,000 and  $5,000, depending on the industry sector.

But, of course, it goes much further than this. Oxford has the ability, authority and reputation to extrapolate the further economic reach of meetings and paints a solid picture of an industry supporting almost 6 million jobs while generating total revenues of $845 billion. Again, great stuff and, as an industry, nobody can say that our figures don’t count or add up!

As an incentive travel professional I’m massively proud to be part of an industry that contributes so much to the economy. I’m also extremely grateful to the Events Industry Council and to similarly aligned initiatives and movements such as Meetings Mean Business that invest time and money in producing the incontrovertible proof of our aggregate purchase and price. Big respect and kudos to them all. You do us proud.

The value of Incentive Travel is much greater

That said, however, whenever I read studies or surveys or white papers that highlight how much economic impact we have and how many jobs we generate there’s a part of me that sighs with sadness. Why so, you ask? These studies make me sad because, ultimately, they mean we’ve allowed ourselves be measured by implements and tools that cannot possibly provide a full account – and that’s probably the wrong word – of our impact and worth. You may as well try to measure the economic impact of motherhood or goodness or great teachers or Christianity. You could probably measure it – just like we do with these studies – but, really, you’d be missing the point.

I’m reminded of Harlan Howard’s maudlin tear jerker from the early 70s, “No Charge”  – the smart-ass kid hands his Momma an itemised bill for taking out the trash, playing with his little brother and sweeping the yard and the Momma responds in kind:

For the nine months I carried you,
Growin’ inside me – NO CHARGE,
For the nights I’ve sat up with you,
Doctored you, prayed for you – NO CHARGE,
For the toys, food and clothes.
And for wiping your nose, there’s NO CHARGE,
When you add it all up.
The full cost of my love is NO CHARGE.

It may be simple country reasoning but we all get the point: there are some things of immense value that you cannot put a price on and, if you do, then it robs them of their true worth and reduces them to mere commodities.

Incentive travel experiences clearly generate economic impact but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If you only measure economic impact then you miss  90%  of the value that’s hidden below the surface. The true potential value of incentive travel experiences extends to the heart of the society as they provide extraordinary experiences for individuals and families in and through the transformative power of travel. As I’m wont to quote on this blog “Travel is the enemy of bigotry” (Mark Twain). It facilitates human encounters, helps overcome barriers, builds understanding, cultivates connections, promotes peace.

In the past incentive travel experiences may have promoted elitism by being extravagant and focusing on luxury. Over the past 10 years, however, there’s been a radical change both in terms of qualifier expectations and company policies with incentives now pivoting around the pursuit of authenticity and including a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) element. In fact the SITE Index for 2018 shows 94% of corporations now include some element of CSR in their incentive travel programmes.

So, if the impact of incentive travel is, potentially, as broad as this, should we eschew all measurement in relation to its impact? On the contrary. We should extend the measurement while also doing the following:

Continue to evolve the model  for incentive travel around “new luxury”, ie, the pursuit of authentic experiences, the cultivation of new learning, the focus on discovery;

Continue to incorporate CSR and sustainability elements into incentive travel programmes;

Measure the impact on team morale of incentive travel experiences both in relation to qualifiers and non-qualifiers;

Extend the qualification criteria for making the trip beyond pure economic or financial measures;

Alter the way we talk about incentive travel – highlight its transformative potential for individuals, communities, societies;

Build case studies around the lifetime impact of incentive travel experiences for serial qualifiers who have travelled the world as a result of the availability of incentive travel experiences within their organisations;

Challenge attendees / qualifiers with destination selections that take them out of their comfort zone;

Implement wider measurement criteria to include change in attitudes and behaviours as a result of the incentive travel experience.

Will this happen? Who knows! What we do know is that incentive travel works – that’s clear from all of the research – but until we broaden and extend the horizons of our metrics we’ll always be under-selling and short-changing ourselves.

Pádraic Gilligan is Chief Marketing Officer at SITE. He is also Managing Partner at SoolNua, a specialised agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events industry.









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