Extraordinary Incentive Experience in St. Thomas immersed meeting professionals in luxury

When top incentive meeting professionals gather in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a Smart Meetings Extraordinary Experience, of course, they are going to start with an update about the latest trends in motivating performers, engage in some pirate-themed fun and tour five-star properties. That is exactly what happened this week in St. Thomas where The Westin Beach Resort & Spa Frenchman’s Reef hosted meeting planners and hotel and destination partners for three days of education and networking.

Incentive Travel Trends Explained

woman talking on stage
Stephanie Harris

The event kicked off with Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) President Stephanie Harris explaining the findings of the latest Incentive Travel Index report and the biggest challenges we face as an industry.

“The overall workforce is changing as veterans retire,” she observed. “We need to motivate a new generation and our research found that travel is, indeed, a major motivator for both Millennials and Gen Z participants.”

Watch More: All-In Incentives: Planning Travel Rewards That Motivate

That does not mean that these younger workers are looking for the same golf and spa outings as their parents and grandparents. “We have to find the ideal balance on the spectrum for relaxation vs high activity and almost all age groups want more unscheduled time,” she shared.

Demographics only get a meeting planner so far in understanding expectations, she warned. “We need to layer on psychographics and “valuegraphics” to understand people’s unique preferences.”

Truly understanding who you are designing for requires talking to them. When IRF asked, the results showed that 71% of programs are going to new destinations which aligns with what attendees are asking for. Also increasing, all-inclusive programs because it eliminates surprises.

Read More: Stop the Generational Stereotyping

It was no coincidence that the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico) is one of the top destinations, and places like the U.S. Virgin Islands are popular as a way to get the island feel without having to require passports for Americans.

“Ask what your group wants in an incentive program. Don’t just design for the CEO,” she advised. Those executives are champions of the incentive practice, at least to a point. The research showed that more than half of respondents say their CEOs understand that incentive travel is a “need to have.” Even the 21% who say the program is “a necessary evil” were demonstrating that they see the value.

That buy-in is important because almost everyone surveyed expects event spending to be up in 2024 over 2022, even if it is just a function of keeping pace with inflation rather than expanding the program.

Those tight budgets are straining relationships as new employees on both sides work to rebuild relationships and find a way to get the job done. “Getting out and seeing each other in person is the best way to do that,” Harris said.

That same changing-of-the-guard dynamic is occurring in the meetings industry and Harris deputized everyone in the room to be advocates for the career by talking up the joy of planning. “We are our own worst PR people for entering the industry. We love to brag about how stressed we are. We need to start celebrating and posting about the fabulous, creative moments, the travel and the sense of community,” Harris said.

AI for events has been described both as a way to manage the labor-starved workforce and a threat to our existence. “Don’t be afraid, just keep the human overlay and be mindful of privacy,” she advised.

A Local Immersion

ocean shoreWhen traveling to an island paradise, one priority has to be connecting with the destination. The Westin delivered with plenty of outdoor receptions, guest room views from the venue’s perch between the bay and the ocean and picture windows looking out on the yachts and cruise ships beyond. The property took five years to rebuild 85,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 392 guest rooms after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and is now better than before with a new dock and watersports program.

Meals drew on the rich international influences of the archipelago, which has seen waves of cultures dominating the landscape over hundreds of years.

A beach reception at the completely renovated The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas brought local dancers and drummers for a celebration of everyone’s story. General Manager Arjun Channa explained, “It is the warmth of the people, in addition to the warmth of the destination that will keep you coming back.”

A similar reinvention happened at El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico where Smart Meetings is bringing an Extraordinary Experience next September. Discover Puerto Rico Director of Incentive Sales shared that the reason the U.S. territory is trending with incentive planners is that like the U.S. Virgin Islands, it is accessible, safe, historic, tropical and has all the conveniences of the mainland. “Millions of dollars went into rebuilding four- and five-diamond resorts and you have to come see it,” he said.

Network Like a Pirate

three people posing for pictureMeeting professionals who search for buried treasure together, are more likely to work together. That is why The Tropical Treasure Hunt Company led the group through challenges that included finding clues at the very fun Pirates Treasure Museum, a blindfolded maze, sandcastle building and archery. Aye! We are all mateys now.