Despite the fact that industry surveys across the board indicate that companies spend more each year on incentive programs, the pool of people who plan them remains curiously small. Taking into account trade show registrations and memberships at several key associations, it appears that there are only between 500 and 1,500 true incentive professionals out there.

Where do you begin your search if you need to hire one? You'll find these experts at four types of organizations: incentive companies, destination management companies (DMCs), event management (or meeting management) companies, and within other corporations' meeting planning departments.

Incentive companies are firms that sell, plan, and operate every type of incentive award program for corporate clients. Their services range from creative (producing the program theme and associated promotional literature and mailings) to administrative (enrolling participants, tracking their progress, and redeeming their awards) to trip management. There are several hundred such firms in the United States, ranging from mom-and-pop organizations to giants such as Business Incentives and Carlson Marketing.

Within an incentive company, look for people whose titles contain "operations," "planning and purchasing," "travel," or "meetings and incentives." I recommend individuals at the director or manager levels only, because these people usually have five to 15 years of experience in the business. They will have extensive knowledge of everything from hotel site selection to ground transportation.

You'll also find incentive planning experts, to a somewhat lesser degree, within DMCs and event management and meeting management companies. DMCs specialize in conducting group events and tours within a specific area and usually handle inbound groups to that area. Event management and meeting management firms handle a wide range of conferences, meetings, and affiliated events. You will also find meeting and event professionals who handle travel logistics in these companies.

Consider Hiring a Strategist To locate incentive program strategists--experts who can structure and theme sales and dealer incentive contests--your best bet remains the larger, full-service incentive companies. They typically carry the titles of "marketing manager," "director of promotions," or "director of marketing communications."

To find all the companies mentioned above, start with the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE) in New York (212/575-0910). SITE's members include incentive suppliers at every level. Meeting Professionals International (MPI) in Dallas (972/702-3000) also has a vast membership list of professional planners. Both also have local and regional chapters; contact their presidents and ask about people they might know who are looking for positions.

Another great resource is the Web. Sites such as www.mim.com and www.meetingjobs.com list various meeting and incentive positions, as does The Sales & Marketing Network (www.info-now.com). SITE and MPI also have job boards on their Web sites.

Perhaps the richest source of incentive planning talent remains within corporate America. But beware, because these individuals can be buried in departments that range from marketing or communications to special events. They can hold titles such as "marketing manager," "special projects manager," or "national sales administrator." Other possibilities: "recognition events manager" or "director of protocol."

What's the timeline for a thorough search for an incentive pro? Expect it to take anywhere from three to nine months to find a high-level expert. Remember, the job description is very specific and the talent pool quite shallow.