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

Like all Incentive Travel Professionals, I’m looking forward to better times as we move into the second quarter of 2021. Realistically, it cannot get any worse as the pandemic has thoroughly devastated, decimated and destroyed the incentive travel industry – at least temporarily.

This was graphically illustrated by the Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII) which showed activity down in 2020 by as much as 85%. That only 7% of our industry shuttered their businesses completely in 2020 is credit to the dogged resilience of our collective character and, depending on where we’re located in the world, on very welcome government supports.

Key programme objectives switch from hard dollars to soft power

However, if ITII depicts an industry on its knees, it’s not there only in desperate, hopeless supplication. It’s also on its knees in active reflection, asking itself big questions around identity, meaning and purpose.

In fairness, our self-interrogation pre-dates the pandemic. For some time now, many incentive travel professionals have being questioning what we do, particularly in the areas of equity, consumption, sustainability, climate justice and so on.

The pandemic has now accelerated these thought processes and ITII, a snap shot of pan industry sentiment from September / October 2020, shows definite signs of this type of thinking entering the main stream.

Previous ITII reports noted an increase of focus on soft power over hard dollars. However, as already highlighted in a previous column, this year, for the first time, hard dollar returns (ROI, performance upticks etc) are NOT ranked in first position as the ultimate metric for incentive travel success.

This year soft power elements – engagement, relationship etc – dominate the ranking confirming how the metrics around success for incentive travel are being actively re-defined and infused with brand new identity, meaning and purpose.

Changes in programme design

This new thinking may also be seen when we look at programme design for incentive travel  In ITII 2019 incentive travel programmes were structured around cultural experiences, group dining experiences, team building and luxury, ie, including something truly unique, a bucket list inclusion, in the programme. This combination of programme elements ensured both qualifier  and corporate satisfaction. The programme was designed as a win | win for both qualifier, who got a brilliant travel experience and corporate sponsor, who got a better connected workforce.

When compared with ITII 2020, however, a new, more purposeful incentive travel model is clearly emerging. Luxury and cultural experiences remain in the Top 4 rankings (with luxury now rising from fourth to first position) but group dining and team building are replaced by CSR and wellness. The rise of CSR, in particular, highlights this change in priorities as corporations continue to favour travel rewards as part of their reward and recognition programme but now, decisively, want to travel with a conscience.

Overall, the top ranked programme inclusions as selected by our global community in 2020 place the emphasis on the intrinsic joy of travel and put the qualifier centre stage, building the programme around rejuvenation (“wellness”) and destination discovery and delight, all peppered by notions of responsible travel and giving back to communities.

Everything gets washed away in the flood

The ongoing impact of the pandemic has been like the biblical flood, with everything washed away without filter or discrimination. We’ve lost many precious things along the way and here I’m mainly thinking of the IP, the expertise and the great talent that may have migrated elsewhere, leaving our industry, in search of gainful employment elsewhere.

But we’re also losing the unnecessary and downright harmful things that we accumulated along the way – our conspicuous consumption, for example, our wastefulness, our obsession with financial metrics and returns, our poor record at work / life balance.

So for 2021 I’m looking forward to being part of a kinder, more balanced, more empathetic industry that walks the walk in relation to ESG (environmental / social / governance) and leverages only benefits from the awesome, transformational power of travel experiences

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua Marketing Ltd, a specialist agency working with Business Events enterprises and associations on strategy, marketing, training and research. He also serves as Chief Marketing Office for SITE, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence.

A version of this post first appeared on Conference & Meeting World – access here


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