For years I have been speaking at international trade shows, conferences and events on a number of topics related to our business. Also I had, in association with some CVBs and media partners, the opportunity to present masterclasses to local DMO communities. Most topics are in the field of destination marketing and services, sales, business networking and incentive travel.

Below you will find a list of masterclasses I conducted before although they are adapted constantly by the emerging trends and customs. If you want to book me as a speaker, these may be some interesting topics to consider.

The Art of Selling and Networking at Business EventsAn ideal session for pre-event training to destination teams or exhibitor targets.
The Future is NowOur industry is changing, where do we need to adapt from where we were before? What’s the new normal?
Re-Design Incentive ProgrammesDesign thinking on incentive travel programmes.
Making the Business Case for Incentive Travel as a Motivational ToolSelling Incentive travel as a motivational tool to C-suite audiences.
Selling by StorytellingPre-trade show or destination educational immersion session.
SITE ModulesModules prepared by SITE Global
Bleisure is back!The new norm is affecting Incentive travellers.
The Relationship between Incentives & Motivation Understanding the reasoning behind incentive travel as a motivational tool.
Knowing your Customer’s CustomerThird box thinking techniques to understand your client better.
Talking Incentive Travel with the C-SuiteToolbox for enterpreneurs to drive performance.
The Art of Incentive TravelWhat incentive travel is and why it is meaningful to any corporate buyer, be it from a marketing or HR standpoint.
The 3 main purposes of the meetings and events industryGoverment and community advocacy basics.
Your future is bright!FLF presentation for new talent entering the meetings and events industry
Incentive Travel Academy Introduction to incentive travel for third party agencies, DMCs, hoteliers and convention bureau future leaders (SITE)
Programmes delivered in Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Singapore, Georgia, UAE, Istanbul, Greece, Malta, Italy, Spain, Germany, Baltic Republics, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, U.K., Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Aruba, Panama, USA, South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Brazil, Chile

All for One and One for All

Bring back the Musketeers – united we stand, divided we fall! I’m a great fan of storytelling and this morning I woke up with the heroic stories of the Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas in mind. In the early Noughties, when Lex GranaadaRoger Tondeur and Yours Truly organised the ESNEPs for SITE in Europe and the Middle East, participants called us the 3 Musketeers because we were the team, the squad that made it happen. But today, I’m not referring to these 3 adventurers. What I have in mind for my story is a vision of recovery for the live events industry, the revival of face2face, the return to live destination experiences. And so we need to call in our present day heroes:  AthosPorthosAramis and d’Artagnan.

So what does storytelling consist of? A great story has some ‘must haves’. First of all, a hero, or a group of heroes and their allies. These are the main actors. Whilst we had a lot of casualties in our troops over the past 9 months, our main characters are still there. In my story, Athos plays the role of the Convention Bureau. As you all know, he’s the ex of Milady (Cardinal Richelieu’s spy) which does not make it any easier. Athos is the father figure of the team, taking care of the integration of young d’Artagnan with the Musketeers and a man who takes great solace in wine. Did I mention the wife? Then we have Porthos, the dandy figure who in my story plays the role of the hotelier. Quite fashionable and trendy of course! Thirdly we have Aramis, a handsome young man/woman (you choose) with a fondness of men/women (you choose) and who loves a good (verbal) fight representing a unique event venue and finally we have our future leader, d’Artagnan; young, foolhardy, brave and clever, obviously a type casted DMC.

Secondly, there must be a theme, a ‘why‘ to the story and I believe that is clear after all the suffering we have suffered and still endure in pursuit of recovery at the light at the end of the tunnel! Reason why we better call in the Musketeers to draw a recovery plan and make the process happen smoothly, strategically and firmly. The nemesis of my story is obviously Cardinal Corona (aka special agent Covid-19) and as you may have guessed, my story is set in the Year of Our Lord 2021; the year following 2020, a year to forget.

Thirdly, good story telling needs a setting, a journey, a path. As in the yellow brick road or chocolate factory. Where are we and where do we go from here? What are the alternative routes one can take. What else is likely to happen on the road to recovery? Will there be any new obstacles that may require adjusting our plans? A third wave? A pivot back to live events or a marriage set in time for hybrid events? Anyway, we expect to see a lot of ups and downs happening here. But I also expect to see heroism, adventure, romance, discovery and a touch of nostalgia. A combination of reminiscing of how things were before the virus hit us and what we have learned over the past year in terms of re-skilling and up-skilling. One of the bigger challenges will be how we will solve the brain drain that hit the events industry. As a colleague mentioned recently, we are experiencing a diabolical drain of vital experience. People with years of gut-feel and instinct lost to our sector for good. And how will we convince people to meet again? There will be even more drama and plot twists! But each of our stories will be unique.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.” – John le Carré

And finally there will be a solution, a conclusion, a happy end. One thing is for sure, we will not make it alone up to that point, only working together will give us a chance to succeed. All for one, and one for all!

The Plot

So what is it that we can do together to promote our business, our city, our hotels & venues and other destination services? In each of our destinations we have one constant: the destination itself, our location. Be it one of the leading convention cities, an incredible resort or a surprising third tier value destination. For all four of our characters the one constant is the location and so we will all need to sell the destination first. Together! As I have always said in my trade show classes, until the client sends us an RFP, we all have the same duty, including our direct competitors, and that is to sell our destination first.

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Athos, the convention bureau or DMO, has a complicated role to play. But before they can come to the task of selling and marketing the destination, they need to put a unified brand in the market place, play the character that communicates and unites all parties and suggests the road ahead in the long term. The Athoses of the events world play an important role to clarify the position of our industry to the local community as well with a special focus on policy makers and destination ambassadors from 3 major influencing parties: the institutional, the corporate community and the academic sector who is present in the destination. In order to do that, they also have a role of quality control and education to play and in times like we are, that includes a big chunk of health and safety measures being put into place, communicated and controlled. Athos will need to be a good communicator. Both within the community as towards the potential clients. Measures of security that were put in place, schedules for reopening, sharing health and safety information and even creating a local accreditation scheme.

As indoor space is a lot under stress, primarily in terms of capacities, the ability to use public or alternative space (beyond the walls of the hotels or convention centres) plays an important role. CVBs, with their links to the local authorities need to be the driving force here. Relations with local businesses and partnerships should be strengthened too. Within their marketing role they must create tools, for the entire destination, to use so that we can employ them with a higher quality and branding in mind. Many years ago this role included making bid books and creating an image gallery but those days are long gone. With a technology sensitive audience most of this now needs to be digitalised as well.

Working together to boost new business will require communication of re-opening schedules and health and safety information put into place. CVBs can help a lot to serve as a hotel and DMC lead source. And here we need a lot of innovation from what we have seen in the past. Digital site inspections will play a major role. Some destinations have understood this already and are rolling out great destination showcases.

One fine example is what The MICE guru (a d’Artagnan) is doing in Stavanger. They are reinventing the way a destination is presented and showcasing their own virtual skills as an innovative DMC. The Digital Trip is a 2-day immersive experience that is both exciting and educational. The MICE guru is supporting their destination and entire community by shining light on all Stavanger Musketeers (or should we call them Vikings?) and showing everyone in the event industry the incredible opportunities available in their destination in a fun and interactive way. They have understood that building community is the way forward and creating joint initiatives delivering one theme, one message and one destination brand is the only option ahead. Especially for second and third tier destinations this is a valuable lesson. If you have not registered yet for the Stavanger digital showcase on 20-21st of January, you can still do so now: The digital trip . They MICE Guru also offers an educational track for other destinations wishing to do the same.

What is important here is that it is not a hotelier, a DMC or a CVB or Venue presenting its own case. It’s the entire community coming together under one theme, one message, one brand. Especially for second and third tier destinations, this may be an interesting option to consider. In this project, it is the d’Artagnan who took the initiative but it could also be a major hotelier, a conference venue or the CVB championing the way. As long as you all move together under one flag.

Photo IMEX

In the mean time, we all need to continue sharing destination teasers to our target audiences. Because when the time comes, things will speed up and lead times will be even shorter than they were before Covid-19. With the brain drain on top of it, teams are stripped to the bear and lean minimum. Sales teams will even consist of operations teams and risk to have a lot of work on their hands. So the easier and faster your (digital) sales tools will be, the more chance you will have to confirm business to our destinations. For that reason a constant flow of communications will need to be in place between all actors in your destination. No time to wait for content!. As there will still be competition amongst multiple destinations, the quicker ones to respond to an RFP will make the fairest chance to win new business. Response time will be critical. In my opinion it is more beneficial in the short term to develop close relationships within your destination between CVB, DMCs, Hotels &Venues than to go out hunting for business at trade shows. We all need to know our strengths and weaknesses and discover our combined powers and uniqueness.

If you need support, I can help. With a long standing career in each of these segments (hotels, CVB, agency & DMC) I have these insights that can help your destination collaborate better. Just drop me a note so we can start a conversation.

If you are an event planner, what’s in it for you?

First of all, you will save a lot of time for yourself when talking to a member of a team at such an integrated community. Forget about Google or DIY, you don’t have the time for this! To be honest, you can never be a destination specialist if you have not organised multiple and different events in that destination. You are buying know how and experience for a small fee from people who have tried and tested similar events to yours multiple times well before you rang their bell. You will only need to concentrate on your needs and communicate these with your counterpart at the destination. Which can be each or everyone of these integrated Musketeer teams. As for hybrid events, each destination will have their trusted partners too to help you with digital solutions, A/V choices, studio space or app vendors.

Destination specialists will be able to tell you more about value seasons or days to avoid organising your events avoiding major public events, city wide conferences or trade shows. They will all be able to hint what ‘couleur locale’ you can give to your event by tapping into the local culture, customs and cuisine. Any immersive, interactive or Covid-free features that destination teams will showcase will be to your benefit during the sourcing process.

Many industries and trades have suffered immensely during the pandemic, some have thrived. But what we all have in common is the wish, the urge and dream to meet again in person. Teams have lived and worked in solitude and getting together again for an event is both motivational and rewarding. It’s time to write a great story for yourselves now!

Lights, Camera, Action!

(PS with the picture above: as gender balance was not an issue yet in Alexandre Dumas’s time, when four men were challenged by a female spy, I had great difficulty finding a fairly balanced and politically correct picture. You will have to do with the one above for the moment.)

The Lightness of Being a Beginner

It has been a long and beautiful ride. It all started with a daring move. On June 16th, 1976 I parked my bicycle against the wall of a hotel in my hometown Bruges and walked in to ask if they had a job for me for the summer months. Just like that. In from the deep end! A cold call. The next day, I started my career in the hospitality and meetings & events industry as a dishwasher/baggage handler for the Holiday Inn Bruges. Only a few hours into the job I made my first tip! From a guy who, on first sight, looked very much stronger than me. An Austrian traveller, with plenty of luggage to carry, had asked for his baggage to be brought it up to his suite and he gave me a generous tip. At that time, Mr. Schwarzenegger had not yet come up with his famous one liner ‘I’ll be back’ but I dare hope I will see him again in Bruges one day.

I was a happy child in the sixties and seventies when Europe veered up in the post-war era. For my parents, life was tough. For my father, a shoemaker, and my mother a housewife with four children, times were not always easy. But their hard work, stamina and perseverance got us through. I was lucky enough to be able to go to college and every year dad took us on a summer trip around Europe with the whole family crammed into a small second-hand car. These were my first travels. This was the age of Eddy Merckx, the Kennedy’s, the Beatles & the Stones, Elvis, Woodstock and the hippie movement. At that moment, I did not realise yet that one of those hippies would make a big mark in my career.

Not having had the opportunity to continue my studies at university level, I had made a promise to myself that somehow, some day, some way, I was going to travel the world. That was my dream, that became my mission: travel the world and have someone else pay for it 😉. This first hotel job gave me that window of opportunity. When months later, I was working night shifts at the reception desk, Ben Ancher, our GM (or Innkeeper as we called them) discovered that I probably had some talent and certainly a desire to pursue a career as a hotelier. He promised he would help me, but first I had to read a book. He walked to his apartment and came back with Arthur Hailey’s ‘HOTEL’. A bestselling novel (that was later turned into a movie with Rod Taylor and Karl Malden) revolving around an elegant but old hotel in New Orleans.

From that moment on, the hospitality industry inspired me. After reading this novel, my mentor gave me plenty of books and training manuals to read and study. I also took some evening classes so I would be able to climb up the corporate ladder as a hotelier, a tourism and business events expert. Soon enough I ended up in sales, which was and always would be my true vocation. Beautiful years followed as a sales manager for our 4 Holiday Inn hotels franchise in Europe, the exciting 5* Don Carlos Hotel in Marbella, the launch of the Compagnie des Wagon-Lits’ Pullman International hotels in the Benelux, the expansion of the Sofitel brand in Northern Europe, Hilton and ITT Sheraton. My Hilton years in the early nineties under Fernand David were probably the most inspiring in terms of learning whilst my years in Marbella had allowed me discover the world of incentive travel and becoming a frequent traveller myself.

Personal reasons brought me back to my hometown in 1995 where I created Meeting in Brugge, the local convention bureau in the form of a joint venture between the private sector and the city of Bruges. This was also the time I got more and more involved in SITE and MPI and learned about the power of education, peer to peer learning and business networking in meetings and events industry associations. But, by the early 2000s, the historic city of Bruges was again too small for me and I moved to Brussels to take up the position of General Manager in one of the leading DMCs. 

In the meantime, I had joined the international board of SITE where I was flanked by some of the incentive industry stalwarts like Patrick Delaney, Paul Flackett, Fay Beauchine, David Ridell, Carolyn Dow, Bill Boyd, Padraic Gilligan just to name a few as well as a friendly Swiss guy called Roger Tondeur. Roger (the former hippie) had a dream, and I wanted to be part of the team that would make this dream happen. In 2006, the year that I was voted global president of SITE, I joined MCI and together with Padraic and Patrick and a handful of great colleagues we put the first global DMC brand into the market. Our promise was to service our clientele in 100+ destinations around the world. And so we did!

This all happened fourteen years ago and what a ride it has been! I travelled the world one day out of 3, built a network of about 50 Ovation Strategic Partners covering 70+ destinations. In the meantime, I remained a fervent supporter of SITE and as a past president of JMIC, I was often invited to speak on the topic of incentive travel, destination services and marketing all over the world. This also allowed me to give back to our industry community by educating young professionals, sharing best practices and mentoring future leaders. What an incredible worldwide network of event planners and professionals this has given me and what a wealth of human capital this represents.

All went well, until February 28, 2020 when I came back from a trade event in South Africa. Since that day we have been confined to our homes. For the first time in my life I have slept 270 consecutive nights in my own bed! Can you believe that? I even ran out of hotel shampoo… My derrière has not felt the comfort of an airline seat in 10 months. And this boy’s stomach has not enjoyed the wellness of a room service Club Sandwich or Caesar salad either. Furthermore, my hands have seen more alcohol than my liver! But most of all, I have not been able to do what I like most of all and that is business networking, meeting people face to face, creating connections, selling face to face. Meeting clients, doing presentations, selling and speaking at trade shows and events, organising sales missions and networking events and having fun with our multi-cultural group of partners, colleagues, prospects and clients all over the globe.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had its toll on every single person working in this industry. Dramas have unfolded with people being furloughed, families losing income, companies downsizing and some going bust. Unnumerable freelancers on which our industry depends are now looking to find a job on the outside of our industry. There has been a lot of talk about the loss of income but what is worse, is the waste of highly trained and experienced talent. When shall this end? No-one knows. Best estimates are hoping for as early as Q2 next year now that the vaccines have arrived but more likely this situation will not return to normal for at least another two years. No fun times for our industry. And how will that ‘normal’ look like then?

And yet, the last few months have not been in vain. We have seen how our community got together. We learned about new technologies, we recreated programmes and developed new activities. And we shared a lot of our learnings peer to peer in digital chats and formats. Strategies were revised and the positioning of destination services companies have been re-evaluated. All this has showed again how resilient and creative we are in this business. 

Many of us have been upskilling and reskilling over the past half year and the MCI Group have demonstrated in this respect to walk the talk rather than to sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We did not just bring our ship in the safety of the harbour, we put the vessel in the dry docks and re-fitted it for the future. In the meantime we delivered more than 1000 virtual and hybrid events around the globe and we can truly say that we start to master the game. As a company MCI must use this opportunity to improve its customer experiences (virtual, hybrid or live) within the boundaries of confinement. Covid-19 has accelerated our digital transformation and client approach. We learned that hybrid events augment the client’s ROI, allows us to expand audiences and are therefore here to stay.

With all these changes and hardship still ahead, I believe the time was right for a retreat from MCI. These times are not much fun for our event planning clients, and they have not been much of an enjoyment for our DMC partners, free-lancers, and suppliers either. We all suffered too much and it looks like this situation will not return soon to the levels of business and activity we had in destination services before the pandemic hit us. Virtual and hybrid events are now the new line of business in the short term but only a partial solution because the nature of people is to meet in person! Virtual event specialists are having most of the fun for the moment – a new profession was born. But we all long for face to face meetings to return.

Alles gaat voorbij
Maar het goede blijft altijd bij
Nu al een gemis

(Herman Van Rompuy)

But, this is certainly not the end! I look forward to remaining active as a brand ambassador for Ovation Global DMC and the MCI Group as a whole. I will certainly miss the inspiring and fun interaction with my colleagues with Ovation Global DMC and at the MCI Brussels office, my professional home away from home. MCI is going through a complete rebranding from an event management to an engagement agency and is ready and able to tackle an exciting new future. At MCI we believe the future of live events are phygital: fully integrated live and online engagement concepts. As for our Ovation Strategic Partners, often the last link in our value chain, each one of them have proved why we have chosen them years ago as our brothers and sisters in arms. They are simply the best DMCs in their destination and will remain friends forever! They made us shine and I could not have done it without them!

So, what is next? I now look forward to continue sharing my professional experiences and know how as an expert consultant to our broader destination marketing, conference, association community and hospitality industry at large for another couple of years. I will be more than happy to train, mentor or speak at international events and share knowledge as well as finding solutions together. And for someone who never missed a day of IMEX or IBTM in his life; it would be odd not to be there next year when the action is back! 

And my immediate plans for now? I am very much looking forward to spending more time with my family, bringing my youngest daughter Lola to school and the hockey club, taking care of my aging father, visiting my children and 6 grandchildren in Bruges, hiking with my buddies around Belgium and hopefully the Alps soon again. I will also further develop my skills as a gardener and transform my little jungle into a green paradise – Capability Brown & André Le Nôtre, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

My life and my career have been beautiful because of the people I met. To you, my professional family, I thank you and I wish you well. Have fun!

The Art of Serendipity

Just before the storm, Chamonix, Mont-Blanc, Refuge Albert 1er, 2707 m, June 30, 2019 with Lode Beckers & friends

Incentive Travel is a business and motivational tool for the post Covid-19 age

How healthy is your human capital post Covid-19? Many industries and trades have suffered from Covid-19 and bringing their people together will be a major need for corporations on the road of recovery. Initially an invention to boost sales organisations, incentive travel has been an established business tool for many years now. More recently it was not only used within sales organisations or to reward outperforming channel partners but has found its way for many other business purposes linked to motivation and engagement. From a pure sales driver initially, incentive travel worked up its way towards employee satisfaction, team building and loyalty within an organisation.

Covid-19 has taken its toll on the well-being of our business communities. Individuals have become more distant from a common purpose and in some cases working remotely has had its influence on mental and physical exhaustion of the individual. Stress of working from home with all it’s ‘negatives’ has settled in with many people. Often couples with children had to work side by side, monitoring conference calls and high energy youngsters at the same time. Others have been working in isolation for many hours. All these people need time for a break! Now that schools have re-opened, corporations should probably look at responsible motivational live activities again.

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Covid-19 has left its emotional and often physical marks on many people. We may have found some extra time for ourselves and re-discovered our own neighbourhood or country. We may have saved many hours in traffic. But we also have had to cope with new stress factors such as solving ‘new’ digital matters and issues, the insecurity of being furloughed or put on part-time work whilst the bills kept coming in. Teams have had ‘Teams’ to help communicate with colleagues and partners (once they got to understand how ‘Teams’ works) but still, people of the same team were not working at the same time or really lacked the physical and eye-to-eye connection. Zoom fatigue has settled in many moons ago already. With many people in traineeship being sent back home, even more tasks were added on our own people too, creating extra pressure.

Digital First

In the first six months of the pandemic, companies have primarily focussed on damage control, trying to keep a fair balance between cost and income. Many businesses have reduced manpower due to the economic downfall and so even more tension was put on their troops. Staff and budget restrictions have been necessary in many cases for business to survive and re-group. Smart corporations looked very quickly in how they could service their clients within the new and unfavourable environment. In our group we quickly realised that the road to digital services, in which we had invested heavily in the past few years, was the only way we would be able to pivot revenue creation: from live to virtual. It was also the only way that our clients (corporations, associations and institutional) would be able to convey with their communities and vice versa. This required a complete shift in organisation as well because, to go fully digital, you need different skills and mindsets than the ones we had ‘inhouse’ to produce live events. So, we created an extra burden again on the teams around the globe to quickly learn (primarily from each other) on what works and what does not for our clients. On how creating a virtual experience is so much different than creating life events. It is not about the technology used but about the neuroscience-based reflections on how to create virtual experiences. In this respect please check my June 22 article on LinkedIn (

For people in leadership this has been a difficult period too. Often, they have had to take decisions to reduce staff numbers, which left an emotional burden on their hearts. Working with remote teams also did not give them the opportunity to fully appreciate and support their teams’ efforts. Or staff members to fully express their feelings with superiors or peers. Working to plan to achieve budgets and other business KPI’s has become a real challenge for many. This has been a challenging period to motivate and inspire their squads and become motivated and inspired themselves by their teams’ input.

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In the upcoming recovery period, many personal development and management tools will prove their business case. A big opportunity for all those trainers and coaches out there. Companies have been like big ships that were brought back to the safety of the harbour to sit out the storm. Now has come the time to plan to sail again and what better way to motivate organisations than by using travel and event incentives. By creating an incremental revenue, business incentives pay for themselves, so they should not present any budget issue. Now is the right time to use them!

Organisations need energy boosts. Those with a healthy company culture will have the advantage to pick up fast again. Those with cross company learning programmes will not have stopped communication and educating during Covid-19 albeit by working online and driving self-education.

Where do we go from here?

First, digital is not going away! A new destination has been put on the global map and its name is ‘Cloud’. Whatever we will do in the future in terms of business events and incentive travel will have a heavy ‘Cloud’ component to it. Pre, during and past the event. The way organisations will have to energise through business events will always be a combination of a destination (local, short haul or long haul) and online. In the way we bring together colleagues and leadership, the personal connection and team building, the appreciation and connectedness will require coming together in the real world. It is the only way that really works, and the past half year are only proof to the matter. Now is the time to build trust again by communicating in the first place, by merging valuable contributions with trust in the organisation. Why? Because it is time to boost common goals and values again with personal initiatives, drive, and competitiveness. Job satisfaction and loyalty need to be rewarded and motivated. As much as families felt the need to travel again and breath a different air, eat the local food and enjoy the visual eye candy of a destination, so much is true as well for meetings and incentive travel programmes. Engaging audiences, whichever the support, digital or physical will remain an important task for any organisation. Capturing the attention of audiences imposes the use of interactivity. Probably these audiences will be more local or regional than what we have seen before in the first phase. But smaller ‘live’ audiences will be complemented by larger ‘online’ participation which creates new opportunities once again. In a recent interview with the Swiss Convention Bureau, Sebastien Tondeur, CEO of the MCI Group stated: ‘What is certain is that post Covid-19, 10% of our professions will disappear and 100% of our jobs will be different from what they used to be’.

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I have always found ‘Dépaysement’ a beautiful word in the French language; it means more than just its literal translation in English of ‘change of scenery’. We need to go away to focus, to absorb, to energise, to reward dedication and most of all, to let serendipity play its beneficial role and make us happy again. Going to inspiring places with different people who are willing to exchange their interests, their knowledge, their dreams, and abundance will create those moments of serendipity that will create the future for themselves and their organisations.

Hugo Slimbrouck, Lillois-Witterzée, September 11, 2020

DMCs in the Time of Cholera

NY Times

(After ‘El amor en los tiempos del colera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Fifty years, nine months, and four days. That is how long Florentino had to wait, after first declaring his love to Fermina, to finally marry her. The book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was written in a style called magical realism. The surrealistic novel that we all ended up in six months ago will hopefully not last that long. But by the end of our book, it looks like the world in which we now live will be different from the one in which we felt comfortable only half a year ago.

DMCs – the need for a new business model?

With the drastic reduction of international events, one of the questions we have been asking ourselves lately is whether the key roles of a DMC can retain meaning. Local logistics and production, creative events and even run of the mill activities such as transfers and dine arounds are not happening. Should we change our business model?

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Digitalizing DMCs and Events

At the start of 2020 our company had just come out of the two most successful years of growth and profit in the history of the MCI group. There had been a plan, years ago, to move to digital – and our most recent version of this plan put even more emphasis on digital transformation. Given current circumstances, we may hit our target well ahead of time. However, until Covid19 hit, clients did not easily follow our recommendations into this digital revolution. Nowadays, they absolutely do, and it has been a complete pivot from live to virtual for many of the events we’ve managed over the past few months.

Most people agree that a virtual event cannot replace the Face2Face experience. A virtual meeting requires different planning and new assets. One also needs to upskill on online learning and engagement techniques; skills that a traditional meeting planner does not possess. The format is different, and one needs to safeguard the value proposition and experience for the participant. In terms of marketing, they are easier but different to promote, and more likely to reach much bigger audiences.

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Hybrid – the golden opportunity

Hybrid events, I believe, are the trend for the future post Covid19. In hybrid events, the virtual part is basically an extension of the Face2Face. One mixes participants present in the destination, with those who are remote. In this scenario, DMCs can add to the flavour of the destination so that even those who are not present still get a taste and touch of it. A friend of mine has recently created a chocolate and wine tasting team event. The chocolate and wine are shipped to the virtual participants in advance. The event then takes place as a day filled with multiple sessions, followed by a Michelin-star pastry chef taking participants through the chocolate and wine pairing experience. This is a great example of improving engagement, virtually.

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The Power of Virtual Connections

I believe that the innovation happening in terms of Virtual/Hybrid events is the new opportunity for DMCs to discover. Both in the way they manage their own business, as well as in the services they provide to clients. It starts with a virtual site inspection or fam trip. Here it is important, in my opinion, that all ‘incoming’ players play the game together. Selling and promoting a destination is a joint task for hoteliers, major venues, convention bureaus and DMCs. Sell your destination first remains the golden rule! As long as the RFP has not been sent out, we all have the obligation to work and partner together to promote our destination above others. One fine example of this was a short video I got in my emails last month, showcasing Slovenia. Another one was the virtual site inspections that the Faroe Islands did two months ago, and a live virtual venue showcase from Norway which focused on sustainability – including a DJ setting the mood, a walk on the beach and an incredible food display. Destination videos are of a prime importance now and I have seen that most DMOs have invested in this recently. Virtual site inspections are the next thing. With the right technology, a destination specialist can tour venues and hotels on behalf of their clients, even being directed by the client if they wish. However, the quality will not come from the technology alone. If you do not have a story to tell, it is not worth the investment.

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“For virtual site inspections to replace an actual client visit, it is important not only to deliver your message and show places of interest, but to give the client a true sense of orientation. This includes distances, timings and a suggested flow of events, so the client can feel safe in their knowledge and can get answers to their questions in real time.” Heidi Legein at The MICE guru, our Ovation Strategic Partner for Norway

The crisis has forced companies (both agencies and DMCs) to become more efficient and agile. Virtual site inspections, done right, save all parties crucial time & money and are better for the environment. And, while face to face sales and marketing will always play an important part in the future of our profession, the budget for doing so today is unrealistic. A better balance between digital and in person sales will become inevitably crucial for the financial health of a DMC.

“The crisis has forced all of us to re-evaluate the need for large offices and such fixed overheads, instead investing in better yield projects like training & upskilling our employees, getting certified and updating technological abilities.” Eda Özden of MEP Destination Business Solutions

Applying Neuroscience Principles to Virtual Experience Design

Guest author Avinash Chandarana, MCI Group, Learning & Development Director

How can a virtual learning experience maintain sufficient levels of attention? How can engagement be driven in the online space? Applying neuroscience principles to virtual experience design can lead to higher levels of engagement, content retention and ROI. 

People attend events because they want to see, learn, share, and network with peers. While formats differ and need to adapt for the online space, it is key to ensure that the virtual edition is an experience that delivers the intended expectations. To achieve that, the brain becomes the central focus of online experience design. 

Why the brain? The brain is our primary tool for learning. It’s the core of human thought, memory, consciousness and emotion. So, it only makes sense to align online session design with how the attendees brain functions and invariably connects with an online experience. 

Applying basic principles and research in neuroscience, adult learning and today’s consumer learner behaviour can have a great impact on the design of effective online experiences. Weaving these principles into an overall design strategy leads to higher levels of engagement, content retention and ROI. 

Here are 6 neuroscience-based tips to help you design relevant and engaging virtual experiences for your attendees. 

1. Break content into bite-sized chunks 

Chunking is the concept to remember. According to a renowned psychology paper, the number of information a person can consciously process is seven, plus or minus two. Just as trying to carry too many things at once might cause you to drop something, requiring learners to grasp too many concepts at once can cause them to ‘drop’ that information. The chunking technique enables the brain to digest and assimilate content more effectively, making it far easier to integrate into long-term memory.  

2. Introduce a jolt 

The common assumption is that during any face-to-face sessions, attention is at its highest in the first 10 to 12 minutes and then drops as the attendee gets tired of concentrating or gets distracted. In online sessions, the attention span can be as short as 3 to 4 minutes.   

However, studies show that the attention is greater when the speaker introduces something new or different, such as humour or visual aid, thus breaking predictive behaviour. This element of change, ideally involving some sort of interactive feature, is essential in a virtual environment. 

3. Enhance the relevancy of learning 

The relevancy of a session should become obvious within the first five minutes by showing learners that it will address their concern. This is because relevance plays a crucial role in cognition. When information is perceived as relevant, cognitive efforts significantly increase, leading to much higher cognitive effects. 

4. The spacing effect 

In 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found out that people forget a whopping 80% of material learned within 24 hours. This discovery led to the so-called “Forgetting Curve”. In contrast to crammed, intense learning, learning that takes place over an extended period gives to the brain enough ‘space’ to take in new facts. Attendees will experience greater success by spreading out their content review and recall over time, instead of engaging in one-time, overloaded top-down sessions. 

5. Create a multisensory experience 

People learn best when all their senses are engaged and when their imagination is most active. Experts confirm that sessions that use two or more senses are more effective than those using only one sense. 

Help online attendees create strong and lasting memories by making them imagine colours, hear sounds and experience emotions. Using creative virtual event design, consider activities that require movement, engage taste buds or even the sense of smell.  

6. Trigger the right emotions 

Learning isn’t merely cerebral – it’s emotional, too. Researchers have confirmed how emotions affect mental processes.  Put simply – adults will learn and engage if they care. They’ll pay attention if they feel encouraged. They’ll connect to others if they feel welcomed. Therefore, emotions are too entrenched in the learning process to ignore them as an important learning factor. Triggering the right emotions can help attendees learn better and increase overall engagement during a session. 

At MCI, we recognise the challenges that shifting from a physical setting to an online experience entail for organisations. Through our expertise in both online and offline experiences, we guide organisations to successfully transform their conferences, meetings and events to ensure the highest value for all stakeholders to learn how to apply neuroscience to a virtual experience that achieves your objectives. 

Guest author Avinash Chandarana, MCI Group, Learning & Development Director

Crisis, what crisis?

Never waste the benefits of a great pandemic! Prof. Dirk De Wachter, a well know Belgian psychiatrist and author just published his latest book in which he wishes everybody a ‘pandemic of consciousness’. Because of the Covid-19 crisis, we have had time and have been forced to think about things. Everyone has had creative ideas, and nobody believes that everything will be the same again after this. Or will it? Have not we learned from the ‘history repeats itself’ syndrome and going back to our old habits? Many of us have been thinking about overconsumption recently, as shopping became extremely limited. We went back to local producers and local shops, although we could have done that before. Instead of that we settled for the easy solutions. The same applies to mass tourism; leisure travel will probably never be the same again. But what can we learn and what opportunities for the meetings and events industry can we draw from this?

De Wachter hopes that we will think more about the WHY of travelling (I guess he as well watched or read Simon Sinek’s inspirational thoughts). Our future travels should become more conscious experiences. The times of sun, sea and sinful beverages are fading away. Going to another country to do, drink and eat the same as we do at home are supposed to be a thing of the past. Meeting other cultures, being in touch with history and art make our live better. Some trendwatchers state that that people will look with more stillness, durability and sustainability towards life and business, but I do not believe it will change that much. It is going to be too easy to fall back into the old patterns, the old ways of doing things. In the short term for sure we will see people (re)discovering their own country, visiting their own museums, and enjoying the local produce of the land. But once the gates are open again, many will fall back into the old and easy habits.

What’s in it for us now?

In my opinion, the same will apply in our meetings and professional events industries, wherever we are. Due to constraints we will not travel far in the immediate future. We will not be in massive gatherings either. But there is a market in our own countries and regions that we can tap into and who will not travel abroad this time. That is why I believe the market for the foreseeable future will be a domestic, regional even continental market if we are lucky.

I’m writing this article in preparation of a SITE Africa Summit tomorrow where we will debate what opportunities lie ahead for the meetings and events business in Africa. Many of us have not sold to our local market in the past. We have always focused on the long haul inbound or outbound markets. China, the United States and Canada as well as Europe have been the major generating markets for Africa’s tourism and events sector. Unfortunately they also happen to be the highest hit countries by the pandemic. Now regions will have to depend on their closest allies and neighbours. Africa for Africa, Europe for Europe etc. Therefor our national or city convention bureaus and tourism boards must change strategy and create a new and positive imaging, appealing to the short haul markets. We have the advantage that social media are an easy and cheap way of doing this and most of us, who were not social media conscious before, now have had the time and learned to navigate the digital newswires.

At the same time, destination marketeers will need to continue focussing on a number of topics that were hot in the pre-Covid19 age but often put on the backburner: sustainability, ecological load and impact and an economic recession that was announced already before the pandemic on top of it. After the Covid tsunami, we risk of being hit by an even bigger recession tsunami and whatever is left after that will risk destruction due to the climate crisis. 

The power of face to face

People travel to dissociate, to take a distance from things and focus for a short while on a different topic or other people. Our meetings and events industries are not so different from that. We go out to a meeting to focus, to learn, to network with people whom we are not dealing with daily. Or to reinforce distant relationships with a face-to-face experience, using all the senses we must understand, share our questions or ‘sell’ our ideas.

With what we have learned during our months of confinement, it is up to us, the industry, to set the new standards, streamline new ways of doing things. Support, letting people work together in a hybrid way. Governments need to be facilitators for this, they must stimulate, support, and create new chances and opportunities. In many countries for instance, unique venues and palaces are not open to the public. Governments can support the industry of giving access to these unique and iconic places. Places of heritage are the jewels in each destination’s crown.

What should government support look like?

In the first phase, governments have tried to support the victims of the Corona crisis in the short term with social security packages and funds. The European Community was leading in this, but some countries have produced almost no support at all. Massive lay-offs and workers being furloughed were in nobody’s plans and for those who forecasted a mini-max in the first quarter of the year have all seen the worst-case scenario becoming reality. The accommodation, restaurant, and cafés industry, together with the business and public events industry have been hit the hardest and were almost wiped off the board. And it is not over yet. Some of these support packages will need to be extended up to at least the end of 2020. It does not suffice to open borders and accommodation again; our industry also has lead times of at least 3 months leading up to an event to cover. Will our business survive? Do we have sufficient reserves? Will we get institutional support?

Now that the gates are opening again, the Belgian government for instance just gave a blanc cheque of 300 Euros to each Belgian; to be spent in hotels, cafés or restaurants or in cultural events. Thai people got the equivalent of 3000 Baht and in Japan the government has handed out cheques of 20.000 Yen plus offered 50% discount on domestic air, sea- or land transport. Blisters on a wound and in political terms leading to a get better feeling of the population. But do they help our live events industry? On top of it, allowing manifestations to take place whilst we keep our doors shut of meeting- and event venues has had very negative feedback from the public.

Rigid health and safety protocols need to be put into place

In the end, it’s up to us to come with solutions and suggestions. In the tourism and professional events industry tourist guides and DMCs will probably be the first enforcers on safety measures in travelling and accommodating. With a first task to safeguard the health and safety of their clients and their client’s clients, the ultimate travellers, visitors, and delegates to an event. An important task for governments will be to support training in this matter. But we need to draft the content!

For African nations, tourism has become an important sector in the last couple of decades. In an article I recently read that, according to the World Bank, one in 20 jobs is in travel and tourism related industries. The vulnerability of our industry comes easy but as we learned from the past, we are also in an industry that bounces back quickly after a disastrous period. Resilience and recovery are opportunities for growth. But as a counter note, we must remain vigilant for the impact of the traditional and social media that can distort the picture even more.

How safe is it?

This is the main question that any event client or organiser will ask. How secure is the destination, what measures have been taken? What we have learned from previous disasters (natural, health, terrorism, etc.) is that this is the first question that will be raised by potential clients. Companies will raise the questions for their staff or guests and make sure that their insurance company will give a go green sign. Legal and insurance now play a massive role and that is the reason that the health and safety topic is a conditio sine qua non. We will only have certainty in about a year from now when hopefully the crisis is over. The cancellation of IMEX America this week is once again a sign that our clients are not ready yet to make these decisions.

Going to a new hierarchy of needs in the meetings industry?

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) came with a disruption study last week revealing threats to run incentive programmes. One of the main findings was that Covid19 was not the only threat they discovered. Severe weather, travel hazards, politics and economic downturns all claim their share of the disruption cake. But in all instances, safety matters prevailed. After lockdowns and confinement, people crave to go out and meet again in person. There will be a greater focus on new experiences at safe destinations with shorter traveling times. And until a vaccine is found and distributed at large, numbers of attendance will remain low.

What is important is that the concept of incentive travel will remain important as it is a motivational tool for higher performance. Corporations will continue to use them, but content and destinations will probably change in the short term. After all, incentive travel is a much stronger tool than merchandise or gifts although in the short-term companies may go for the safe option. Unless we can be creative and offer solutions within our own or neighbouring countries. Travel incentives remain the most cherished reward.

According to some research done by Skift, there is also a shift in priorities. Meaningful connections, entertainment and content now lead the way. Content – who used to be king – has dropped down from the first spot and networking as such has been replace by much more meaningful connections.

Recommendations in the short term

In the meantime, stay connected! Your clients and prospects have more time on their hands to listen and debate with you than they have in their normally stressful agendas. This is the time to reach out to them, inspire them, question them.

Call or meet with your suppliers, or partners as I prefer to say. Time to develop new products and services – be creative! Time to review terms and conditions in your contracts because I promise you, this is not the last crisis either. Use what we have learned when we were cancelling and rescheduling business projects with lots of empathy.

One thing that we all learned during these Covid 19 months is that pivoting to digital was a short term solution of turning live events to online events. Some of us had already taken that road and it has been the strategy of our company to become a master of the game. These digital solutions are here to stay and they will continue to be perfected.

As business owners, we must be vigilant and focus on community development as well as digital, influence and data solutions. Take care of your core teams, your true capital, because you will need them soon. Train them, work with them on new solutions. Health and safety and first aid is definitely a learning topic that you will be able to monetise later. 

I have often said that the profession of a DMC is changing and it is probably the business unit that is most under threat for the moment. DMCs that have not changed their traditional business model to an added value and consultative model and not embraced technology, as a tool but also as a revenue generating item are now in trouble. Digital solutions are easy to sell but you need to master them first yourself or have partners who do. Some of us for instance are looking into and testing the technology of virtual site inspections. A tool that can help you now to win business for tomorrow when our clients can travel again. But let’s be honest, there is nothing better than meeting face to face. Big virtual hug in the meantime!

The Morning After

Most of the magic that we have been seeing for the past few weeks has been virtual. Except for the beauty of the land that some of us (re)discovered in the proximity of our house or just in one’s garden. Or the enhanced connection with one’s own family members, living under the same roof. For the rest we have been living and operating in a virtual environment and to be honest, most are fed up with it by now. If something has proven the power of face to face communication, it must be this virus. So, where do we go from here?

I participated in a few internal and external online call to action sessions over the past few weeks and I did learn a few things. For one thing, this shows again how important it is to be part of a global meetings industry association such as SITE, PCMA or ICCA. True membership value!

So, what did I learn so far? First: stop dreaming, nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, that after weeks of confinement, ideas on how the future will look like in the events industry are crystalizing. And our collective innovation process is working overtime. There is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. Question is, how long is that bl**dy tunnel?

In the short and medium term, events have been postponed (and some postponed again). Some have been re-negotiated. Others – too many others – have been cancelled. Some projects have been turned from a live event in a virtual event with often surprising, innovative and multiplying effects. In the meantime, within our companies, client and supplier contracts and sales conditions are being rewritten. Standard operating procedures reviewed. ‘Health and safety’ instructions appear to have turned into ‘health, hygiene and safety’ rules and regulations. And a lot of on-line learning is taking place now that we have time to spare on it and are not running as fast as we usually do in this ‘rat race’ which we love so much. 

Back to the future

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The consensus is that life will never be the same again, so why would our events industry be different? Not that everything will turn to virtual – people are totally fed up with meeting online. (If someone mentions the word ‘pivoting’ again I am going to scream!) Conferences and meetings will never be the same again. They will most likely re-size, re-focus, re-design and turn to complete hybrid experiences with a mix of face-to-face and virtual interaction. As a forward-looking company, we have been ‘educating’ our clients already for quite a while, it was all written down in our ‘painted picture’ story. It’s the style of the house at MCI. Some clients have been reluctant, because of vision, time or budget pressure, to the change that we have suggested for a number of years. Others now cannot wait to apply that change asap! Everyone now realizes that there is another way to do it, to the better.

Immerse yourself

What will never go away is the event experience, both live and virtual. This needs to be redesigned to the benefit of the participants. Because the virtual experience must be as close to exciting as being there on-site. Which is a tough cookie because how are we going to counter the part of the conference or meeting experience that is the destination immersion. A lot of the success of an association conference, corporate meeting or incentive travel programme lies in the social interaction beyond the meeting space. The peer to peer learning in the corridors, the ‘eureka’ moments during coffee breaks and lunches when one learns that others have found a solution to the problem you had. The fun and laughter in between, professional friendships that last longer. Cross-cultural exchanges within the group are so enriching. The added touch of unique experiences in the destination with locals, with cuisine, culture and sports have an energizing effect on the overall impact and result of an event.

Destination Wizards – the magical powers of a DMC

The magic of the events industry is in the fact that one can experience transformation in unique environments. Content creation, connecting with others is all set in an atmosphere of people meeting people and against a non-virtual background of a unique destination experience. A major reason why event planners, corporate or third party, should involve their DMC in the event creation process from the beginning. Because DMCs have the unique and tested answers on how the delivery of a message can be done through a unique local event experience.

d’Artagnan and the Musketeers

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Another thing that will change is that we will hopefully and no longer, ever, ever, talk about buyers and suppliers but see each event stakeholder as a shareholder in the success of the event. We are all part of the same team, all for one and one for all! It took a drama to realise this, I guess.

As for the re-birth of our profession, we have a unique advantage and that is that we collectively know our clients as well as our destination well. The gathering of data is an absolute necessity to deliver a tailor-made event. With all respect for GDPR regulations, this data is the holy grail for a perfect event. Transparency from pre- to post-event will be key.

Meet & Greet 2.0

Meeting etiquette will change as well. Corona must have meant the dead of buffet luncheons (I hope). Or even dead of traditional ‘theatre’ or ‘classroom’ set-ups? Pre-event screenings will become as important as badge scanning. The power of a handshake becoming a thing of the past and for Belgians to kiss each and every one 3 times for sure! Signage will have to re-enforce the health and safety measures on site. Conference room set-ups will change too. Questions to be answered on maximum attendance within a space. Conference and banqueting capacity meeting and dining space will need to be adjusted to the new regulations on social distancing. Quid how hotels and conference venues will be able to secure the safety of our guests. And how shall we handle queues at check in, registration desks or food stations? Should we have nurses on site and train our staff even more on health care topics and sanitation? Maximum number of people in an elevator? Branded face masks, plastic gloves, sanitation stations – new sponsorship items? And so on …

We now have come to a level playing field that has been completely flattened. Now it is up to us to create the new ways our events industry will work in the future. We have this in our own hands! And we will have to re-consider everything. From the use of space and venues to new ways of payment or deposit schedules.

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For this transparency and openness will be key and flexibility will be necessary on all levels. And remember that those who participate on the digital side will need to experience similar stage design. Not easy when you loose senses, the ones of touching, sensing and tasting. So, a lot of emphasis will have to be put on the visual and audio excellence. A major opportunity to shine and share for our production teams, camera operators and videographers.

After the healthcare crisis will be over, we will still need to tackle the economic downfall that is due to come and that will be an important factor in how we do business in the future. Our association members, corporate event delegates and incentive winners are all part of this process. We must involve them from the start in the re-design process of our industry. For the moment, most of them have been forgiving because all this was nobody’s fault. But that forgiveness will soon fade away if we do not come up with innovative solutions for the future of events.

Delegates, guests and participants will want to feel safe and comfortable. So ahead of each hybrid event experience we will need to start thinking about how participants will be physically (even through virtual contact) experience the event. I believe that meetings will become more local or regional and that part of the global sharing will be more virtual. Here one must ask the question if for instance a doctor who attends a conference will have the same motivation, involvement and focus if this meeting turns from physical to digital. That for me is a major silver lining for our industry. The connection and engagement will surely be different. 

Meetings Matter

The Meetings Industry consists of a broad range of organizers, suppliers and facilities engaged in the development and delivery of meetings, conferences, exhibitions and other related events which are held in order to achieve a range of professional, business, cultural or academic objectives.

The Meetings Industry is a distinct economic sector, with its own unique organizations, standards, priorities and communications vehicles. It is comprised largely of small to medium sized organizations which are not as formally integrated as many other industries; however, it achieves a high degree of functional integration through extensive, ongoing exchanges amongst industry organizations and via regular forums which enable a collective approach to reviewing and acting on industry related issues. The various components of the Industry are also linked through the functional interactions that necessarily take place in the course of organizing and staging events. The result is a high degree of continuity and consistency in what is a complex and diverse area of business activity.

The Meetings Industry necessarily interacts with many other sectors in the process of carrying out its activities. In particular, it works closely with the businessacademic and professional communities who represent important users of its products and who depend on meetings activities in order to achieve their own objectives. However, it has traditionally also had ongoing relationships with the tourism and hospitality sectors, which it supports by generating incremental demand for travel, accommodation and destination services and with which it often interacts in the processes of service delivery and destination promotion.

The activities of the Meetings Industry are an increasingly significant element in the future growth of the global economy, an essential part of the spread of knowledge and professional practices and a key factor in building better understanding and relations amongst different regions and cultures. Specifically, the Meetings Industry is a key component of the knowledge economy, acting as a vehicle for business, professional and academic communities to achieve the interactions required to affect the knowledge transfer, collaboration and information dissemination that is the primary purpose of these events.

The primary value of the Meetings Industry is the outcomes generated for organizers and participants from meetings associated activities. These benefits also transfer to communities and governments in the form of significant advancements in social and economic progress. The economic benefits that result from both direct and indirect spending associated with these events is a major secondary value arising from the Meetings Industry. In addition, the Industry also acts as a vehicle for local communities to achieve their own economic, investment and social objectives by using events to attract knowledge, expertise and investment that are consistent with their overall development aspirations.

The industry recognizes that to be sustainable into the future it must achieve a greater level of recognition for the benefits it delivers in relation to global economic and professional development, specifically:

  • Providing stimulus to global economic growth by creating forums for new product development, exchange and marketing;
  • Facilitating academic, technical and professional advancement by encouraging the global development and exchange of research, knowledge, standards and procedures;
  • Supporting communities by facilitating access to global knowledge and expertise and attracting new investment potential;
  • Enhancing and supporting transportation, hospitality and tourism infrastructure by creating an economically important rationale for non-leisure travel;
  • Promoting international cooperation and collaboration by encouraging and sustaining business and professional networks, and
  • Supporting economic transition by facilitating retraining and professional development on a global basis.

As a result, the Meetings Industry is becoming much more active in increasing awareness of its roles in this regard and putting in place the structures and activities to support such initiatives.

As a global enterprise  the Meetings Industry has long recognized the importance of sustainability and environmental concerns, and as a result has developed extensive procedures and guidelines to actively address these issues as they relate to its own activities. However, it also acknowledges and promotes the essential importance of face to face interactions in developing and maintaining personal and organizational relations as well as the efficiencies achieved by addressing business and professional outcomes through group activities such as conventions and exhibitions rather than the individual travel that would otherwise be required. 

More information and inspiration can be found on the website of JMIC, The Joint Meetings Industry Council –

Are You Talking to Me?

Designing an incentive program begins with understanding the customer, his or her business, the companies’ leadership and a profile of the program participants. Knowing your customer and your customers’ customer should be the basis for this motivational management tool. Let us help you determine whether an incentive program is a good fit for the business goals of your client. We will then explore how to build the program to meet these goals.

So let’s start by exploring a typical customer situation: your client is thinking Mauritius is the right destination for an incentive trip to reward the top salespeople of the company. Depending on the business need, Mauritius may or may not be a great incentive travel program. Before you move to design, you first need to analyse your audience, not only the client’s company and situation but also the potential participants to the trip. You will need to understand their business and the profile of the participants before proposing any incentive program. Your questions to your customer should include a research into the business context; this may include product quality, distribution channels, marketing campaigns, company growth and competition. Find out how stable the company is and how they built success. What is their competitive position? They could have a mediocre product, brand or manufacturing capacity that cannot keep up with demand. An incentive program will not address the issue.

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If this is not the first time they plan to use an incentive programme you will need to analyse previous programs (destinations, participants, successes). Was the program deployed by in-house staff or an outside provider? This is important to understand because it is harder to position an incentive program when a past program was expensive or ineffective. Asking questions about past experiences will also help you understand whether the incentive programs were designed and deployed to change behaviours.

Top management buy in

Find out how the commitment of senior leadership contributed to the changed behaviour. Was leadership involved in the design of the program? And how involved were they in its implementation fazes – before, during and after. This is a critical element for success. Every person in the company involved in the program has to be engaged, from the CEO on down must be vested in the program. For example, the VP of Sales may be responsible for a sales incentive program, but if his or her superior isn’t behind it then it will have limited success. Ideally you may want to get in front of the executive committee – CEO, CFO, senior person in sales and production, HRM…. If the program is deployed but not reinforced by the leadership team, the potential for change and success will diminish.

Does the company culture acknowledge successes and reward innovation? Is reward and recognition part of its everyday fabric? If the incentive program is a new business strategy, you will need to provide more support (and communication) throughout the program. Who does the company want to target for the program? What type of program do they have in mind? Is it a programme to boost sales teams, non-sales teams, distributors or channels partners or consumers? The target audience may have different types and levels of motivation. This will also help you understand the primary emphasis of the program: is it reward, recognition or both? In terms of budget and financial goals, can the organization afford this performance solution? You will need to examine what’s achievable in terms of profitability and productivity and what incremental profits can be applied to the implementation and budget of the incentive program. 

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In summary, you need to thoroughly research the business before you start discussing the design of the qualification rules or even considering the destination(s) of choice. During the initial meeting, ask questions to get the perspective of the leadership team – and the potential participants – to better understand the problem that the incentive program is trying to solve. Once you understand the customer in terms of business context, you will need to look at their customers or participants to understand what will motivate the potential qualifiers in the incentive program. And this can be very different from generation to generation or from country to country.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to motivation – and no one right answer to any of these situations. People have different motives – and levels of motivation. What’s appealing to a 26-year-old from Belgium may have little appeal to a 45-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio. Plus the fact that each generation has different cultural backgrounds, goals, life influences and behaviours.

It’s my generation!

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So, what role do generational differences play in motivation and engagement? Traditionalists grew up in a “do without era,” believing in hard work and sacrifice. They want their actions to connect with the good of the company. What is important to them is reward, service and loyalty. This makes them primarily motivated by a sense of self-worth. Baby Boomers grew up in a healthy economic era and actions are often defined by the job. Boomers need to see how their actions make a difference. What’s important to them are rewards to promote and recognize performance. They are motivated by a sense of achievement. Generation X grew up in an era of distrust for national institutions. Gen X wants flexibility and to work on their schedule. What’s important to them are rewards to recognize personal needs and goals. This generation is motivated by a sense of security. Generation Y workers now start outnumbering Gen X and Baby Boomers. This generation grew up in an era of financial boom. Gen Y connects responsibility with personal goals. Important to them are rewards equal tangible evidence of credibility. Gen Y are motivated by a sense of greater good and in that sense they reconnect with the traditionalists.

How does understanding generational difference help you to adapt the incentive program? You will need to make sure that you don’t make judgments based on your own personal experiences. Two individuals of the same age, working in the same industry, with the same educational background may be motivated by entirely different goals. There is a natural tension in this part of the research process – one can make generalizations about the audience characteristics but one will need to ask questions to confirm. Why are these elements relevant in designing an incentive program? Questions you will ask will help to determine the motivation behind each characteristic. They may cover age range, average income, experience, education, lifestyle, where they live and what industry they work in.

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In order to engage incentive participants and truly “wow” the qualifiers, you will need to understand what appeals and motivates the audience. If possible, try to talk with the potential qualifiers about what they would like or expect as part of an incentive program. While you’re interested in delivering results, a successful incentive travel program is much more about the people involved. Information about them can be gathered through surveys and face to face conversations. With surveys you can quickly gather information from the target audience about interests. However, you may not learn anything new. Respondents typically answer based on what they already know. Supplement surveys with face-to-face conversations are therefore highly recommended.

The Influence of culture on incentive programs

Culture is not a characteristic of individuals; it encompasses a number of people who share the same experiences – a group, a tribe, a geographic region, a national minority, or a nation. It is always important to understand the cultural influence of the audience and be sensitive to your own assumptions and background when trying to understand others. It is also important not to purely stereotype and assume that because a person is of a different age, sex, nationality, or ethnicity they will be “different” and conform to a stereotype. For example, most Dutch men are taller than Asian men. This generalization is informative when you’re designing doorways or cars, but it doesn’t guarantee that everyone fits the generalization. And not all Dutch men and women are 1m90 tall. Think about your own experience in dealing with different cultures. What are the “unwritten rules”? Factors that exist in one culture or country may not be present in another. These frameworks are useful in understanding the differences in cultures and by extension, the difference in motivations.

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You need to realize that a national culture does not mean that everyone in the nation has the same characteristics assigned to the culture. With businesses operating in multiple countries, one can be exposed to more differences in one’s audience. You will need to be sensitive to these cultural differences. And cultural backgrounds influence our communication – take for example, a typical cocktail party networking question: What do you do? Americans tend to respond initially in terms of occupation and then identify the company in which they work. The more collectivistic Japanese would reverse this order. Time orientation is also a degree to which members of a national culture will defer gratification to achieve long-term success.

How would you adapt incentive programs based on these cultural influences? How would you make your incentive programs relevant for a diverse global audience with different values and motivations? Communication needs relate to both verbal and non-verbal communication. In instances where there is potential for misunderstanding, one would provide more communication rather than to assume clarity. Spell out expectations because communication also relates to the degree of emotion and assertiveness. Flexibility and structure of the experience relates to the amount of uncertainty or ambiguity. Some cultures avoid uncertainty by establishing more formal rules and frowning on behaviours and ideas that deviate from the accepted.

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In terms of group or individualactivities, people in an individualistic society tend to view themselves in terms of their own self-interests, goal and accomplishments; typically, they do not associate with those outside the group where they belong. People in a collectivist society on the other hand tend to align their personal goals and interests to those of the group or organization as a whole. The US, Belgium and France for instance are individualistic cultures, whereas Japan, Korea and Taiwan are predominantly collectivist. Regional differences have direct influence ongeneral qualification criteria and specific motivational elements.

When working in incentive travel one needs torealize that we’re all motivated differently. For example by achievement, affiliation, or power. Culture also influences our motivation. Due to the differences in both organizational and national cultures, your incentive programs need levels and options so individuals have alternatives – perhaps even rolling out different qualification criteria in a country based on region – due to the characteristics of the audience.

Audiences for motivation programs have significantly changed over the years, and so have incentive travel participants. A one-size-fits all approach is simply not realistic in today’s diverse and ever-changing market. Neither is it plausible from a fiscal standpoint for an organization to offer everything that is perceived as a motivational value to everyone. We are all motivated differently. Factors such as environmental, cultural, social, and organizational elements affect motivation. You need to first understand the characteristics, qualities and needs of your audience, and then create an incentive program that will produce the most success within that environment.