How the global pandemic will change your incentive travel plans—for the better

This is not another article looking at our crystal ball and asking when our beloved incentive travel industry will be back to “normal.” It is a reflection on how this global pandemic has impacted the incentive travel industry and a look at the opportunities that it has provided us.

I am known as an optimist, but I do not kid myself on the devastation that this pandemic has wreaked on our industry. As an owner of three companies, I know firsthand how hard it has been to keep things afloat and rally those around me to dig deep. But to cite a phrase recently quoted by SITE President Aoife Delaney, we need to focus on “building back better.” Personally, I believe our industry will come out stronger on the other side. Here is why.

Boom Times

At the beginning of 2020, our industry was at an all-time high, the economy was strong, business was booming. Many were in denial at the first signs of the pandemic, but reality set in and postponements and cancellations started rolling in. Long-term employees were furloughed and entrepreneurs were trying to figure out what was next.

Through these difficult times, we have undergone an evolution. New ventures were launched, side hustles became a common conversation topic and technology supported the development of new revenue sources for many.

High-Speed Tech Evolution

Technology has long been an integral component of our industry, from booking tools to production, to contest platforms. In 2020, event tech grew more in five months than in the last five years. This growth will have long-lasting effects. Event planners have partnered with AV companies and virtual platforms to master online conferences and meetings. Even social events have gone online with team building and mental health sessions. As a result, attendees will hold event organizers accountable for delivering unique and valuable experiences in return for the perceived inconvenience of travel.

Demonstrate the Soft Power

No matter how creative the planner or how big the budget, virtual platforms cannot replicate the in-person incentive travel program. “Why hire a big-name musician so I can sit in my living room starting at the screen (even if dinner was delivered) when I can watch or listen to my band of choice on YouTube at my leisure?” asked one client. Incentive travel is about creating memories, building connections, and recognizing those that have contributed to the business in a meaningful way.

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Our opportunity now is to look at ways to grow the understanding of the value of incentive travel. The 2019 Incentive Travel Industry Index demonstrated the growth of “soft power” incentive programs, those features that award individuals outside of financial growth. Companies are taking time now to assess their incentive programs; the why, the measurement and the design. They are not questioning the ROI. Instead they are looking at how to utilize incentive travel to recognize others within their company. We need to help them deliver on their objectives in meaningful ways.

DMC Assists

Destination management companies can help deliver those benefits via smaller group experiences, touchless food and beverage delivery and family-friendly activities within budget. The pandemic has elevated the value of having local experts who can support an incentive travel program by providing creative ideas, crisis management and knowledge of local hospitals, hygiene and safety measures.

Renewed Appreciation of Travel

There are other impacts to our industry: brain drain, closed businesses, mental health concerns, increased costs. But focusing on the increased perceived value of travel will help us build back better. After the last year, travel will carry a heightened appreciation. Businesses will find employees are even more determined to secure their places on the next incentive trip as confidence returns and packing a bag is seen as special once more.

The impact of the global pandemic has not fully unfolded, but the trials we are facing can offer opportunity, drive innovation and spur new revenues streams that will help our industry build back stronger.

Jennifer “Jenn” Glynn, CIS, CITP is managing partner of Meeting Encore Ltd. and Design N Achieve Inc. She is SITE immediate past president and represents SITE as member of Meetings Mean Business and on Event Industry Council.