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

This is a blog post about travel agents and incentive travel. Maria Lenhart’s article in Skift on whether “leisure advisors can crack the incentive travel market” forced me call “time out” on a frenetic current work load to return, after a few weeks’ absence, to this blog spot where I hope to provide some perspective on this important question.

So what does Maria have to say?

She sees opportunity in the incentive travel sector for “small leisure travel agencies” – particularly for those specialised in the luxury market. She identifies synergies in how both types of travel pivot around “customised, exclusive experiences”.

Her viewpoint is supported by Bruce Tepper – a great friend of mine and long time travel industry consultant  – and Bill Coyle, owner of “Encompass the World Travel”, a leisure focused agency that has been offering “incentive travel” since 2003.

So is Maria right? Can travel agents do incentive travel?

Can non-specialist do specialist things?

Well, can builders design houses?  Can amateur golfers win major tournaments? Can parents (or, indeed, Google) play doctor better than a general practitioner? Can non-journalists write blogs?

The answer, of course, to all of these questions is “yes” – you don’t have be a qualified architect to design an amazing house or have press credentials to write a great article. Mothers are often more successful at medical diagnosis than doctors and sometimes amateurs win golf majors.

The issue is not whether it can be done or not. Of course it can! However, each of the above fields of endeavour has professional regulatory bodies that control whether or not you’re entitled to call or describe yourself as “qualified” in that field.

Architects must undertake a university degree of 5 – 6 years before they’re allowed to practice officially as designers. Journalists must have a press pass that demonstrates the bulk of their earnings comes from writing. And amateur golfers can indeed win major tournaments but they’re not allowed to collect the prize money because they’re not professional.

And therein the rub, as Shakespeare might say. It’s really a question of professional competency and that, we all know, comes from some combination of experience and expertise along with some “mind shaping” that’s usually, but not exclusively, linked to a 3rd level diploma or degree.

The Duck Test

Regarding travel agents and incentive travel there’s an additional and crucial point to be made. It’s where the duck test comes in – if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Regarding incentive travel, it may look, swim and quack like upscale, leisure travel but it’s absolutely and utterly NOT the same.

In fairness to Bruce , he does point this out in the article

The most common mistake is thinking that the trip is what it’s all about … Incentives are all about encouraging improved performance. That has to come first. … There (also) needs to be an ongoing campaign to keep people interested and active … Then there needs to be a way to measure the success of the program.

What’s missing

There’s an important emphasis missing from Maria’s article whereby she ignores or over-simplifies the process that gives rise to the travel experience in the first place. Travel is often one of many rewards offered within a corporation as part of a performance improvement programme. It’s particularly successful as a reward because it ticks many boxes in terms of the hard and soft objectives set by the company for its performance improvement scheme.


Cash or merchandise rewards may pay bills and improve quality of life but travel experiences build shared memories, foster relationships, expose qualifiers to cultural diversity and, potentially, transform lives. Travel bestows benefits to the qualifiers (like other rewards do) but also to the company or corporation by strengthening relationships and contributing significantly to corporate culture. With travel there’s a double benefit.

Interrogating corporate objectives is the key to unlocking success in overall incentive programme design and this comes way before any trip is even discussed, not to mind any destination or location selected. An individual or group travel reward will often work best in terms of overall programme success but it’s not the only reward and it’s not the reward that works best in ALL cases. Any good travel advisor can customise an exclusive travel experience but only a true incentive travel professional can advise on whether that experience is, in fact, the best reward.

Is outsourcing the answer?

Maria and Bruce talk about “outsourcing” and see this as the solution to the knowledge gap in the travel advisor’s value proposition.

The biggest change in recent years is that now you can outsource just about everything you need to do, so in some ways it’s gotten easier for smaller agencies to handle incentives … technology has made it easier to measure success of the program. You can do it with an Excel spreadsheet. There are companies that can provide you with a prepackaged communications campaign. There are also incentive packages available and websites for finding the best incentive destinations”.

Oh dear.

This frightens the life out of me. It’s almost like getting an architect to provide generic, templated plans to you and then building the house yourself without professional supervision.


Or, horror or horrors – to provide an industry-based analogy – getting an incoming tour operator instead of a professional destination management company (DMC) to handle your high end incentive trip.

If there’s any outsourcing along the supply chain for an incentive travel experience then it would be the precise opposite to what Maria, and Bruce, suggest here – the incentive specialist “might” outsource the trip design and delivery to a specialist travel advisor, not the other way around.

But there is a way

That all being said, there is a way for leisure agents to re-train and up-skill as incentive travel professionals. Firstly, they should actively participate in the industry by joining SITE, the only global association dedicated exclusively to incentive travel – the “I” in MICE.

Secondly, they should embark on the various certifications available around incentive travel – the entry level Certified Incentive Specialist (or CIS, which Bruce Tepper co-authored) and the mid manager level Certified Incentive Travel Professional (CITP).

Pádraic Gilligan, Pat Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels, venues, associations and agencies on strategy, marketing & training for the MICE market. Pádraic also serves as Chief Marketing Officer for SITE.

All imagery from SITE Incentive Summit Europe – 3 days to connect, learn and discover in Verbier, Switzerland.





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