Soft power rises as key driver of incentive travel, survey claims

Latest research into the trends in incentive travel show ‘soft power’ is competing with sales and bottom line as a key driver in the industry.

Of respondents to the Incentive Travel Industry Index, 67 per cent of incentive travel professionals cited soft power as one of the most important benefits of an incentive travel programme, closing the gap with sales and profit (80 per cent) for the first time.

Four of the six top benefits named are connected with soft power rather than hard dollars. These include improved staff or channel partner retention 67 per cent, improved engagement of staff or channel partners (74 per cent), better relationship-building between employees and management (68 per cent) and better relationship-building among employees (64 per cent).

The hard dollars are still massively important – it’s still the number one benefit – but engagement is now second and gaining in importance as business owners broaden their perspective and switch their priorities to embrace more than just shareholder value.

Now in its fifth year, the survey is carried out by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (Site), The Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP), Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and conducted in association with Oxford Economics for the first time. The preliminary 2019 survey results were revealed at IMEX America in Las Vegas.

A total of 2,637 respondents took part in the survey from across the spectrum of buyer and supply side – a 29 per cent increase on the previous survey – and more than 100 countries were represented.
Oxford Economics MD Adam Sacks told a packed audience that incentive travel has been a “star performer within the groups market” in recent years and incentive travel buyers expect a 5.9 growth this year while sellers expect a 2.7 per cent growth.

He added: “We have a tight labour market with the ‘quit levels’ growing while the global economy is slowing and respondees are nervous about the future.” He suggested this is behind the increase in importance given to ‘soft power’ issues.

Speaking of general trends affecting her company’s activities, corporate buyer Allison Cooper, vice-president conference experiences at LPL Financial, said: “We spend around US$6,000 a head on our incentives and these days it is all about the experiences and personalisation. We try to make the participants feel special, rewarded and recognised. We organise 43 events each year and we always use a destination management company (DMC).”

The mounting threat to the role of the DMC attracted a lot of debate but Selina Sinclair,
global managing director of Pacific World, defended her sector so long as DMCs move away from pure logistics to add more value to the supply chain management.

She said: “Our clients are wanting more connection between a destination and the culture/objective of the customer, looking for a good ‘fit’ for their objectives. It’s no longer good enough for participants to go and see a place – it’s now about how people can take home stories about experiences they have had. This is a change that I think will continue. It is about ‘money can’t buy’ experiences and tapping into authentic experiences of destinations.”

But she accepted that geopolitical issues are influencing the market and creating volatility together with fluctuating currency values. She said predictions are therefore difficult.