As children, the playground teeter-totter was fascinating. We could push off the ground and make our little pal go down to the ground while we soared. Then, they flew, and we returned to the bare spot of dirt. But the fun ended when the heavy boy, who was the class clown, sat on the other side. Momentarily, we reached the clouds—until the joker jumped off—and we crashed painfully back to earth. In 2020, Covid-19 was the chubby kid that sat on our seesaw, ruined our fun and crashed incentive travel into the ground.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the best-selling book by Malcolm Gladwell, describes the tipping point as that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. Two of those phrases affect business trends—magic moments and social behavior—because corporate America is constantly looking sideways at its peers and adopts similar behaviors. When it comes to magical moments, most people remember March 11, 2020, and their shock when schools, businesses and even the NBA locked down.

Question: When will be the magical moment that sparks the tipping point for the return of incentive travel?

Spoiler alert. It has already occurred. The third quarter of 2021 was the tipping point. To pick a single day, let’s say July 4, Independence Day, and declare that it marks the incentive travel industry’s independence day from the pandemic. Here is why. 

A Prophetic Research Study

A superb study published in December 2020 (which feels like many dog years ago during this pandemic)  by the Incentive Research Foundation, Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, and Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals, titled “The Incentive Travel Industry Index,” made several specific predictions which are proving to be prophetic.

MoreNot Your Mother’s Incentives… Or Even Last Year’s

The research predicted group incentive travel would return in the second half of 2021 to 60% of 2019 levels. Based on chat with industry colleagues, the 60% return is accurate and proof #1 that the tipping point has already arrived.

As a side note, nearer, in-region trips were predicted to rebound quicker than farther destinations. For USA-based incentive companies, trips to the continental USA, Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean have returned more strongly than transatlantic journeys to Europe. Company executives and their qualifiers have been mostly willing to travel to countries that border their home base. And in another prediction, the research says 2022 group trips will return to 90% of 2019 levels. That prediction is proving true too, and the missing 10% not traveling are mostly the companies whose underlying business has been hit hardest by Covid.

Individual Travel Rebounds Faster

An interesting phenomenon is occurring at airports, hotels and sandy beaches. Consumers are resuming personal vacations, but companies and their executives are more cautious and risk-averse. In August 2021, traffic through TSA checkpoints averaged 1,850,000 per day and 76% of August 2019 levels, showing that consumer travel is rebounding faster than the 60% resumption of group trips. The actual TSA tipping point occurred back in April when checkpoint traffic was 59% for the 2021-to-2019 comparison. Implication: consumers are ready to live life again—tipping point #2.

A Better Vaccination Metric

Can we all agree that the media and the politicians on both sides have overplayed everything about vaccinations? Nowadays, the mainstream media, as is their habit, reports the most negative news. This includes the worst vaccination metric—only 56% are fully vaccinated. Please, at a minimum, say 65% have received at least one shot because science says even just one shot gives (insert your preferred adjective—some, moderate, significant) protection.

However, both those metrics are misleading. They are based on the total population, including babies, toddlers and pre-teens who have not been approved for vaccination. Children are much lower risk than senior citizens—and they don’t travel on incentive trips! The better vaccination metric for the incentive travel industry is the 77% of adults over 18 who have received at least one shot. An even better statistic would be to add those people with natural antibodies after recovering from the virus. With 13% of the population reporting a Covid case, add another 10% (to exclude breakthough cases or people vaccinated after having the virus). If one could find the data, it would be interesting to exclude college students, rural citizens and blue-collar workers to compute for business people who are more likely to fly for their work and might qualify for an incentive trip. Vaccination of adults and recoveries show herd immunity is much closer than the mainstream press reports, and this is a third tipping point.

Winners Opt to Travel

Analyzing Brightspot client’s trips in 2021, the qualifiers opting to travel have ranged from 75% to 90%. Understandably, some are still cautious, have underlying conditions, care for elderly parents or are concerned about testing positive in a foreign country, having to quarantine (albeit at a 5-star resort) and ask grandma to watch the kiddos for another ten days. With many companies and destinations requiring vaccines and a negative Covid test to travel, most cases are being stopped before packing the big suitcase ever begins. Out of all the programs Brightspot has managed, only one person tested positive while on a trip and required quarantine. The high opt-in is another tipping point.

Consumer Confidence has Rebounded

The consumer psyche has been pounded quite a bit since the pandemic started dominating the headlines. It’s been a lot of new information and requirements to process mentally. Mindsets on travel have shifted a few times, and as Malcolm Gladwell said, they tip quickly. Consumers move in herds, and the herd has reached its tipping point for being ready to resume travel again, both for individual vacations and group incentive trips. The herd came back to the playground and pushed the big Covid bully off the teeter-totter—and is ready to ride incentive travel upwards and onwards.


Mike May, CMP, CITP, IP, is President of Brightspot Incentives & Events.  He is the past Chairman of the Incentive Research Foundation and author of 12.5 Steps to a Perfect Incentive Program.