The Science of Incentives

What new research tells us about incentives and human behaviour

by Charlene Brooke

The role of meeting and incentive travel planning has never been more crucial. This isn’t just a self-congratulatory observation but one that is based on the findings from a study, The Participant’s Viewpoint of Incentive Travel, conducted by the Site International Foundation and the Incentive Travel Council. The purpose of the study was to understand what makes an incentive program meaningful, motivational and memorable to its participants.

Let’s start with the most reassuring finding of all: travel continues to score highly as a motivator. According to the study’s findings, 89 per cent of those who earned a travel reward agreed that it made them feel appreciated by the host company. Even more encouragingly, 68 per cent of non-earners agreed that they want to work harder in the future to earn the trip. Marion Joppe, a supervisor on the study and professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph, concurs: “Over the years, research demonstrates that when incentive travel is done well, it consistently makes people feel proud.” So what exactly does “done well” mean?

It’s not just a trip. It’s an “experience.”
Seventy-one per cent of respondents said they valued the opportunity to experience something unique on the trip that they could not do on their own. Also, a high majority—75 per cent—said that having more unscheduled leisure time would make the program more motivating, a cost-free benefit that is easy to pass on to earners.

Of course, what one person will deem an “ideal” trip will often vary across industries and even across roles within one company. For example, Joppe says that sales employees generally value opportunities to network with senior management. The time that they give up for an incentive trip could be spent making sales so they want to make this time worthwhile.

Communicate. Motivate. Repeat.
“The success of an incentive program is highly dependent on maintaining the involvement of participants,” says Joppe. The best kind of program engages employees by keeping their energy and enthusiasm high throughout the entire earning period. Employees who are in competitive roles, for example, respond particularly well to moti­vating tools that are visible to their colleagues. They want to be able to track their progress in relation to others.

Less time. More demands. Sound familiar?
While the process of planning meeting and incentive trips has become more complicated than ever, the time required to prepare RFPs and execute incentive programs is being compressed. Competition is fierce at every stage in the process, just as it is in the job market. A poorly executed incentive trip could mean the difference between a top-performing employee staying loyal to his or her company or looking for a new job.

Ultimately, understanding participants’ motivational drivers and perceptions can help planners create expe­riences that are meaningful, memorable, and motiva­tional, says Joppe. Time may be crunched, but this role has never been more important.

Something to tweet about
In the age of social media where experiences are more visible than before, employees have become ambassadors for their companies. How does this affect incentive travel? An employee’s experience of a trip—either positive or negative—can be posted, tweeted and shared instantly, potentially influencing motivation levels for the following year.

Copies of all four reports of Incentive Travel: The Participant’s Viewpoint of Incentive Travel are available at

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