share
by Melissa Van Dyke and Mike May | February 5, 2014

Planners always want to know what other companies are doing, what's hot and what's next. Following are nine trends we see for incentive travel programs in 2014 and beyond, based on the most current research from the Incentive Research Foundation (theirf.org).

1. Budgets are stabilizing (and increasing). Our last four IRF Industry Pulse surveys showed that on average, 33 percent of planners are increasing their budgets year-over-year, with an average of only 14 percent decreasing their budgets. This should drive continued growth in the incentive sector. Interestingly, we don't see these budgets necessarily going to longer trips or more room nights. Our surveys have shown that only an average of 7 percent and 9 percent of planners, respectively, are increasing their program duration or size. However, the number of those who are decreasing the size and duration of their program has steadily dropped over the last four surveys, from upward of 40 percent decreasing these elements to now only 10 percent decreasing them on average. This is a positive trend, but it doesn't create the momentum that top-line growth would.

2. Program spend is increasing in specific areas. Planners are investing more of their budget on airline tickets, transfers and gifts.These components comprise the only area over the last few years where we have seen an increasing number of planners investing and fewer planners cutting. Overall, the trend lines indicate that over the next year or so, the slowing decline in program-spend contraction will continue with moderate program expansions, leading to a positive environment for all involved.

3. Emerging markets are becoming more popular. According to our research, North America, the Caribbean and Europe remain the top destinations for group incentive travel, with more than a third of planners reporting they use these regions. The second tier of locations includes Central and South America and Asia, especially in emerging destinations such as China, Bali, Vietnam, Argentina and Peru. These destinations offer authentic experiences, intriguing cultural traditions, and recent improvements in hotels and travel infrastructure. South Africa also is widely used, but overall we see less than 10 percent of planners using Africa and the Middle East as destinations for incentive travel.

4. The use of social meeting continues to increase. We have been tracking a number of trends in incentive travel over the last eight years. The insertion of social media to the on-site experience and to pre- and post-event communications efforts is one of the biggest trends. Over half of planners are now using social media as part of their pre-, post- and live-event efforts.

5. CSR might be losing steam. Corporate social responsibility has been and continues to be a hot topic for incentive planners, with our last survey showing 47 percent of planners integrating CSR into their programs. Interestingly, this is a slight decline from previous surveys, which may mean some planners are shifting focus away from this aspect of programs.

6. Gamification, wellness and food tourism are thriving. About a third of planners are integrating gaming techniques and/or virtual elements into their programs. Additionally, the concept of wellness tourism, separate from medical tourism, is starting to take hold in the consumer and business realms. Sixty-two percent of respondents in our last survey said they are either concerned about wellness as a part of their programs, are reviewing how to incorporate it or have actually implemented a series of changes to integrate wellness into their program's experience. We anticipate this to increase substantially in the upcoming years, driven by both business and participant demands. We also see more participants demanding unique,engaging culinary experiences. (Interestingly, there are now companies and websites solely dedicated to food tourism, such as FoodTourist.com, WorldFoodTravel.org and WholeJourneys.com, to name a few.)

7. The "wow" challenge remains a factor. Incentive places are faced with the continual challenge of how to create a bigger and better "wow" experience with budgets that don't increase dramatically and business volatility that does. Finding the right destination with much shorter planning cycles is still an issue.

8. Wi-Fi bandwidth demands keep building. Our recent report, Technology in Offsite Meetings and Incentive
Events, highlights that one of the biggest areas of dynamic tension today between suppliers and planners is Wi-Fi bandwidth. The use of social media onsite, the rise of gamification in meetings, and mobile app integration have placed Wi-Fi at the center of the on-site delivery experience. Some hotels and conference centers are struggling to adapt to this demand in ways that don't force excessive fees on planners, creating a dynamic tension were Wi-Fi is considered.

9. Positive public perception loosens its grip a bit. Fifty-nine percent of planners in our last survey said that public perception significantly influenced the design of their programs. The good news is that this is down from a high of 75 percent in the fall of 2008. This is why there are a number of combined efforts from industry organizations including the the Incentive Research Foundation, the Incentive Federation, SITE, Incentive Marketing Association and U.S. Travel Association to educate the public on the purpose and effectiveness of reward and recognition programs.

Melissa Van Dyke is president of the St. Louis-based Incentive Research Foundation, and Mike May is president of Spear One, a Dallas-based meeting and incentive company and an IRF Trustee.