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| Written by Marie Johnson, CMP

Events > Forward — Is your Incentives and Recognition Program Future-Ready?

Many of our clients are curious about how to best recognize employees and reward performance during a challenging time. In this episode, our host, Jeff Naue, catches up with our Incentives and Recognition experts Tracy Norum, CMP, CIS, CITP, and Sandy Fenili, CIS. While the first reaction may be to turn to cash incentives, you’ll hear more on why that is not your best bet. Tracy details how group incentive trips are being reshaped by the pandemic and how companies are responding. Sandy details actionable insights on how to optimize your incentives and recognition program.

Tracy is the Senior Director, Incentive Strategies at Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. She is a strategic, innovative leader and world traveler who delivers proven solutions. In her role, she helps generate increased sales, foster teamwork, drive loyalty, reward employees, and improve performance.

Sandy is the Director, Insights and Strategy, Incentives & Recognition at Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. Sandy brings a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge in developing and implementing innovative sales incentives and employee recognition reward programs (travel events and non-travel programs) to help grow revenue, connect people, and maximize the employee experience.

Join us for this conversation with Tracy and Sandy on ways you can optimize your incentives and recognition program.

Events > Forward Podcast: Is your Incentives & Recognition Program Future-Ready?


Tracy, from an incentive industry perspective how has the pandemic impacted group incentive trips and how are companies choosing to respond?  

Great question Jeff. Recognizing and rewarding your top performers and employee efforts is critical to an organization’s success. Incentive programs help boost productivity, loyalty, and morale.  And while it has truly been a challenging time, right now, approximately 70% of companies have postponed 2020. Most of those postponements have gone into 2021. And, it is important to note, also 5% had no changes to their group or individual incentive travel (IIT) programs because those were in the first quarter of 2020. And, approximately 25% indicated they canceled their trips altogether for 2020.

It is important to note, that of those programs that have postponed or canceled, the program owners expressed a strong need to continue to recognize and reward top performers, channel partners, and employee efforts. They had to come up with alternative solutions such as shifting the programs to points programs, merchandise awards, or gift cards to fill the gaps until travel can come back and fully restore the balance of their programs.     

What will incentive travel look like in 2021 and beyond? 

In the short run, it is probably going to look a bit different.

We are adjusting the program agendas and predominately focusing on individual time versus group activities. For now, the dollars that were to be spent on large group activities are being shifted in other ways – room upgrades, additional amenities, and gifting – so we can make sure it is still a customized, personalized experience for those winners. Maybe just a few smaller physically distanced group events.

For new bookings for 2021 and 2022 companies are trending toward smaller groups, traveling in waves, doing back-to-back programs, looking for hotel buy-outs, or section buy-outs. They are looking more at boutique properties that have self-contained unique features or experiences, including charters. The industry is seeing an increase in regional programs. That means that local destinations are high on the list for 2021 travel. It is important to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and safe.

In the meantime, how is your team supporting clients with solutions for incentives and recognition during this challenging time?

We are working one-on-one with clients and tailoring to their programs all of it to what their participant’s needs are. Whether it is an alternate solution for a travel program, incenting their middle-tier performers, connecting through teambuilding, networking, and general recognition. Our focus is on solutions with a high perceived value and longer-lasting effects. Mixing and matching the following successful reward vehicles and adapting their program goals:

  • Individual Incentive Travel (IIT) adventure packages which create memorable moments 
  • Merchandise programs (curated gifts bundles and experiences) provide tangible memories  
  • Points-based recognition programs to drive 2020 performance
  • Timely virtual celebrations with WOW moments and the ability to invite guests
  • Teambuilding and networking virtual networking experiences

Keep in mind, and we remind our client, all things within the mix do not have to cost a lot of money. For example, their name in lights. Or, leadership saying those two words “thank you.” Even, thank you notes are powerful and inexpensive enhancements 

With all this disruption in the industry, more companies are turning to external consultants to support program development, quantify their value as well as identify opportunities for improvement and ways to create program efficiencies.

With this increased volume and need, M&IW created Sandy’s position of Director of Insights & Strategy so we can continue to ensure our clients are future-ready. 

Sandy, I turn this over to you. There’s been no mention of utilizing “cash” for incentives and recognition? Why is that?

In our experience, cash is not memorable and does not have a long-lasting effect on the participants. I will give you an example. My first big challenge leading incentives and recognition was 9/11. We had our Top Achievers program winners scheduled to travel on October 1, 2001.  However, the group could not go as planned due to travel restrictions. Because our incentive organization did not have a plan B; we decided to pay out cash instead of the trip. However, less than a year later a significant number of winners mentioned on an employee survey that they were forgotten; contemplated to leave; and felt the company didn’t care. This was a big eye-opener to me and the organization that cash is not memorable. For that reason, during this time, when folks are isolated and unable to gather – we need to explore creative opportunities to recognize performance and celebrate achievements. Elite performers are probably working harder than ever to reach their goals and drive success for their organizations.

Are there any actionable steps or advice you could give to companies or program owners? 

Here are my top 5!

  • Don’t stop! Continue to incent and recognize your employees and customers.
  • Create anticipation. Avoid canceling, it is critical to keep people engaged, connected, and focused on the work ahead to avoid a slump in productivity.
  • Celebrate virtually. Find ways and explore opportunities to stay optimistic and just have fun. One item that is key is to celebrate in a timely fashion.
  • Always have a Plan B. With continued uncertainty, be prepared with other options for both incentives and recognition.
  • Communicate often. Be transparent and share information. Silence deflates trust. Your team will lose their focus if they don’t feel the commitment from the organization.

You and Tracy recently hosted a “Tell All Incentive and Recognition” webinar. For our listeners who did not attend, what were the key takeaways for optimizing your incentive and recognition programs?

  • Take a holistic approach, look at it from beginning to end
  • Bring key stakeholders to the table early and often 
  • Link your programs to business outcomes 
  • Keep programs simple – even if your business or organization is complex 
  • Establish success metrics upfront 
  • Evaluate all aspects regularly and pivot when needed
  • Frame program value 
  • Grab executive’s attention 
  • Tailor rewards to participants  
  • Communicate, motivate, communicate  
  • Be brave, be bold – don’t be afraid to color outside of the lines
  • Have Plan B and C in your pocket 

Speaking of Plan B, where do you recommend companies start?

Get started by having a good toolkit that contains the right templates and process flows. Then look to your trusted advisors and third parties for guidance. Be able to turn to people with experience especially during unchartered times.

It might seem like a counter-intuitive concept during an economic downturn, but external incentive experts are working with so many different types of organizations and industries, they have teams of professionals dedicated to vetting the best options, and even negotiating prices. So, in the long run, they can essentially bring more value to your program.

Learn more about M&IW Incentives and Recognition team and related services. To stay up-to-date on M&IW’s efforts on safety initiatives and protocols for returning to in-person events, be sure to turn into our Events > Forward Podcast Series. In each episode, we interview subject matter experts on relevant and timely topics. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.