by Jonathan Vatner | June 01, 2006

Hummer folding bicycle


Packable: Hummer folding bicycle

When meeting planners think about incentives, the tendency is to think travel. An unforgettable trip with the camaraderie of co-workers certainly can be the ultimate prize for outstanding performance -- but not necessarily.

“For a salesperson on the road 200 days a year, another trip might not be the most desirable reward,” says Karen Renk, CAE, executive director of the Incentive Marketing Association, based in Naperville, Ill.

As an alternative to travel, it’s worth considering a category of incentives that is much simpler to orchestrate and can be just as motivating: merchandise.

In the following pages, Renk and other incentive specialists answer common questions about such rewards.

iPod and speakers


Still hot: iPods and accessories

Q: How do we select a gifting company?

A: First, say experts, figure out how much service the program will require. If you only need to buy 500 of an item, go through an award-fulfillment company, such as Maryland Heights, Mo.-based Incentive Concepts, which acts as a manufacturer’s representative for iPods, Bose electronics and various brands of furniture, among other products. A similar company is Nashville-based, which specializes in high-end clothing lines and leather products. These vendors help planners find the ideal gifts at a price marginally lower than retail.

If the entire program needs to be outsourced, rely on the personnel and expertise of a full-service incentive or performance improvement company. Such a supplier will design and implement a program from scratch and handle the administrative headaches most people don’t have time for. (For more on this topic, visit the Incentive Marketing Association’s website,, and download the white paper, “Choosing a Performance Improvement Company to Meet Your Company’s Needs.”)

To decide between firms that offer similar levels of service, here are a few suggestions beyond simply getting references.

* Vet the company through Dun and Bradstreet to find out how long it has been in business and whether it’s financially solvent, advises Jim Purdy, the Homosassa, Fla.-based director of product strategy and development for Rosemont, Ill.-based Marketing Innovators.

* Check to see if the supplier is a member of the Incentive Marketing Association. If representatives have earned the CPIM (Certified Professional of Incentive Management) certification, all the better, says Michelle Smith, CPIM, vice president, business development for the Salt Lake City-based O.C. Tanner.

* Look for a supplier that is award-neutral. “You want someone who’s not going to have a bias,” says Smith. “If I sell only merchandise, I’m going to tell you that merchandise is the best idea for you. But if I sell everything, I can come from a position of complete neutrality.”

Celestron VistaPix


The Celestron VistaPix
is a binocular, a digital
camera and a radio.

Q: What should we spend?

A: “Make sure they’re not getting a trip to London for bringing doughnuts in, and likewise, that they’re not getting a cup of coffee for exceeding their sales revenues by 25 percent,” says Smith. As a rule, she notes, awards should total up to 5 percent of salary for sales incentives, and from 1 to 3 percent for other incentive programs.

Q: How can we predict what employees want?

A: There are three options. The first is simply to ask them. If that’s not feasible, find an expert who studies the preferences of various demographics. Generally, full-service incentive firms will be knowledgeable in this area. A third option is to provide a catalog of gifts, which incentive and fulfillment companies also offer, and let winners make their own selections.