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

Recently I posted on sustainability and incentive travel concluding that current definitions / understandings of each rendered them as irreconcilable opposites – sustainability was “limiting”, requiring restraint, reduced consumption, thoughtful, conscientious behaviour while a travel reward was sans frontiers and sans souci, suggesting freedom, extravagance, conspicuous consumption.

I concluded that we needed new messaging around both, sustainability being too earnest and serious and incentive travel being too leisure-focused and potentially superficial. This post now focuses on incentive travel and how we need to fundamentally change its framing.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles and the democratisation of travel

The proliferation of “trains, planes and automobiles” (though not in that chronological order!) from the mid 1800s onwards brought people to places beyond their local village or town although it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that travel was truly democratised, available to the masses at affordable prices.

Advances in aviation technology, and the rise of air charters and package holidays took working class Brits to Spain, and blue collar Americans to the Caribbean all in search of sun, sand and sea and the occasional highly sanitised cultural experience, all beautifully, and innocently, documented in the Bruce Welch / Brian Bennet song, “Summer Holiday”, sung by Cliff Richard:

We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday
No more workin’ for a week or two
Fun and laughter on our summer holiday
No more worries for me or you
For a week or two

Resorts catered unapologetically to the very limited palettes of the visitors and so, at least in the initial years, there was very little culinary cross-pollination and zero interaction with the locals. They were foreigners, after all, who spoke a different language.

We’ve moved on … but have we really?

While mass travel since the ’60s has evolved significantly and the average visitor these days is far more discerning and sophisticated, there are still expectations around first world creature comforts like ubiquitous ice and air conditioning.

But despite this positive evolution, most travel still skates across the surface of destinations, focusing on rest and relaxation, “no more worries for me and you / for a week or two”. And, you know, in the overall scheme of things, that’s all fine – we all deserve and need down time. We need to re-fuel, re-charge and “re-create”. The question is whether this is a sufficiently robust purpose for a company-sponsored incentive travel experience?

As it became a thing in the late 60s / early 70s, its understandable that incentive travel tended to mirror, amplify and augment whatever was happening in leisure travel. In an effort to provide what qualifiers couldn’t purchase on their own (“if it’s available in a travel brochure, then it’s not an incentive travel experience”), designers of incentive travel experiences reached for the sky.

Incentive travel loses the plot

First travel rewards became more sophisticated and then more opulent and ostentatious, leading, eventually and somewhat inevitably, to a massive backlash and justifiable accusations of elitism, obnoxiousness and overall bad corporate behaviour – best summarised by the iniquitous $2 million birthday event held in Sardinia in 2001, by disgraced Tyco boss, L. Dennis Kozlowski, complete with the late, great Jimmy Buffett on guitar and an ice sculpture of “David” urinating Stolichnaya.

We’ve mostly moved beyond surfeit, excess and conspicuous consumption as defining characteristics of corporate sponsored incentive travel and motivational events , but we’re not entirely out of the woods yet with events within the past decade organised by Wells Fargo (2018) and Starbucks (2019) still making headlines for the wrong reasons.

Bring on the changes …

As highlighted at the start of this piece, travel rewards, both in actual terms and in terms of how they are perceived, are sans frontiers and sans souci, connected with leisure, freedom, extravagance, conspicuous consumption.

This needs to change.

We need to decrease incentive travel’s association with leisure, R&R and “goin’ on a summer holiday” and increase its association with more enduring, meaningful and purposeful objectives such as – cultural exchange and understanding, educational and intellectual growth, personal development and self discovery, creative inspiration, health and well-being, global awareness and responsibility.

We need to highlight travel as transformation.

Let the games begin!

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer at SITE.


One thought on “Why we need to re-frame and re-position incentive travel

  1. Miha Kovacic says:

    Great blog Padraic. I recall last year SITE Incentive Travel Summit in Ljubljana where the program included activities that could lead to transformation of individual participants. Feedback was positive. Maybe there is a need to present more positive cases and that clients would include these requirements into their RFP’s. And that it would be possible to measure the change.

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