Experience Wanted

A new wave of incentives means more action and custom-made programs for winners

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.

What can you get for the person who really, truly has everything? Courtesy of Richard Branson, the maveick billionaire at the helm of Virgin Atlantic Airways, comes a new idea that makes “reaching for the stars” a more literal possibility. Beginning in 2009, the newly minted Virgin Galactic (www.virgingalactic.com) will offer a lucky few the chance to take a journey into outer space on vessels modeled after SpaceShipOne, the “space tourism” shuttle that made news after piercing the stratosphere in 2004.

Would-be astro-tourists must pass a physical evaluation to determine that they are fit enough for space, as well as undergo three days of pre-flight training. The two-and-a-half-hour flight will shoot passengers 360,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Once in zero gravity, travelers will be able to float around untethered inside the shuttle as they take in views of the mother planet.

Early flights will take off and land in the Mojave Desert of California. Later, Virgin Galactic plans to build its own spaceport in New Mexico for flights that could run as frequently as once or twice a day.

Of course, this ride of a lifetime won’t come cheap: Virgin Galactic already is selling tickets via its website for $200,000 apiece. -- M.W.

Arts and culture

It might seem hard to improve upon the treasures of the Louvre or the Guggenheim, but innovative incentive suppliers have come up with ways to imbue artistic and cultural experiences with a personalized touch. Rymax offers a sit-down session with pop-art portraitist Peter Max. The artist will immortalize the recipient with his signature style of bold angles and bright colors.

For those whose cultural leanings tend more toward the verbal than visual, The International Kitchen offers a weeklong trip to a historic Tuscan villa that includes linguistic as well as culinary instruction. Participants are immersed in Italian culture from the first buongiorno (good morning) to the last sip of an after-dinner digestif.

Sports specialties

While front-and-center tickets to standards like the U.S. Open and Masters Golf Tournament always will be in high demand, Duane Penner, vice president of sales at Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Roadtrips Inc., says an increasingly global marketplace means more top-notch employees are looking for more exotic sports rewards. Formula One races in European cities and the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo are popular picks, since both can be enhanced with top-flight hotels, dining and excursions.

Experiences that put winners in the driver’s seat also are popular. Geri Schultz of Great American Days says drag-racing has been an oft-redeemed award for one of her company’s automotive clients, and Roadtrips’ Penner says a new package taking a Porche Cayenne SUV through the deserts of Dubai has been well received. “You’re in a 450-horsepower four-wheel-drive tooling through dunes with a local guide,” he says. “People are looking for new experiences, and part of that is new destinations.”

Wine aficionados

Wine tastings and pairings, always in demand, become extra-special when you add a celebrity encounter. “We do a dinner with Bon Appetit magazine’s wine critic, Anthony Dias Blue,” says Adam Michaels, co-founder and CEO of Cloud 9 Living. This renowned critic brings wine from his own private cellar for the lucky recipient and nine guests to enjoy during a five-course tasting dinner.

Perfume bottlesThe ultimate
in customization:
Creating a personalized

Beauty bonanza

Relaxation standbys like massages and facials are still very much in the mix; however, the newest experiences in the personal pampering category include an even greater degree of exclusivity. Rymax offers a makeover with celebrity stylist Jose Eber at one of Eber’s flagship salons. Recipients get a consultation, cut and color with the high-priced hair guru himself, plus a manicure, pedicure, makeup application and a spa basket to take home.

Great American Days arranges for participants to meet with a professional perfumer to create their own personalized scents. The perfume can be applied as is or mixed with shower gel or other beauty products. The formula is kept on file for ordering future refills.

For another kind of custom beauty experience, Roadtrips Inc. offers a personal shopping adventure. Set in one of Macy’s stores, the experience lets the recipient spend a day selecting clothing, accessories and jewelry with a professional shopper alongside. Roadtrips’ Duane Penner says the retailer’s New York City flagship is the most popular pick.