A host of changes to the way top achievers will be rewarded through memorable trips and destination experiences will set in when incentive travel awakens from its present hibernation.
At the start of 2020, the incentive travel industryâ€™s future looked incredibly bright.
This was supported by results from the 2019 Incentive Travel Industry Index, a joint research effort from SITE (the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), IRF (the Incentive Research Foundation) and FICP (Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals), which pointed to an uptick in incentive travel spend over the next few years.
The survey showed that incentive travel was expected to grow at an average rate of nearly three per cent from 2020 to 2022, with budgets increasing over the next three years, while spending per person also looked set to increase by roughly two per cent.
However, the pandemic has altered the outlook, with many companies putting their travel and event plans on hold until it is safe and possible to get moving once more.
Health is wealth
When incentive travel demand returns, programme designers and specialists believe that health and safety factors will play a major role in the decision-making process. Travellers will want to know that they are safe, and be reassured that the trip has been planned carefully and tightly-managed.
SITEâ€™s CEO, Didier Scaillet, pointed out: â€śWe will see new standards and procedures â€“ less people per room, more room between chairs, sanitisation procedures, new security protocol at airports, new rules on plane, etc.â€ť
Niels Steeman, group director marketing and e-Commerce, Asian Trails, agree that health and safety matters will take a front row seat.
â€śThe administrative side of assuring a clean and safe environment for participants will be of the utmost importance. I believe that this post-Covid wish for incentive travel will evolve around getting assurances that venues, hotels, transportation companies, and DMCs adhere to local and international health standards,â€ť he elaborated.
Health and safety might even be taken to the next level, mused Jennifer Glynn, president, SITE Global. â€śAfter 9/11 we saw security measures at airports and within airlines increasing; (I think weâ€™re) going to see incentive travel programmes travelling with nurses or doctors and (clients) asking more difficult questions about the health security of the area.â€ť
Safe locations in focus
Incentive programmes of the future may also feature more time outdoors.
Alicia Yao, managing director of IME Consulting in China, predicts a leaning towards open-air venues for activities and dining, to allow planners to abide by social distancing requirements.
Yao also expects incentive programmes to feature healthier food options and wellness activities.
Anticipating this trend, DMC Asian Trails has taken a step in this direction by collating a list of open-air activities that can be done in Asia, ranging from candle-lit dinners for up to 80 pax in Bagan, to walking and dining on the iconic Great Wall of China for groups of up to 50.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Awadh Sheikh Abdullah, managing director of Malaysia-based Gotz Travel & Tours, believes that his clients will be more discerning in selecting a destination.
â€śThey will do their own research into the destination and (ensure that) safeguards are in place at all the hotels and venues. They will also want to go to destinations and venues that are not crowded. Destinations that have stringent SOPs (standard operating procedures) in place will be favoured,â€ť he remarked.
As companies avoid densely populated locations, Scaillet believes that second- and third-tier destinations will become more â€śattractiveâ€ť.
â€śIncentive travel does not need massive infrastructure and major hubs, as these small groups can use other means of transportation. This represents a true opportunity for less MICE-developed destinations,â€ť he posited.
Destinations with a good health system in place will also shine, opined Abdul Rahman Mohamed, general manager, Mayflower Holidays Malaysia.
Covid-19 fears, travel restrictions and budget limitations will also result in companies choosing destinations closer to home, say incentive travel specialists like Singapore-based MICE Mattersâ€™ director, Melvyn Nonis.
â€śTrans-continental travel will take some time to resume and incentive travel will stay national first, then progressively regional, and finally global,â€ť said Scaillet.
Watch for contractions
Health and safety considerations, as well as poorer business performance among companies during the current economic downturn, are expected to impact the size of future incentive groups.
But thereâ€™s good news, for Sheikh foresees CVBs hungry for incentive groups will â€ścome up with new subventions and lower the qualifying size of groupsâ€ť.
A group size of 25 to 30 people is ideal for efficient social distancing and management, according to Alexander Wong, founder of MICE Hospitality Connections in Malaysia.
â€śCoaches will be travelling at half capacity as delegates are encouraged to sit apart. During mealtimes, we will see more space between individuals,â€ť Wong added.
In fact, nothing more than 500 pax, opined Agustinus Pake Seko, president director of Indonesia-based Bayu Buana Travel. The downside to reduced group sizes is that prices could increase by 20 to 30 per cent, he said.
The only way is up
While the mood among incentive travel specialists is sombre now, many told TTGmice that they remain confident that business will rebound soon enough, with pent-up demand being the main driver.
There is no substitute for incentives, said Destination Chinaâ€™s general manager, Gunther Homerlein, as experiencing another country and its culture remains a key motivator for many.
Indonesian players are also optimistic that their clients will not replace trips with cash rewards.
Agustinus said: â€śMoney cannot replace experiences and create engagement… Many companies still plan to travel next year with us.â€ť
Bringing hope to the conversation, Vidya Hermanto, managing director of Orange Incentive House â€“ the corporate incentive division under Panorama JTB Tour â€“ revealed that she has been fielding some enquires from local companies.
She said: â€śUnlike meetings and exhibitions, incentive trips cannot be done virtually. The market will always be there regardless of the situation.â€ť
Asian Trailsâ€™ Steeman has also seen new enquiries coming in for potential trips for 2021, and pointed out that programmes for 2020 were only postponed and not cancelled.
Meanwhile, Nonis expects possible movement to only begin from April 2021.
â€śI have no doubt that the fundamentals that fuelled the growth of incentive travel pre-pandemic will persist post-pandemic: motivating and rewarding top performers by extraordinary travel experiences is, and will be more than ever now that people have experienced confinement, one of the most powerful business tools (and more so with millenials),â€ť Scaillet concluded.
Rachel AJ Lee, S Puvaneswary, Mimi Hudoyo, Anne Somanas, and Prudence Lui contributed to this article