George Perkins is convinced that the insurance industry's incen- tive vehicle needs fixing, and for the past couple of years, he's been tinkering under the hood.

The problem, says Perkins, CEO of Financial Marketing Systems (FMS), Inc., is that incentive travel programs are geared only toward the elite achievers. "As important as national incentive conventions are--and they are critical for your big producers--they have no bearing on 90 percent of your agents," Perkins says. "If you can do anything to motivate that middle group of agents, production is going to be very positively affected."

With 51 years in the insurance industry and countless incentive programs under his belt, Perkins is trying a new motivation tactic: short-term individual incentives. "My assumption is that 25 percent of our agents could earn a short-term individual incentive," he says. "Now, just three percent make the national conventions."

FMS fills a particular niche in the insurance world. While it does design and sell some insurance products of its own, its primary business is to hire, train, and motivate independent agents to sell the insurance products of other companies. It currently has marketing agreements with Interstate Assurance Company, Commercial Union Life Insurance, American National Life Insurance Company, Security Life of Denver, Old Line Life Insurance Company of America, and, most recently, AFLAC.

Based in Nashua, NH, FMS delivers 500 independent agents from New England, 200 from Maryland, as well as some from California and Detroit. FMS-aligned agents are eligible for the incentive conventions run by the FMS client companies as well as those run by FMS. Typically, FMS trips dovetail with the client-company incentive, allowing top producers the chance to add three or four days onto an existing trip. And while Perkins will continue to offer these trips, he's working on a more inclusive way to motivate the field.

"I'm convinced that we're going to get more mileage--more financial returns--out of short-term programs that allow us to be flexible about how we reward people, but it's going to take some serious doing to make it work."

In fact, Perkins has already gotten a taste of how much work it's going to take. His first try at short-term, individual incentives in 1996 was not a big success. When one of the his client companies rolled out a new universal life product, he launched a five-month incentive program to generate excitement around the new policy option. Agents who met the goals could choose among three-day expense- paid trips at three different resorts: La Quinta (CA) Resort and Club; Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert, CA; and Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, Orlando, FL.

Without sharing exact figures, Perkins is clear that the results were disappointing. The number of qualifiers was lower than expected, and one resort, Marriott Desert Springs, didn't get a single taker. He's undeterred, however, and is expanding on the idea, with a number of major changes based on lessons learned from his initial try.

First, he's rethinking the grounds for the program. "I think the product affected the number of people who went on the trip. You need something really worthwhile to sell that has some sex appeal. There has got to be a reason for the incentive." For 1997, Perkins has identified a pension product and an index annuity so far that, he believes, have enough pizzazz to carry a short-term incentive program. Despite minimal success with his 1996 test, FMS may hold three short-term incentive programs this year. And all are likely to be more compact than his first try. Based on feedback from the 1996 program, Perkins now believes three-month--or even shorter--qualification periods will be more effective.

But the biggest change in the 1997 programs will be the breadth of the reward options. For the first time, FMS is working with an incentive house to allow winners to choose from among 40 different short trips. "Our locations weren't the problem last year," Perkins says. "We offered choices, but only limited choices." All the 1996 reward sites were golf-oriented and while golf is the number-one interest of FMS agents, the uniformity worked against the company. "You have to do a lot of research about how [your agents'] minds work," Perkins says.

His incentive options now prominently feature skiing and fishing destinations along with the traditional golf and beach resorts. With flexibility and customization as the watchwords, he also hopes to add events like Mardi Gras, sports play-offs (like the World Series), and other special interest activities to the list to capture the attention of a broad agent audience.

It'll be months before Perkins knows if his tinkering has worked. It's a delicate job to balance a reasonable qualification level, a high-interest product, and a travel reward in a way that drives agents to perform. But he's optimistic that he's now got a formula that will shift his sales machine into high gear.