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

Turning Adversity into Opportunity

Late of Lonely Planet, Oliver Smith found himself out of a job due to the pandemic. He quickly turned adversity into opportunity by visiting ancient pilgrim sites in the UK, eventually monetising his experiences in the form of a new publication, On This Holy Island: A Modern Pilgrimage across Britain. In the book he states that his overall objective was to “travel deeper, not further”. What a brilliant statement, I thought, and what a tagline for sustainable incentive travel.

That thought sent my mind spinning and, for the past week, I’ve been juggling with the concept of “deep travel” and interrogating what it might mean for designers of incentive travel experiences. Of course, the term “deep travel”, is not new, originating back in 2009, it is attributed to Pauline Frommer, who introduced it in her book The New Rules of Travel: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Best Destinations.

Frommer’s book explores the idea of immersive, culturally enriching travel experiences that go beyond surface-level tourism and advocates for travelers to engage deeply with local cultures, communities, and environments, hence the term “deep travel.” Could “deep travel” be the foundation for a new, more sustainable model of incentive travel?

Let’s be realistic

I believe it can but, equally, I think we need to be realistic too. For some incentive travel qualifiers – and this is borne out in Participants’ inSITEs (2023), SITE’s report on qualifiers’ attitudes to incentive travel (available for download on SITEGlobal) – the trip is ultimately a great vacation earned as result of their exceptional performance in pursuit of company goals, not a deep dive into another way of life.

Designers of incentive travel experiences need to take this on board from the get-go: some qualifiers simply want to “chill” on a beach in the sunshine and be served adult beverages on demand out of a hollowed-out coconuts.  They like it simple, safe and sanitised, and really don’t want to be challenged by a hard-core “culturally enriching experiences”. They certainly don’t want to engage deeply with local cultures especially when that means consuming items that are not defined as “food” where they come from. And, you know, that’s all fine.

Memorable, meaningful, purposeful

However, there’s a growing community of qualifiers who do “vacations” on their own dime but want their companies to provide something truly extraordinary, something they couldn’t possibly “buy” off the shelf themselves, something worthy of the term “incentive travel”. They want something memorable, meaningful, purposeful. They want deep travel.

So what might “deep travel” look like in terms of overall incentive travel program design? I’m suggesting some combination of these 5 filters or attributes – authentic experiences, personal growth, sustainable practices, cultural exchange and enduring memories:

Authentic Experiences: Instead of generic tourist spots, incentive travel programs can go off the beaten path and engage deeply with the local culture;
Personal Growth: Deep travel will always encourage self-reflection and foster personal growth through cultural immersion.
Sustainable Practices: Don’t leave a trace, minimize environmental impact and support local communities.
Cultural Exchange: This can include homestays, language lessons, or collaborative projects with local organizations.
Long-lasting Memories: Deep travel always leaves a mark. Incentive travel programs that incorporate deep travel principles are more likely to be remembered, contributing to higher levels of motivation and loyalty.

Down, not across

A key dimension to deep travel, of course, is the fact that the travel is vertical, not horizontal, bringing you deeper into places that can be very close to where you live and work. This eliminates the need for long journeys and the harmful CO2 emissions that necessarily accompany them.

Travel deeper, not further. A new model for sustainable incentive travel? It certainly presents an convincing new value proposition for the growing number of conscientious companies who use / would like to use travel as part of their reward and recognition program but feel that it compromises their people | planet | profit trifecta.

Pádraic Gilligan has been in the business of incentive travel since 1993.


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