by Michael J. Shapiro | December 01, 2013

The outlook for 2014 incentive programs is more upbeat than it was a year ago. "Budgets are stabilizing and, in some cases, increasing," says Melissa Van Dyke, president of the St. Louis-based Incentive Research Foundation.

This latest wave of optimism dates from the IRF's spring 2013 pulse study of industry trends, which showed a 13-point increase (56 percent in 2013 vs. 43 percent in 2012) in respondents who characterized the economy as having a "positive impact" on their ability to plan and implement incentive programs.
A more recent study, released in October by the Incentive Federation, the umbrella organization for incentive associations, reveals a robust industry. The research found that 74 percent of U.S. businesses use non-cash incentives and spend $76.9 billion annually on same; of that figure, $22.6 billion is spent per year on incentive travel programs.

Among trends to expect in 2014:
Technology will remain key. Wi-Fi connections are the single most important feature for planners and groups, according to a study conducted by the IRF. Respondents viewed Wi-Fi as the new "basic utility," and they think it should be free.

The study also found that incentive planners use mobile event apps to distribute program schedules and for maintaining contact with attendees. Planners increasingly are using texting and websites to create engagement and disseminate information.

Meetings will play a lesser role in programs. For several years, adding meetings to incentive agendas was de rigueur. But an industry survey conducted by the IRF reveals that less than half (48 percent) of all incentive trips today include a business meeting.

Just one-third of respondents said that adding a meeting to their trip would make the experience better for them and their organization, while 20 percent believed the combination would be bad for both the company and the reward earners.

Travel will continue to rebound. Following a several-year hiatus, firms are again looking to motivate participants with enticing destinations, with China, Bali, Eastern Europe, France, French Polynesia and Italy hot for 2014.

Sunny destinations like Hawaii remain popular, but resort programs increasingly are cutting group activities to one day from two to allow more unstructured time, notes Mike May, president of Irving, Texas-based meeting and incentive firm Spear One. - LISA A. GRIMALDI