While the trend started when the economy began to sputter, world events have sped it along: Merchandise, gift-certificate, and debit-card incentives are up; travel incentives are down.

That was the general message during a panel discussion at IT&ME, held in October in Chicago. The panel was moderated by Bruce B. Tepper, vice president of Joselyn, Tepper & Associates, and included Scott Siewert, regional manager, US Motivation; Steve Litzau, executive vice president, incentive operations, Meridian; Mylle Mangum, CEO, MMS; Carole Perfetti, executive vice president, Cornerstone; Richard Gaeta, president, Premier Incentives; and Ellen Cox, vice president, marketing, eMaritz.

“There's been much repositioning in travel incentives,” Perfetti said. “I'm seeing fewer people participating in trips.” Litzau reported such a shift that he is about to set a company record on the nontravel side of his business.

Conversely, companies specializing in merchandise, gift-certificate, and debit-card incentives are seeing a huge increase.

What's hot in merchandise awards? Entertainment centers, computers, DVD players. Gift certificates and debit cards are picking up because people want choices, according to Mangum.

Tepper closed the session by asking panelists for their opinion of the best new idea for noncash awards. “The gift of time,” Perfetti answered. “Look into individual incentives, so the qualifiers can choose where they want to travel.”

At a separate discussion that was hosted by the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, attendees — who were primarily planners and incentive experts — shared their ideas on how to protect themselves from liability when they use travel incentives. Among their suggestions:

  • Hire a security firm to assess destinations and properties.

  • Survey qualifiers about what they want.

  • Consider South America for international travel, because it does not feel as risky as Europe right now.

  • If you do decide to travel internationally, involve representatives from the U.S. embassy to meet and greet participants, and include a stop at the embassy on the initial group tour.

  • Include language in your contract to protect your company from occurrences outside your control.

  • Stay regional, or even better, go to New York! NYC & Co. (the New York CVB) and various incentive firms are developing “I Love New York” packages for groups.

  • Most surprising was one suggestion that planners simply not choose a destination for their next incentive trip. By using a general description, such as “beach resort,” and booking a location much closer to the date of the trip, companies can avoid potential attrition charges.