Every hour, every activity of an incentive trip rests on the itinerary. And like a poorly constructed building, a trip built on a shaky itinerary can come crashing down on you and your qualifiers.

Use these tips to shape a winning itinerary around your budget, the destination, the trip's length, the group makeup, and the company's goals:

* Develop a group profile--What is the group's destination sophistication? What is its demographics? Look at the previous year's follow-up questionnaires to learn what did and didn't work, and work from there.

* Start with a grid--Map out the basic elements of the program: the opening night, breakfasts, any organized sightseeing, the awards dinner.

* Take it easy on the first day--Take into consideration how far--and in which direction--the winners are traveling. If they're arriving in the morning, book the rooms for the previous night so people can take a nap when they arrive.

* Set the stage on the first night--The first night sets the tone and provides a chance to express the company's appreciation. It's best to keep the group on property so people can head to their rooms if they're tired. A two-hour open bar with hors d'oeuvres is a popular option.

* Use tours on the second day--Tell the story of the destination on the second day, starting with an organized sightseeing tour that highlights the city's famous spots. The key here: Partner with a DMC you trust.

* Set them free--Allow a couple of afternoons for shopping or sightseeing within a five- or six-day schedule. Or create structured free time in which optional activities are available.

* Mix it up--Contrast day and evening activities. Allow guests to make their own dinner plans after a day of group activities, but at the end of a day on their own, bring them together as a group. Alternate formal evenings with casual events.

* Send them off with a bang--The gala evening, which often includes an awards program, is usually reserved for the final night and can be held on property or off. An evening in a castle is one they won't soon forget, as is a ballroom that's so glamourously decorated that guests can't help but say "Wow" as they enter.

* Create the "wow" factor--Creating an experience your guests would never experience on their own--isn't that what incentives are all about?