There is both an art and a science to designing and executing effective incentive travel programs that motivate employees. The stress of attracting and retaining the next generation of employees during The Great Resignation has heightened attention on making everyone feel valued for their contribution.

SITE Classic, Society of Incentive Travel Executives Foundation’s annual fundraiser at The Boca Raton in The Palm Beaches, Florida, unveiled the latest trends according to new research and demonstrated to the 230 attendees from around the world how effective a personalized approach to giving can be—all while raising almost $240,000 for the cause. Following are some lessons learned before, during and between the deep-sea fishing, Everglades tours, golf tournaments and art walks.

Gold Standards

Lesson No. 1: It is time to step up our service game. “Customer service is the new gold standard,” said opening session speaker Colin Cowie (top-right in featured image), who produced the celebrity Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez wedding in Georgia and was the creative force behind the massive renovation that restored The Boca Raton to its Coastal White grandeur.

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“We don’t need another piece of technology or product,” to deliver meaningful touches, he said. “We do need a new vernacular and incredible amounts of data in order to anticipate the needs of guests. The goal is emotional connection.”

Cowie explained that no detail is too small. That truism was evident in the monogrammed napkins at the celebrity wedding and the thoughtful amenities at the revitalized hotel. In his book, The Gold Standard,

He explains the five things to do to prepare, when an event is live and after it is wrapped up, with the follow-through being essential. “Send a note on engraved stationary,” he suggested. “It will make a big impact.”

True Winners

Lesson No. 2: “Winning does not equal success,” explained UCLA’s women’s gymnastics coach of the century, Valorie Kondos Field. Authoritative dictators may be what people look up to, but they are not effective. She adopted legendary coach John Wooden’s definition of success as “peace of mind in knowing you have done your best.”

“Whenever you try to be someone else, you will never be as good at being them and you will suppress the ability to be a first-rate you,” she said.

She focused on teaching resilience, teamwork and courage to build champions who make everyone around them better.

Kondos Field suggested that meeting professionals take this time after the tragedy of the pandemic

to choose to be grateful.

“Life is about choice. Your life is dictated by your thoughts and your thoughts have repercussions on your actions. When you choose which thought bubbles to feed and which ones to starve, you have control of your mind and therefore your actions. That ends the feeling that you are a victim.”

Model the behavior you want to see. Model humility, vulnerability, and strength. No one has all the answers and pretending you do is irritating, she joked.

The former dancer concluded, “Take control of your mental choreography.”

Focus on Why, Rather Than How

Lesson No. 3: Make it matter. A sneak peek at the Incentive Travel Industry Index being released at IMEX by SITE Foundation, FICP and The IRF showed that the recovery in incentive events is already underway. In North America, 67% of activity has already resumed. The rest of the world is following with about 50% back in place. Predictive data shows that the floodgates could open in Asia-Pacific in 2023.

The emphasis, at least in North America, is on domestic and close travel (Caribbean, U.S., Mexico, Western Europe).

In most of the world, Corporate Social Responsibility has reached an elevated status beyond just ticking the box. “The value being placed on people’s time accelerated in the last 2 years; the result is an emphasis on personalization,” said Selina Sinclair, head of business events for Destination Gold Coast.

Regardless of the industry the link between incentives and performance is real and even more important during The Great Resignation.

Leadership InSITE Study: How the C-Suite Sees Incentive Travel, a study conducted in partnership with Cox School of Business at SMU, investigated the incentive travel value chain to inform programs and report on results more accurately.

Their conclusions? First, the biggest opportunity is expanding incentives beyond sales functions to give employees a reason to stick around. That will require creating Key Performance Indicators for everything from measuring process improvement, to spending patterns. The result will be a company where everyone feels aligned toward common goals.

Another interesting insight: Incentive travel uniquely shapes and reflects company culture. Enjoying time together builds the background for what happens in the office. Incentive travel creates distinct pathways for developing relationships between employees and leaders based on trust. Trend: Employers are bringing remote workers together using incentives to make up for the water cooler talk they are missing in Zoom calls.

Finally, CSR programming has always magnified the transformational potential of incentive travel, but it is more important than ever to the incoming generation of employees. People are busy so they need to have a sense of purpose to embark on travel and leave the family, said Sinclar.

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Incentive travel complements other benefits and meets employee needs and desires more flexibly than other rewards and helps with recruiting and retaining millennials and Gen Z (described as millennials on steroids). They are seeking purpose, engagement through experiences and personalization. That requires data and giving choices.

The Give Back

One of the least, best-kept secrets in the incentive world is that SITE Classic raises significant dollars for research and grants to support the industry. Since 1986, the nonprofit has given $10 million and this year’s SITE Classic raised almost $240,000 through a live auction for luxury trips to everywhere from New Orleans to Cartagena, an app-based silent auction, and Random Acts of Giving.

In addition to funding research to help everyone incentivize better, the investment in filling the pipeline with young event professionals will be increased by supporting the Young Leaders program and the David Riddell Memorial Scholarship for ongoing education and academic scholarships for college students.

Meanwhile, The Above and Beyond Foundation has been giving checks ranging from $500 Urgent Aid Grants to $10,000 Heart of Hospitality gifts to front-line workers demonstrating outstanding service. A bellman at The Boca Raton was awarded a $3,000 gift in recognition of the dedication he brings to his job every day.

Looking Ahead

SITE Global, the annual conference for the world of incentive travel, is preparing for its 50th anniversary in New York City next February. And SITE Classic heads to Conrad Punta de Mita in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico, next year.