Incentive travel industry adapts to pandemic-related norms

Ashley Lawson vividly remembers where she was when the United States declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March 2020.

Lawson, vice president of Achieve Incentives & Meetings, a global travel incentives company based in Westlake, was leading a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico when the chilling news broke. After handling travel arrangements out of the country, Lawson returned to Mexico to renegotiate a contract with a key client.

“During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of rescheduling and ‘dropping and moving’ of program dates as everything has been adjusted,” said Lawson, whose family business is now celebrating its 70th anniversary. “We’ve done it a few times over the past few years because things kept changing.”

The adaptation has been vital for an industry that now faces two years of pent-up travel demand. Companies that have survived pandemic downturns are now sought after by companies that reward top performers with team retreats, paid family vacations and other exclusive experiences.

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) outlook for 2022 predicted a 34% increase in overall incentive travel budgets this year. Meanwhile, according to Corporate InSITE’s Changing Face of Incentive Travel report, 94% of companies surveyed view incentive travel as a key way to reward and recognize their employees.

A subset of the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry, incentive travel is generally described as a benefit that motivates employees or partners around company goals.

A report from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management defined an incentive event as “a corporate-sponsored meeting or trip to reward effort and build corporate loyalty, often built around a theme; and a celebratory event intended to showcase individuals who meet or exceed sales or production goals.”

Local businesses involved in the industry are no longer concerned about the return of incentive travel – their focus now is on continuing to adapt to changing travel restrictions, testing protocols, local regulations and disruptions supply and labor chain.

Lawson’s team creates packages around customer travel requests while contracting hotel rates, booking flights, scheduling tours, directing marketing and managing the myriad of issues that arise in the field.

Part of reinventing Achieve Incentive during the pandemic has been speed to market. Prior to March 2020, planning and marketing a trip was an 18-month process where the client wanted to generate hype and excitement around the current trip. Leaders today want quick turnaround times — sometimes as little as 60 days — before heading out into the wild blue there. To that end, Lawson will source from second- and third-tier cities with less visitor compression or hotel room demand.

“Companies see how important it is to bring people together and show appreciation to their team,” Lawson said. “Instead of revenue-based incentives for individuals, companies are now choosing to incentivize entire teams. They are using travel as a tool for talent management and customer acquisition because it is a benefit of reward the team and make people feel special.”