The Relationship between Incentive Travel and Motivation

Kyoto, Japan

My readers are either working in the meetings and incentives industry or are clients of this industry and may intuitively know why incentive travel works. In this article we will explore the “whys” of incentive travel: why incentive travel works for loyalty and engagement, and how it can be used as a tool to foster behaviour change. We will examine motivation, engagement, reward and recognition concepts, and then use these concepts in developing the rules for an incentive program. From this, you will have the foundation for positioning incentive programs as an investment, rather than cost, for the business. A business tool to drive performance. 

Behind every behaviour is a motive

Let’s take a couple minutes to explore your personal motivation. What motivates you to change your behaviour? Examples of behaviour could be going to the gym, complying with a partner’s request to clean the kitchen, using a new software feature etc. What keeps you doing the new behaviour? 

  1. There are different levels of motivation for different people.
  2. If you have the ability (that is, the skills and knowledge) and the motivation, performance can change.
  3. People will typically repeat behaviors that are rewarded – and not repeat behaviors that aren’t. Reward the things that are important intrinsically to the individual.
  4. To be rewarding, people need to believe that the behaviour is valuable.
  5. Recognition is a powerful motivator tied to appreciation and belonging needs. For long-term change in behaviours, recognition must be tied to self-worth, purpose and meaning.
  6. When an incentive is included with a goal, the individual is further motivated to achieve the goal. Incentive programs that work include both internal and external motivation elements. For incentive travel to have more impact, we need to find ways to internalize the values and goals – and tie the behaviours to the internal drivers. The trip experience demonstrates something about the importance to the individual, but also recognizes the behaviours required to earn the trip.

Maslow’s Pyramid

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a theory in the Psychological Review based on his clinical studies of what motivates human beings to seek fulfilment in all aspects of their lives. Even though there’s more recent research, it still provides a core framework for understanding the different types of motivation:

  • Physiological needs – food, water, shelter
  • Safety needs – economic and physical security
  • Love/belonging needs – social, love, family team (affiliation)
  • Esteem needs – importance, recognition, respect
  • Self-actualization needs – challenge, opportunity, learning, creativity

These needs exist all at once, but are driven by different things at different times. For example, you may arrive at work without having eaten breakfast. The first thing on the agenda is pitching a proposal to your superior management. While you’re hungry, your need to maintain your position will trump! One needs to realize that there’s not always evidence to suggest that people need to fill one level before moving to the next.

Where do cash, gifts and incentive travel fall within Maslow’s hierarchy?

The need for food, water, shelter, safety, and security are already fulfilled. In the incentive industry we are working in the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and we are mainly focused on the need for entertainment. Compensation and benefits support a fundamental need, but recognition and career advancement support our higher-level psychological needs. Cash means safety. In recognition terms, this translates to compensation and benefits, whereas gifts are about esteem, love and belonging and they translate more to recognition. Incentive travel is also about esteem but more so about self-actualization. This can include recognition as well as career development opportunities, depending on how the program is designed. So what is the impact of incentives on performance? Cash, being an immediate reward has a short-term effect on behaviour. Gifts are more tangible and result in a mid-term effect. The case for incentive travel is tangible but at the same time an intangible reward because of the long-term effect on behaviour and on perceived value.  

From a different perspective: gifts are relational; cash is transactional. Think of cash as 1-dimensional, gifts as 2-dimensional, and the travel experience as 3-dimensional. It’s the difference between attending a live sports event or concert and watching it on television: the impact of the experience is much deeper and memorable.

Employee engagement: the most important employee metric

First of all you must ask yourself, what does an engaged employee or distributor look like? Engaged employees exhibit organizational citizenship behaviours – that is, they are interested in the goals, values and culture of the organization, they contribute to new ideas and are committed to doing the job well. Engagement is the level of commitment and involvement an employee or channel partner has towards their organization or business partner and its values.

A recent Gallup research study published in Forbes showed that, in addition, workgroups with high levels of engagement experienced:

  • 21% Higher productivity
  • 37% Lower absenteeism
  • 28% Less shrinkage
  • 48% Fewer safety incidents
  • 41% Fewer defects

Among the 19 Western European countries Gallup measured in 2011 and 2012, 14% of employees were engaged, while 66% were not engaged and 20% were actively disengaged. Definitions used were “not engaged,” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes, “actively disengaged,” indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers.

Worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work. In rough numbers, this translates into 900 million not engaged and 340 million actively disengaged workers around the globe.

So how can well-designed incentive programs build engagement? Well-designed programs will align behaviors with specific business goals. They will foster commitment to the organization and provide better service to end-customers. Seeing the number and cost of disengaged workers – there is a strong case for driving engagement. Engaged employees create loyal customers. Loyal customers purchase more, provide word-of-mouth recommendation of products and services, and participate more with the business (through the store, the web site or face-to-face activities like webinars and focus group participation).

The link between recognition and engagement

Recent studies illustrate that recognition is highly correlated to improved engagement with both the employee’s work and the organization. A key to the success of the recognition component of the total rewards package is whether it motivates workers in ways that increase the level of engagement with their job and their employer. It is the engaged worker who will increase his/her level of discretionary effort—if the goal is performance—or desire to stay on the job when the goal is increased retention. So, how can incentive programs effectively reward and recognize employees and distributors and what is the unique benefit of incentive travel in motivation? Ultimately, people want to feel good about themselves. People value recognition for their work. An incentive travel program communicates that the company is not just shaving off a percentage of profits to get more sales, but investing in providing an experience for those who meet challenging goals. The cost of the experience is tangible, but the benefit – link to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations – may not. Though people may say they prefer cash, non-cash rewards are two to three times more effective than cash rewards. The perceived value of the award is evaluability and separability. Since it’s difficult to attach a monetary value to a non-cash incentive, participants rely on the emotions, the affective reaction and actually value the award more, since it’s difficult to put a price on good weather, fine beaches, great dining…. Cash awards are therefore typically seen as compensation, not as a reward for above and beyond behaviors. Travel awards clearly stand out. Other values of earning the award are justifiability and social reinforcement. Earning non-cash incentives carries more value than earning the market value of the incentive in cash. It eliminates the need to justify its purchase. The harder the participant works to achieve the award, the more valuable the award becomes. Non-cash incentives are more socially acceptable to acknowledge (participants may be uncomfortable talking about cash, but enjoy talking about the gift or the trip to New York). The award has trophy value – that is, it serves as a reminder about the participant’s performance every time it is used or remembered. This acknowledgement from others provides ongoing reinforcement for the performance. Non-cash incentives make a stronger link between the award and the company. Cash, on the other hand, becomes the participant’s compensation – and whatever it is used to purchase is seen as the buyer’s rather than as an award from the company for performance.

Linking incentive travel to motivation, rewards, and recognition concepts

Incentive travel programs are a motivational tool to enhance productivity or achieve business objectives in which participants earn the reward based on a specific level of achievement set forth by management. The program is designed to recognize earners for their achievements. Memory is linked to emotion. The psychological impact of a travel experience is often very powerful. Reward and recognition has the potential to increase psychological well-being by affecting happiness. It’s the difference between how you feel when you remember a great vacation versus buying a new blender. Incentive travel unleashes human potential through extraordinary motivational experiences. Is not it better to collect experiences than money (can’t lose experiences but you can lose your money). 

From a corporate perspective, is incentive travel worth the effort?

It is very important to develop a fair rules structure based on engagement. What will draw people in to want to be involved in this program? When a participant is deciding whether an award is worth the effort, they consider the perceived value of earning the award, that is, the match-up between the value of the award itself and the effort required to earn it. They will ask themselves, is the task worth the effort? The utility value seems to increase when offered for additional commitment to a work goal. People need to want it – and the goals must have meaning. This hinges on understanding what motivates the potential qualifiers. 

Participants need to have the knowledge and skills required for success, AND the organizational and environmental supports. Otherwise, the program can be de-motivating. Consider the amount of control the individuals have – if the criteria are based on sales and the industry is going through a boom, participants may have the ability to earn the award. That may not be the case if the sales force is located in a region that is depressed. Goals that are challenging lead to greater performance gains than do goals that are easy or impossible stretch goals. Incentive travel program must result in improved morale and a memorable customer experience. The participants must deem it worth the effort!

In conclusion one can state that incentives increase performance by boosting the value people assign to work goals. The program has to provide meaning, rewards, communication, and support to foster utility. Participants can be highly motivated, but if they don’t have the capability of achieving it they will be frustrated. You may design a great program that’s attainable – but unless you have a process to reinforce the new procedures and behaviours, you will get limited results. Keep the program simple and focused. Behind all behaviour is a motive. Incentive programs include both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Incentive travel builds employee/customer loyalty and engagement. Engaged participants are more productive and positive about the company. Incentive programs need to be built around rules that make the award worth the effort, attainable, and challenging. Behavioural principles leverage retention goals – by rewarding the top performers – as well as motivation goals by moving the middle performers to higher levels of achievement.

In Search of Excellence

The schools are out and many students have strived for excellence, not necessarily perfection. We have all been there, trying our best, often pushing beyond our limits to prepare ourselves for the life ahead. But is that a good idea? Is not seeking perfection what we should be doing in our work? I have often found that being obsessed with perfection can be an obstacle to progress and development. Eating away time which can be spent on creative thinking?

Thinking back to a problem solving course (Kepner-Tregoe PSDM) that I attended many years ago, I believe that thinking and over striving takes away the road to finding creative solutions and ultimately  the ability to innovate. Too much left brain thinking is not good for the creative soul. Especially when, in our event business, we look for new ways to dream, inspire and excel. Too much process thinking slows down the creative momentum.

For that reason I suggest we should look beyond the briefs which land on our desks every day. They rarely describe the main business or organizational purpose the client is pursuing. What is their ultimate business goal, where do they want to take them in their strategic plan and especially why do they want to do this? The need to organize an event cannot be the purpose. But the ultimate goal they want to pursue is often not told. Striving for perfection in event delivery takes us away from the ultimate goal of organizations and by only focusing on perfect delivery, we take away the opportunity to let them pursue a DREAM. We are not helping them in this process of their audacious goals if we do not offer to partner with them to find the solution together. So it should be our purpose as event planners to facilitate this beyond traditional event management design.

How can we help? First of all by not doing it on our own. An event planner may not have knowledge about the purpose and goals of the marketing director or the C-suite. They may not be knowledgeable about long term plans within the corporation. In order for us to be successful, we should not only focus on delivering the perfect event according to clearly elaborated briefs but bring those different stakeholders to the table. We must involve others in the conversation, both from the client and event management side; putting smart minds together so that an event can be approached both from a strategic and economic perspective. It is our responsibility to help elevate our client to this higher ground, rather than purely delivering on an event brief.

But how do we ‘sell’ this idea? We need to put the process in the client mind. First of all by bringing decision makers together and secondly by letting them ‘dream’ the solution to their challenge. For that we must make it visual. A picture tells a thousand words. Or as a friend of mine who is on the board of WWF once said, “Cute teddy bears sell better than statistics”. One needs to draw out the solution for our clients. Paint a picture of how you see the outcome of the event. In this day and age, this takes us to technology which plays an increasingly important role in event production. Pre, during and post event, but to start with, as a sales tool in the design process. But do not focus on drawing the sketch; use the sketch to draw out the underlying idea and thoughts. Visualization will help to work towards the client’s purpose more than perfect execution of logistics and operations and event process delivery.

The use of data is critical to set the standards of an event but its ultimate success will depend on the creative input you bring to the table. Working towards creative solutions will require stepping away from your desk to seek alternative environments that will facilitate the process more beyond standard operating procedures and delivery. Whilst these are important to create a framework and set standards, being drowned in details takes away precious time to focus on creativity, e.g. redesign meeting room set ups, break up large audiences, and limiting one directional communication dissemination, to involve the participants from the event creation stage onwards and get feedback after the event on how breaking up traditional set ups has facilitated the creative process.

Mess things up! Apply mixology to event planning. Walk on the edge. Look at things from a different perspective. The minute that you take away traditional processes or force the client to break away from their assumed ‘perception’ of what an event can achieve, is when you help them the most. Disruption as a basis of re-creation, will expose them to see the many sides of a problem and alternative options and solutions. This way creativity becomes effortless. It is our task to facilitate thought provoking dialogue and ‘big picture’ thinking to produce meaningful creative solutions.

By pushing yourself and your client in new and creative ways rather than relying on the common misconception of total quality delivery, you will be able to break out of the inclination of trying too hard to achieve. By striving forward and upward, by remodelling your view of the world and ultimately your client’s view and by developing new patterns of strategic foresight, you can achieve excellence, without breaking a sweat.

Using our business tools of meetings and events and bringing people together to a level where magic happens is the ultimate purpose in the events industry. The standing ovation that you will get at the end of the event will be your measurement tool!

I see salespeople

Almost all my career I have been involved in sales. It has been a passion to share my professional dreams and have people buy from me. But convincing people to buy products or services is not easy. Especially if it is something the customer or prospect does not want or has not been waiting for. So as a sales person you can easily come off too pushy and eager.

It’s incredible that still today, after so many trainings going on in the hospitality and meetings industry, I see sales managers, directors of business development – or whatever they call themselves – walking up to me and start spitting out features but no benefits of their product. Will they never learn? I agree that striking the perfect balance in sales can be difficult, but it’s less difficult if at least you follow the basic rules of selling. Something that’s completely necessary to learn if you don’t want to come across as unprofessional to potential customers and make a bad impression of your company. Talent is great to have but selling techniques can be learned.

So where does it all go wrong?

In my home office, I have a little frame that I’ve kept for many years. It says ‘selling is not telling but asking’. The person who asks the questions is in charge of a conversation and lets the other person feel important. While it’s important what you want to sell to your buyer, not asking the right questions will slow down the process or not get you anywhere where you were hoping to go.

“When I was at Hilton – in another life – we had it written all over the wall of the sales office: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”

The sales person’s questions will direct the conversation to the point where I, the client will start asking questions. And here it is very important to listen pro-actively-or at least to respond to my questions and concerns. Not doing so is a huge turn-off. So make sure to pay full attention to what I’m saying as your potential client–selling is a two-way street! And sometimes the answer will be in between the lines or you will have to read it from my body language or my tilted eye-brow.

Are you talkin’ to me?

Now that you have asked the proper questions and you are getting the right questions back it’s important that you have done your homework! Because there’s nothing worse than being caught off guard when I will ask you about something you’re supposed to know. Especially when you’re attempting to convince me to purchase it. Make sure you know your product and service intimately well before you make any sales call. So that you can answer all but the most personal of questions. Product knowledge also means in my dictionary knowing who your competition is and what their product is like. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your product? So selling is not only talking but listening carefully too. 

Sell me a hamburger!

I’m often told that people buy on price and I’m not convinced that is true. I buy something that I need or which will make my life, my job or that of my client easier. I don’t buy something purely on price. Price does not even come in the first 3 reasons why I would buy something although staying within budget is always on my mind. If you are withholding the price to later in the conversation you will appear less pushy and more empathetic to my needs. Hold onto the price until you have a firmer grasp on the situation and the potential outcome. And when you sell on price, sell it according to what a friend of mine called it the ‘hamburger model.’ Just imagine the two buns, the meaty part and the salad inside. The two pieces of the bun represent major benefits, the vegetarian particles some fringe benefits and the meaty stuff the price itself. It comes as a total package and well-motivated. So I suggest you start of selling on price by first presenting me a benefit, you then call the price, throw in some more minor benefits and close off with one of the key benefits of your product or service. Capeesh? 

Private investigations

I mentioned the eternal features and benefits before. The main obstacle that I have when I have to decide whether or not to buy something from you is how the product will benefit me or my company. Selling the product’s features as potential future benefits is something that will persuade me to buy. Nothing ticks me off more than receiving a canned presentation for a product or service that has nothing to do with my comfort and my company’s unique needs. Making me into just another person to sell to reeks of unprofessionalism. When I’m being sold to, I like to see that the seller has done his or her homework and understands who we are and what we do. Today there are many more ways to find out and social media has made it easier. When I prepare for sales calls, the first thing I do is look into what data I can find on the person and company who I want to sell to. For that I go first to our CRM system to look up the history and experiences our company may have had with them. Secondly, I will look up the prospect in LinkedIn Pro (or similar platforms like FacebookXing in Germany or Viadeo in France). I check what I can find on them on Twitter or Instagram. And study their website for sure. This will give me even more perspective on the company and the person in particular before I call them to make an appointment! If they are really interesting and if they are not in my professional network yet I will ask them to connect. Or connect with them after the call. May I suggest you do the same?

The art of articulation and eloquence

Even though it’s not necessary to be the best speaker or writer who ever lived, it’s definitely important to demonstrate good speech and impeccable grammar and spelling in your dealings with customers. Be it in emails or on social media, the rules have not changed. Otherwise, you will give the impression that you don’t care much about the product you’re selling–and if you don’t, why should anyone else? I do not want to hear the words we and I too much. Start your sentences from the client’s perspective, use you and your. And never forget that a picture sells a thousand words!