by Martha White | June 01, 2007

Just as it’s now de rigueur to have dozens of choices when picking up a morning cup of coffee, incentive providers are rolling out experiences that can be as customized as a half-caf vanilla latte with soy milk. Experts say personalized rewards are more motivating to a top-notch producer.

“Why give the same gift to everybody? In this world, people aren’t as loyal to their employers as they used to be,” points out Christi Gibson, executive director of the National Association for Employee Recognition. The solution, she says, is to tailor rewards to recipients’ interests and hobbies.

“We were running into situations where recipients have everything,” adds Dana Slockbower, director of marketing at Pine Brook, N.J.-based Rymax Marketing Services Inc. By adding one-of-a-kind experiences to the company’s catalog of merchandise and gift card rewards, Rymax is able to help incentive managers continue to motivate top performers who might not be thrilled by another run-of-the-mill trip or gift.

“What you’re seeing is a reflection of the whole area of what consumers are looking for. They’re all looking for experiences above and beyond the traditional,” says Don Schultz, professor emeritus at Northwestern University and a loyalty expert.

While the extremely customized nature of these experiences makes them impractical for the masses, major incentive suppliers such as Maritz Inc. and Carlson Marketing also are making it possible to customize travel incentives for larger groups by offering a more varied selection of activities to participants. (See “How Big Firms Do It.”)

Read on for details about some of the newest and most popular experiential incentives suited for top performers whose passions run from Grand Prix to Grands Crus.

chocolate dessert


Give winners with
a sweet tooth
a hands-on chocolate
workshop experience.

Gastronomic adventures

While Karen Herbst, founder and owner of The International Kitchen in Chicago, affirms that her most popular getaway is still a hands-on culinary tour of Tuscany, Italy, she sees a growing demand for more exotic places and flavors. Herbst recently launched an adventurous, weeklong culinary journey through the souks and spice markets of the Moroccan city of Fez. “Marrakesh is more well known, but Fez is a jewel of a city,” she notes. “You’re able to do a lot of walking tours to get a real sense of the history.”

For those whose competitive spirit is as sharp as their cutlery, Boulder, Colo.-based experiential reward supplier Cloud 9 Living offers an interactive experience inspired by TV’s Iron Chef. A small group is divided into two teams, and each has to create a meal around a secret ingredient under the tutelage of a professional chef.

Geri Schultz, vice president of business development at Great American Days, a Decatur, Ga.-based company that sells experiential rewards to corporate clients, says culinary experiences that focus on a single ingredient are popular, such as the hands-on chocolate workshop the company just added.

Individuals or small groups looking to work off their indulgences can be accommodated, too, Herbst says. For a small group of Nike executives, she worked in tennis sessions every morning; for an individual client, she arranged daily horseback rides at his request.