by Lisa A. Grimaldi | June 01, 2011

As recently as this past December, few motivation professionals were confident that the battered incentive travel industry was on the rebound. Six months later, there's a palpable difference. New research and other indicators reveal an improved business outlook for U.S. firms, a need to recognize and reward a recession-weary work force, a marked increase in requests for proposal, program bookings for as far out as 2014 and a renewed interest in sending groups to far-flung destinations.

"Things are looking up, and people are feeling optimistic," says Mary MacGregor, vice president, account development, for Chicago-based BCD Meetings & Incentives and current president of Site, the association for incentive and travel professionals. "While no one is doing the 'happy dance' yet -- the past two years are still fresh -- there are a lot of reasons to feel good."

As the cloud that's been shadowing the marketplace lifts, now is a good time to take a fresh look at key influencers shaping motivation programs today.

Business on the rebound The improving economy bodes well for the resurgence of incentives, as U.S. companies look to their sales teams -- the traditional group for which programs are designed to motivate -- to boost revenues. At the same time, a growing number of firms are feeling a need to recognize the rest of their long-suffering employees.

Jim Ruszala, director of marketing for Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel, points to a MetLife 2011 survey of employee benefits trends, which revealed one in three people are disenchanted or dissatisfied with their current position and plan to change jobs in 12 months. He says firms are taking note and looking to "re-engage the disengaged."

MacGregor agrees. "Talent management is a critical issue, especially keeping and engaging top performers," she says. "Firms may have felt they didn't need to invest in people as they had before the recession, particularly through sales channels, but that isn't true any more."

Fay BeauchineThese market realities are translating to a significant bump for incentive firms and suppliers. "There is a euphoric feeling and enthusiasm; RFPs are triple what they were a year ago," says Fay Beauchine, CITE, president of engagement and events at Minneapolis-based incentive firm Carlson Marketing. For McGregor's part, "We have seen more 2012 and  2013 business booked earlier than we have in other years."

Jeff Broudy, executive vice president of Philadelphia-based United Incentives, says his firm is experiencing a solid rebound in 2011, both in the number of qualifiers for existing programs and new business.

"The general lift in the economy's confidence level has ended the hiatus some businesses took the past few years," says Broudy, who also is chair of the Incentive Research Foundation's board. "I believe that many companies saw the impact of halting their incentives and now want to get back on board, particularly in the dealer-distributor channel."