Make it Memorable

The "wow" factor is key to an incentive award's attractiveness to a worker. Providing a memorable experience is the goal.

Editor's note: The prospect of jetting away to an exotic destination to ski, cruise, or bask in the sun can be tremendously motivating, experts say. Travel incentives also have enduring value because the recipients recall the experience long after they are back on the job. Providing that memorable experience is the goal for The Castle Group Inc., a Boston, Mass. events management and public relations agency that specializes in incentive travel programs. Senior Events Manager Laura Vogel discussed trends in the industry and how to use incentives to maximum advantage in a July 16, 2004, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

What makes an event or a travel incentive memorable for an employee?
Laura Vogel: In terms of a travel incentive, we look at it as giving someone a memory. Creating a memory is much more just than giving someone a gift card or something that they spend and forget about. This is an experience. So when we do a travel incentive, it's usually three days in length, and they're taken care of from the minute they get off the plane--from before they even get there.

They're taken care of through an online registration Web site and they're personally greeted, personally contacted. Everything's set up, their travel arrangements [are made]. Then they get there and they're experiencing the island, they're experiencing the city--wherever it is that they happen to be--as an individual but then also coming together for group events. It's really giving them the opportunity to have a great time with their partners or spouses, whoever they choose to bring, but then also sharing this experience with both their colleagues and also the sponsoring company. Sort of forming that bond, that network between the two.

Do these events take a long time to plan?
Vogel: It really depends on what goes into it. We've done sales incentives for 20 people that are very small and there's a minimal amount of expense. And we've done some that are for 375 people. It depends on how long they want to run the contest. We've done incentives that have gone on for a year. We're currently working on one that's been going on for all of 2004 and culminates in a reward trip to Mexico in February of 2005.

So I would say for planning, we like at least six months for hotel booking and things like that. Six months is probably a minimal amount to launch a program and get everything set up.

Can you do anything that a management conceives as motivational? You can't send someone to the moon, I suppose.
Vogel: Probably not to the moon, but we could try. We haven't actually ever been presented with an idea that we weren't able to accomplish. . . . Corporate managers, and marketing directors, and sales directors, they have a vision for their company. What they do is they come to us with that vision of 'what we would like to see as our ROI [return on investment],' their end result. . . . We work with them to develop not only just the reward, but a lot of the branding and the marketing that goes with it.

We've done 10 people to Aruba, we've done 400 to Las Vegas, 60 to Dublin. Whatever the goal is of the company, we work with them to just make sure we can get there.

The same is true of companies offering safety incentives. ROI is very important to them; we've found safety managers sometimes find it difficult to calculate. What kind of ROI do your clients achieve?
Vogel: Because a lot of our clients are in the sales sector, it's simply dollars. You compare a quarter where they offer no incentives versus a quarter where they do. And consistently the numbers in the quarter where they do run the incentives are significantly higher. The sales are higher. Typically people are selling so they can go on these experiences.

We've done comparison studies over quarters, over years, over half-years. There is always a marked improvement--a significant marked improvement in sales--when there is an incentive running during that time period.

In our case, it would be cost avoidance: Lowering your costs through reducing injuries or experiencing lower costs for worker's compensation.
Vogel: Exactly. Usually the easiest way to do it is contrast when there is an incentive and when there isn't. See how many accidents there are and what type of response you're getting. Is there, like you said, a lower amount of worker's comp cases and things like that. If you see your numbers drop, in that case because people are putting more effort into it or making that concerted, extra effort to make sure that those things don't happen and also that they are rewarded for it.

What sorts of costs do your clients have for these programs?
Vogel: How we work it is, we tailor-make programs. A lot of the incentive companies do--some work this way, some don't--we sort of do a menu-type situation. We can handle a project from soup to nuts. Basically we can start and work with you on concept development of theme and branding, on developing the right location for your audience, and working from start to finish with you there doing promotions to promote the incentives. Because if people aren't aware of the incentives, then there's really no point in spending your money. That's something that's very important to us.

Then, going all the way through to contacting the attendees, developing a registration, developing a program that has events on site, etc., etc. It's really up to our clients how much of that they want to utilize us for. Typically, our clients like to go for the whole nine [yards]. . . . But it's really up to them to see what level of involvement they would be interested in. The cost really ends up being what they want to do, depending on how many people they want, if they have a certain budget they want to spend.

We've done grand-scale events where there's a room gift every single night and an event every night sponsored by a different company, and first-class airfare to Maui, and things like that. But, again, it doesn't have to be at that level.

You mentioned the importance of promotion to make sure employees are aware of the incentives. That's also crucial with safety incentives--delivering regular reminders to keep employees interested and involved.
Vogel: Absolutely. For example, this program that we're doing right now that's a year long? That is a company whose reps get a lot of incentives from various outlets. So we've been trying to find ways to reach them in new and different ways. We constantly send out promotions; I think it's about once a month, indicative of the area where they're going. Just to remind them. You know, a margarita glass with a mix with a custom-designed label that has the company's branded information on it, and that's because they're going to Mexico.

We designed a Web site for the program. We've found information is a great motivator. Know what you're striving for: That makes you all the more excited for it. What we did was, we designed the Web site for the program early. It's an informational Web site; it has links to the hotels, it has links to where they're going to being having their special dinners, and all this sort of information. It links to information about the city. And what we did with it is, we sent out a special postcard that said "instant winner." It gave you the information to go to the link and check it. You could sign up to see whether you were an instant winner, and you could also win a special prize. And we had a great return.

You do all of this promotion for them? They're not doing this work themselves?
Vogel: We do it for them. It's something we put in our promotional budget. And they set aside a certain amount for promotions. . . . [Print] promotions are great, but we live in the age when everyone's on the Internet and everyone wants to know what's going on. You want this trip to be something that's tangible. They see something that's concrete. They want to know where they're staying, what are they going to be doing, what is the restaurant that's next to my hotel, and things like that. It makes it attainable. It makes it achievable.

And so this is a great promotion, where not only did it get core branding for the company because they went to a company-branded Web site. The URL is indicative of that vendor, and you're getting reps to go to that, it has logos on it. It again forms the partnership between the two. And not only that, but people can win a prize.

Especially if you're going to run yearly programs, you want to make sure it is something that's in the memory, and therefore they are constantly either remembering or looking forward to the next one. That's what you're trying to do: create that bridge, where there's a constant memory of the trip they've just been on and that sort of carries them through with motivation to get to the next one.

Are clients running these programs over and over, year after year?
Vogel: I would say the majority of our clients see it as something they want to establish. One client, every year they do a program for the last two quarters, Q3 and Q4, and the trip takes place in February of the following year. Because they want that to be a standard. They want people to know. 'Hey, get your ducks in a row, get everything ready. This is going to be going on.' It also gives them the ability to know that they can launch certain products at that time.

Is there pressure to top last year's trip every time?
Vogel: I've done at least 10 sales incentives during my time here, and we're always trying to top. That's just us. Even if it's a different client. . . .

I think it's always a success for the clients. There's always going to be something different when you go to a different location. There in Dublin, we just did a huge event at a castle: It's something that they're never going to be able to experience on their own. And you can really find that in any location, and that's really what we bring to our clients. So in terms of topping, we're always looking for the great thing but we always can find that one unique event or experience, whether it be a catamaran sailing to a private island in the Bahamas where waiters greet them with cocktails, or maybe it's at the castle in Dublin where they drive up to a beautiful, majestic area, and there's a trio playing for them as they arrive.

That's the beauty of destination incentives. You take from the location and you find the most unique and interesting aspect of that and create an event around it. They're always different, and they're always exciting.

What I think you're saying is that the cost doesn't have to ramp up every year. If you use your imagination and have a good idea for a destination that's right at hand, you can find something unique that's not so expensive.
Vogel: Exactly. And it really depends. A lot of times the budget will stay stagnant. They have to bring in a certain number of people. Like you said, you can sometimes arrange things differently, move money around within the program. . . . All the [event] programs are changeable. Things are all fluid. You can be as creative as you need to be.

Did 9/11 depress travel incentives, and have they rebounded?
Vogel: Fortunately, we had no trouble. I did an incentive in November of that year, the first weekend in November, and I was convinced that no one would come. I was ready for my phone to start ringing and everyone say, 'Look, I really don't want to fly. I'm just not into it.' And I didn't get a single call.

Do you have any final thoughts about the value of travel/event incentives?
Vogel: What makes for a good experience-based reward? One of the great things is, you want something that is tailor-made to your demographic. It is something that is engaging, something that attendees are not going to be able to do on their own. And that doesn't have to just be in Dublin or Aruba. That could be in Chicago in the back room of Charlie Trotter's [restaurant] where you've set up a private table. It doesn't necessarily have to be exotic; it can be done at a conference or at a cocktail party.

The great thing about event management is that really the world's your oyster. You can kind of do anything as long as you have imagination in it. So I think the business only is going to continue to grow and be even more and more valuable. And our clients so far are very happy--and they get a tan!

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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