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

NOTE: This post is even more relevant in the context of recent news on the Wall Street Journal of the cancellation by Financial Advisor, Charles Schawb, of its long established incentive travel programme. The Incentive Research Foundation published this article in response. 

I was skimming through Twitter posts on my Hootsuite dashboard and noticed it on the stream that captures content about incentive travel. It was short and pithy but I quickly realised the sentiment wasn’t in line with the usual content that appears there:


I clicked through and sure enough this was an article about companies dropping, not adopting Incentive Travel. Moreover, these companies – all New Zealand finance and insurance companies from what I can gather – were announcing their abandonment of Incentive Travel in the same tones as a company might herald the end of workplace discrimination. They had hired the PR doctors of spin and a strong tone of attrition characterised the communication: “We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done that. We’re stopping immediately. We won’t do this any more”.


Oh dear, I though. Not this again. For, of course, this is not new thing. Every couple of years it happens. A story emerges about an unethical sales person who imposes a product or service on a vulnerable buyer – often an elderly couple with limited financial means – to secure the suite upgrade at the company incentive in Bora Bora at the Four Seasons. To mitigate this monumental breach of trust on the part of the corporation, the entire Incentive Travel programme gets cancelled or discontinued.

Perception & Incentive Travel

Incentive Travel is not an easy concept to understand. What it looks like, and what it is, are not one and the same. So, before we even get out of the blocks, we have a egregious perception problem.

Part of this perception problem stems from basic human psychology  – glückschmerz  is a German word that describes the  human tendency to experience sorrow and discomfort at the good fortune of others. (Thanks for the word, Méabh!) The infamous quote that’s often ascribed to Gore Vidal comes to mind “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”. “Why wouldn’t I raise questions around the validity of my neighbour’s company funding a luxurious trip for her to Bora Bora? The bitch!”


We have ourselves to blame for the other part of the perception problem. Despite some recent examples to the contrary (Bravo, Meetings Mean Business!),  as incentive travel professionals we’ve failed to communicate the unique and seminal role of  Incentive Travel as a key element in a suite of benefits that a company might offer to recruit, retain, reward and recognise its staff. We have talked far too much about the reward (“Look at me in Bora Bora!”) but failed to highlight the implications and impact of the reward on individuals, businesses and, indeed, on society.

Altering Perception about Incentive Travel

So what can we do? Realistically I’m unsure there’s anything that can be done about the latent envy that causes some of us to always highlight what looks like an easy ride. If you’re a teacher, as I was for many years, you’ll be very familiar with the perennial, wearisome argument about cosy conditions.

What your neighbour sees are the 5 hour days, the half day on Wednesday and the lengthy vacations. She doesn’t see the long hours of preparatory work, the extraordinary stress, the extensive volunteerism or the relatively low pay and prospects by comparison with other professions. But try having that argument and see how far you get. You’ll be lucky to get past an opening statement. The same holds true for Incentive Travel. “You’re going to Bora Bora simply because you worked hard?”

The Real Benefits of Incentive Travel

It may not be possible to overturn your neighbour’s deeply rooted viewpoints but that doesn’t excuse us from our duty to communicate effectively the holistic benefits of Incentive Travel to individuals, businesses and, indeed, to society at large.

Our over-focus on a very reductive concept of Return on Investment and a misdirected passion for numbers (“If it doesn’t have a number, it doesn’t count!”) have severally limited the metrics we use to measure success in Incentive Travel. We exclusively measure hard financial outcomes and overlook the soft, more enduring, transformative returns.

So what should we be do? We need to harvest, channel and communicate the plethora of ancillary benefits that accrue to individuals, corporations and society at large as a result of Incentive Travel programmes. This is Incentive Travel beyond sales and profitability. These benefits include but are not limited to:

Benefit Beneficiary
Stimulation of cultural curiosity Individual
Encounter with new places and peoples Individual
Development of global perspective Individual
Discovery of diversity Individual
Fostering and deepening of workplace relationships Corporation
Encounter with best practice Corporation
Exposure to new benchmarking Corporation
Facilitation of connections between different levels within a workplace Corporation
Creation of shared workplace memories Corporation
Building of better work / life balance Corporation
Strengthening of workplace morale Corporation
Re-enforcement of company values Corporation
Expression of company culture Corporation
Fostering of global citizenship Society
Encouragement of tolerance and acceptance Society
Fostering of inter-cultural relations Society


This list purposefully omits any financial considerations at all even though these too are extensive, accruing to all three stakeholders, the individual, the corporation and society. As Mark Twain famously said “Travel is the enemy of bigotry” – by forcing us out of our comfort zones, it promotes tolerance, fosters understanding, breaks down barriers.


Cancelling or abandoning Incentive Travel programmes because of breaches of trust is akin to cancelling or abandoning concerts or football matches because a small number of fans engage in anti-social behaviour. The abandoning of the activity doesn’t actually address the issue at all,  no more than dealing with the symptom eliminates the root cause. As Incentive Travel professionals we need to emphasise always and everywhere how transformative travel can be for individuals, businesses and society while encouraging companies to set rules and regulations around qualification that eliminates any hint of unethical behaviour.


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





6 thoughts on “How should we respond to negative publicity about Incentive Travel?

  1. Laurie Sprouse says:

    All great points, Padraic. Comes back to “Perception outweighs reality”. Just one more perception to try to change – which is very difficult!

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks for reading Laurie – and, yes, we have a lot of work to do!

  2. Sue says:

    It would help combat the inverted schadenfreude if people at all levels and all positions in an organization could qualify for incentive travel, not just top salespeople. While I understand the reasoning behind the decision to limit it to the biggest money-makers, I always thought it a little unfair that the hard work of others who make those sales possible is seldom rewarded. Imagine how all those individual, corporate, and social benefits would compound if excellence was acknowledged in every department.

    Oh, and thanks for those pictures — I needed a little Bora Bora boost on this damp, dreary, sleeting New England day!

    1. padraicino says:

      Great point Sue … and there are definitely many organisations that take that approach too. I used Bora Bora for that very reason – antidote to the dreary dismals of a late November day in Ireland!

  3. Jill Birkett says:

    Great article. Sue, I think the challenge (which can be overcome) is “measuring results for winning”. It’s frankly easy to do in sales. You either sell 20% more in total dollars than you did last year, or you don’t win, as an example. It gets murky in internal services. “who did the best accounting”. “Who answered customers services the most professionally”? It cannot be a popularity contest, because true incentive travel needs to have measurable, clear goals that the candidates can see and strive to achieve. I think that’s one reason why incentives have focused on sales persons. So, there is hard work to be done in setting up clear goals to strive to do more than “hey I did a pretty good job” in including other roles in incentive travel. (But yes, it can be and IS being done in some companies).

  4. Bruce Tepper, CITE, CIS, CTC, CMS says:

    Terrific accounting of the benefits of incentive travel. Sadly, there will always be those unethical companies who promote questionable practices to earn the award, however they are truly a tiny minority. There’s an irony with any company who decides incentive travel programs are inappropriate. Should their participants be prohibited from participating in frequent flyer programs – another form of travel incentives. For that matter,should they prohibit participation in any non-cash incentive (and maybe cash incentives as well). What about loyalty programs from restaurants, hotels, cinemas, and a long list of other products and services.

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