Share this:

by Pádraic Gilligan, Founder, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Recent research from McKinsey into the way we travel now is crammed with exciting, actionable insights for organisers of incentive travel programs. While the McKinsey research focuses on leisure, the trends here tend to replicate themselves in incentive travel as, after all, the travel reward is specifically designed to motivate and reward an individual, thus appealing to the same human triggers.

The McKinsey research is a deep well of rich content and merits time and attention. I pulled out three takeaways for organisers of incentive travel programs.

Overarching takeaway: The Widening Generational gap

One overarching takeaway from the McKinsey research is, perhaps, the widening gap between the generations, with boomers and millennials clearly and definitively at opposite ends of the travel preference spectrum. Given the dramatic changes in workplace demographics with Gen Y and Z already featuring a significantly in work environments and traditionalists and boomers rapidly exiting stage left, this timely McKinsey research could be taken as a handbook on program design for the coming generations of incentive travel qualifiers.

SITE has been flagging this for quite some time with, most recently, Meetings & Incentive‘s Ashley Kreuger, the young leader representative on SITE‘s international board, delivering a compelling TEDTalk- style presentation on the topic to a packed room of incentive travel professionals in scintillating Sydney. The McKinsey report bootstraps all that Ashley had to say, validating it, and elevating it beyond mere opinion or viewpoint to the realm of fact and knowledge. So what’s in the report?

1. Make it international – NextGen want to travel far

First, some context. As we know, incentive travel re-bounded spectacularly post-Covid but the re-bound involved a double down on national and regional travel and, in broad terms, an avoidance of international and long haul travel (the exception was US incentives to Western Europe which continued, and continue to proliferate). The McKinsey report, however, highlights how younger travellers are particularly excited about international travel, planning a nearly equal number of international and domestic trips in 2024, no matter their country of origin, whereas boomers are planning to take roughly twice as many domestic trips.

Gen Y and Z are intrepid explorers and want to get beyond their region and continent. They’re part of the Ryanair / EasyJet generation in Europe for whom getting on and off planes was no different to getting on and off buses or trains. They’ve seen more places by the time they join the workforce than previous generations saw over their entire lifetime. They’re unlikely to be massively motivated by a domestic or regional travel reward as they’ve certainly “done that, seen that”. They want to visit Bhutan or Zanzibar or Prince Edward Island or Belize. But, more than than, they want experiences, not superficial visitation.

2. Make it authentic – NextGen want experiences, not visitation

Young travellers will try to save money on flights, transport, shopping, even food but they absolutely won’t economise on “experiences”. Their travel is, in fact, defined by the experiences they have which, in turn, create meaningful and authentic connections with the places they visit and build out enduring memories which become they stories they tell. But what are these experiences? How do they differ from normal destination visitation? Where normal visitation may involve accommodation in a chain hotel, a city tour, some high street shopping and dinner in a local restaurant, an experience might involve a an edgy boutique hotel in a neighbourhood area or a homestay, sharing meals with a local family, taking a cookery class, attending a local festival. Experiences involve engagement and immersion, deep cultural connection, opportunities for learning and personal growth, forging indelible memories.

To save money, the first thing that a boomer will cut from the vacation will be the experience. It’s the last thing to be cut when it comes to GenY!

3. Make it personal – NextGen want to craft their own trips

Travellers today are delighting in crafting their own trips – and this phenomenon is shared across the entire spectrum, critical to GenY and Z, but by no means exclusive to them. Amongst the 5000 individuals across the globe who responded to the survey, less than 1 in 5 of them had any use for a travel agent or advisor. The reason? Control. The second-most-cited reason? They simply enjoy the planning process. According to McKinsey, “today’s travellers tend to view the planning process … as a treasure hunt” and they pride themselves at finding treasure all along the way in terms of the coffee shops and restaurants they book, the experiences they take, the cool places they find to stay in.

And when it comes to sources of inspiration for trips, the “personal” plays out strongest with Word of Mouth from family/friends twice as important as, say, a destination’s website.

Implications for Planners of Incentive Travel Experiences

The first two takeaways are easily implemented in the planning process. Clearly, when dealing with younger demographics, pitch international destinations and be sure to build the program inclusions with the local knowledge and insight of a professional DMC whose entire MO is focused on delivering once in a lifetime, authentic destination experiences.

The third takeaway is decidedly, and decisively, more challenging but, perhaps, therein the reason why it merits analysis. At present our approach to incentive travel is to make program execution effortless, seamless and frictionless. “These qualifiers have risen to the top, like cream in a milk bottle, now it’s time for them to lie back, relax …”

But is that truly motivating for NextGen qualifiers? Do they want a “frictionless” destination experience, all sand, sea and sunshine or do they want the destination to impact on them deeply leaving its mark physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?

The research is telling us that this is what NextGen wants … they don’t want passive visitation, they want active experiences. They want to be personally involved in the choices, they want to curate themselves … Seems to me that want what Cesare Pavese called the “brutality of travel” (read previous blog post )

So how can we tweak program design to deliver on this?

Pádraic Gilligan is co-founder of SoolNua with Patrick Delaney and serves as Chief Marketing Officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.