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

Will Covid-19 kill Incentive travel?

Part of me loves the speculation, the permutations and combinations. The “if this, then that” logic that we indulge in on a daily basis. I’m referring, of course, to the endless chatter around what meetings 3.0 or incentives 3.0 will look like when Covid-19 finally gets run out of Dodge City. The “new normal”. The radically altered physiognomy of Business Events in the post Covid-19 era.

When it comes to incentive travel and the impact of Covid-19, however, we need to face the brutal facts. Many of the implications of Covid-19, not least the restrictions on travel and the reality of social distancing, cut to the heart of what incentive travel is and justifies the provocative question: will Covid-19 kill incentive travel?

There’s no global roadmap for when, precisely, we’ll be able to travel freely across borders, seas and oceans. Over the next number of months this situation will become clearer but, in the meantime, we’re in an endless holding pattern, going round and round like the Dublin – London flight over Heathrow.

Incentive Travel under threat

Organisers of meetings and conferences  can, at least, work around social distancing –  respect the 2m rule, reduce capacities, eliminate buffets etc – but organisers of incentives are left with the sinking feeling that social distancing could suck all the energy and joy out of the incentive reward. Would it really be a motivational experience if I couldn’t stand at the bar and celebrate freely with my fellow qualifiers?

Incentive programmes also have the added complication of being linked to a specific, time-based campaign. With pervasive workplace disruption, the natural rhythm that marks out the year  is severely out of kilter, impacting on the ability to stage a proper campaign. Are the 2020 campaigns that would generate incentive trips in the months and years to come actually taking place?

And the other big issue that impacts incentive programmes, of course, is the airline industry. Will some airlines go bankrupt? Will there be route networks to get folks easily where they want to be? And what about  capacities and cost per seat if the requirement for social distancing persists?

Without mentioning corporate travel bans and qualifiers’ own fears of travel, these are just some of the brutal facts that incentive travel professionals need to face up to and, yes, if you’re a small, specialist agency or DMC this is not pretty at all. In fact it’s ugly in the extreme, sufficiently ugly to cause nightmares or sleepless nights.

So what can you do?

Accept the Brutal Facts – 1

The first thing you can, and need to do is to accept the reality of the situation (and, yes, I know, this is beginning to sound like the 12 step programme for addiction recovery). There is likely to be a longer hiatus that initially imagined or hoped, particularly for group incentives.  How long we still don’t know but, failing the speedy discovery of a vaccine, I believe it’ll be some time and this needs to be factored into your business engineering and planning. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Read the Signs of the Times – 2

The second thing you can do is read the signs of the times. As individual countries re-emerge from lockdown you can see clear patterns emerging with travel resuming first at local, then national, then regional, then international, then inter-continental levels. You need to re-engineer your business in that way. If you’re a DMC in Europe depending on incentive business from Asia and the US, then you need to start targeting closer source markets as long haul will be the last to recover.


Explore Individual Incentives – 3

For the reasons previously outlined, group incentives are likely to decrease in the short to medium term. However, I believe there’ll be a short to mid term resurgence in individual incentives. While, for some, the term “individual incentive” is an oxymoron, I think the Covid-19 era is the perfect time to roll then out again. Upscale, individual travel, like leisure, will recover quickly and, remember, this type of  incentive also ticks a millennial requirement for individuality, customisation, personalisation.

Think of the Qualifiers – 4

Incentive Travel experiences are created to reward extraordinary performance. Thousands of qualifiers are missing out on the trip of a lifetime they worked so hard to win. What suggestions can you bring to your corporate client that allows the astonishing effort of these team members to be acknowledged and feted? Can you involve the destination where the trip should have been hosted? I’ve read some great reports of incentive agencies who staged virtual award and recognition ceremonies, even arranging for the delivery of themed gourmet meals to the qualifiers’ homes.

Breathe- 5

In the overall scheme of things, this is an episode of scary turbulence on a long trans-continental flight. Start using mindfulness techniques to imagine a soft landing in a warm place and, while you’re pursuing this pleasant reverie, be sincerely thankful you can breathe without effort.

Then breathe.

And breathe again.


Covid-19 has no chance of killing incentive travel because its integral to the core business model of so many organisations. Remember, it’s the only workplace reward that benefits BOTH the giver and the receiver.

When you give me an incentive travel reward, you give me an extraordinary travel experience (often) to share with a loved one;  you give us time together in a beautiful location; you connect us to other people and places; you enrich us in ways more enduring than if you gave us cash or merchandise.

But you also connect me with the company; you build bonds between me, my significant other and key company officers. You make me an ambassador for the company. You strengthen company culture.

These benefits are too unique and desirable to be threatened by a passing virus.

Pádraic Gilligan, Pat Delaney, Aoife McCrum, Aideen O’Keeffe, Sara Hosford, Gráinne Ní Ghiollagáin & Gerard Mulligan are SoolNua. We work with destinations, agencies, associations, hotels, venues on strategy, marketing & training for the Business Events sector. 












10 thoughts on “Will Covid-19 kill Incentive Travel?

  1. A thoroughly well written, very thoughtful and well- timed article! Many thanks Pádraig agus go dté tú slán i gconaí,
    Slán ‚s beannacht as Báile Átha na bFrancaí,
    Pádraig ☘️

  2. padraicino says:

    Mile maith agat a Phadraig –

  3. Jan Zandboer says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights Padraic; much appreciated.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Jan – in the future we’ll tell stories of these days to our grandchildren!

  4. Bruce Tepper, CITE, CIS says:

    Great article, Padraic! You addressed the situation from all aspects.

    Tourism and travel have been hit very hard and there’s little doubt that recovery will take time. One local columnist (Phoenix, Arizona) described the US populace in 3 categories. 30% of the people will be ready to travel and patronize retail businesses as soon as they open. Another 30% won’t leave their house until the death count from Covid-19 is zero. The remaining 40% are in between.

    For some buyers, incentive travel will revive quickly for all the reasons you cited. Every day, we learn more about the impact of Covid-19 and responses to it continue to change. The dire predictions of March and early April are being replaced by a far more optimistic view. As more localities open up their businesses again we’re not seeing the calamity the media has promised.

    I’m personally optimistic about the future of incentive travel over the next few years as airlines begin expanding services, cruises come back online and hotels start to see occupancy growth. This is a good time plant the seeds for the next few years which will hopefully lift the mood of many industry professionals.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Bruce – let’s be cautious and positive!

  5. Bruce Tepper, CITE, CIS says:

    A good approach!

  6. Joe Hayden says:

    Padraic, your article is a must read for all in the incentive industry. You bring to the piece your own mighty experience, honesty and determination to tell it as it is.

    Here at the Baileys Farm we will sit it out and will be ready to service our many wonderful clients from all over the world when the time is right.

    In the meantime we have our 180 Baileys Ladies to milk each day so no fear of boredom setting in.

    Looking forward to future commentary from you on this topic.
    Stay safe

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Joe! This too shall pass and we will certainly meet again (in all senses of the world!)

  7. Catherine Kearney says:

    Well written Padraic, and I agree that it is a perfect time to consider the individual travel rewards.

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