How AI and new demographics are changing incentive travel

AI can help find relevant data and perhaps even write the first draft of an incentive program outline, but the level of personalization required to really motivate employees by rewarding them with experiences requires a human touch. That was the consensus from multiple stages during Incentive Research Foundation’s Invitational event at Resorts World Las Vegas this week.

For hoteliers, AI and other event productivity technology can help remove friction and pain points in booking and checking in, but the goal is to relieve employees of mundane tasks so they can focus more on human interactions, explained Ben Space, vice president and commercial director Americas managed with Hilton. “We are in a race to make it easy to do business together,” he said.

For meeting designers, ChatGPT can save the organizer time by answering mundane questions like, “What does business casual mean?” thereby freeing up time to design more meaningful, sustainable and motivating programs.

The changing elements that go into doing those last three event features effectively took up most of the time at the gathering of more than 500 incentive meeting professionals. “Incentives matter,” said Stephanie Harris, president of The Incentive Research Foundation. In fact, she pointed to results from the recent “Attendee Preferences for Incentive Travel” report that showed 64% of Gen Z and millennials found incentive travel to be “extremely motivating,” more than their older counterparts. “We make a difference,” she concluded.

Read More: Not Your Mother’s Incentives

man on stage juggling ball and hatchet through legs
Jeff Civillico

Keynote juggler, comedian and philanthropist Jeff Civillico brought that point about the importance of what incentive travel professionals do on the edge of a spinning knife. “You are more than someone who books corporate travel,” he said. “That is only a sliver of who you are.”

He pointed out that incentive programs touch larger audiences that ever since incentivizing salespeople used to be available to only the top 1%, but now programs are moving “the massive middle” and influencing success across company cultures.

“You change lives,” he said. “It may feel like a Tuesday, but your power can start ripples that can flow through multiple generations.”

Incentive Trends You Need to Know

Beyond the technology, meeting professionals are struggling with an uncertain economy, exchange rate and inflationary picture, making it difficult to commit in the time frames some suppliers would like to have. And when planner professionals do put on a program, their C-suite is looking for hard numbers to show the ROI on the Caribbean cruise. “Whatever you do, make sure it is measurable,” advised Kelly Kunz, director of incentives with Brightspot. She suggested creating a dashboard so the executives can quickly see if “the juice is worth the squeeze.”

Read More: How to Manage Outsize Hospitality Budget Inflation

One measurement that can put incentive budgets into context that a representative from a Fortune 100 property and casualty (P&C) insurance company uses is comparing the cost of the incentive that makes them feel valued vs the cost of onboarding a new employee—a price tag estimated at $25,000 or more.

Other incentive ROI measurements include increased sales, employee morale and productivity.

Another change? Individual travel gifts, the fallback during Covid for many companies, are morphing into white glove curated experiences. Even for traditional group trips, attendees are looking for programs that have enough free time in them that they feel like a reward rather than a meeting.

Kunz stressed the importance of considering the way participants will feel from the time they participate in discovery, sharing their preferences for an awards experience to the way the program is announced and updates are given, to the end when they leave feeling good about having spent quality time with executives and peers as a valued member of the team, thinking about what they are going to do to ensure they earn the trip next year. “That is the art,” she said.

The Future of Incentive Planning Workforce

Many at the conference were concerned about how future hospitality and events staff will find their way to the industry. Harris referred to the recent “The Future of the Incentives Industry Workforce” study. “The biggest barrier is lack of awareness,” she said.

When prospective employees do know that opportunities are available in events, too many have the mistaken impression that these are low compensation positions with little job security. “We need to stop amplifying how stressful it is and focus on upsides—creativity, opportunity to travel and learn new skills,” she said. “Let’s normalize celebrating our jobs.”

To boost interest in incentive planning jobs, a new IRF Accelerate program will foster growth and development of new leaders for six to eight people. Over a year, mid-level incentive professionals from the buyer and supplier side will join a committee, volunteer for a research study, meet with a mentor and attend next year’s IRF Invitational.

“With all the technology and AI, let’s not lose sight of the humanity of this industry,” Harris said.