BILL BOYD CHUCKLES as he thinks about the questions that inexperienced planners ask when outsourcing their incentive programs.

“One of the first questions we get is, ‘If we used you, would it cost us any money?’” says Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation Inc., Dallas. “A large portion of the public believes incentive houses are the same thing as travel agencies — that we work off a commission. They're amazed when they find out that there is a lot more to incentive companies than travel fulfillment.”

As corporations downsize their meeting departments and place the burden for incentive planning on already overloaded employees, outsourcing can be the best solution. But finding the right company can be an education.

References, References, References

Ira Almeas, CITE, vice president of sales for Impact Incentives & Meetings Inc., East Hanover, N.J., says that anyone who is looking to outsource an incentive program must first understand exactly what kinds of services he or she needs.

“Are they looking for travel redemption? Incentive management? Do they need full service, which would require rule writing, rule structure, online communications, online registration, on-site management?”

Mona Meretsky, president of Comcor Event and Meeting Production Inc., an incentive travel fulfillment company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., argues that “because we do this [incentive travel] and nothing else,” a company such as hers can provide a level of expert service and experience that may not be available from larger, full-service companies. At the same time, the major full-service incentive houses would argue that they can handle the same program, and on a lower budget.

That's what happened to Meretsky in one case where she had successfully run a company's program for four years straight, but lost the contract the fifth year to a much larger competitor. “Their package was so big that we couldn't compete on the price,” she says.

Almeas suggests that planners use something as simple as a spreadsheet to list needed services so that when they start talking to incentive companies, they know precisely what they need. While this kind of advice may seem self-evident, Paul Mednis, marketing manager of The JourneyMasters Inc., Salem, Mass., says it's not unusual for him to field calls from potential clients who are ill-prepared for the task at hand. “A VP will tell an administrative assistant to go and find some incentive companies,” he says. “He or she will not ask the right questions. … They might not have the ammo to help you. … They don't know the budget, or the budget per person. They just know they ‘want to go somewhere nice.’”

The best way to narrow the field is through referrals. “Go to a vendor you've used and you trust, and ask if they know of a good incentive house or meeting planning company they've worked with,” Almeas suggests.

Boyd agrees that references are critical, but adds that it might be more important to know about the financial stability of the prospective incentive supplier. “It doesn't take anything to put out a shingle and call yourself an incentive house,” he says. Considering that dealing with an incentive company by necessity means coming up with sizeable advance deposits, choosing poorly could have devastating financial consequences.

“I see it happen all the time,” he says. “You have a half million dollars in advance deposits … and the incentive buyer is left holding the bag. It gives all of us a bad reputation.” He adds that the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives is a good resource for prospective suppliers. “If a company has a reputation in SITE, then you pretty well know that you're dealing with someone who has some legs.”

Questions to Ask

Prospective incentive buyers then should be prepared to ask a lot of questions.

Melissa Socci, vice president of marketing for Ryan Beck and Co. Inc., Livingston, N.J., asks about a company's creativity — how good it is at “thinking outside the box.” She also asks to see examples of programs that the company has put on.

Then her questions get more specific. “Do they have a familiarity with my kind of sales force? Will they understand the mind-set of the attendees?” Line item billing is important, she says, particularly for planners who are used to doing things in-house. “It gets you comfortable with the way you're going to do business.”

Sandy Cole, senior communications manager for Cincinnati Bell, asks for referrals from her peers, and after identifying two or three likely suppliers, reviews lists of clients, references, typical destinations to which the companies direct attendees, and the scope of previously planned programs. She also likes to have “a general conversation about responsiveness and customer service to make sure there is a comfort level between the two of you.”

In the case of a merchandise incentive, Scott Skeaback, director of fixed annuity marketing for ING-USA Annuity and Life Insurance Co., West Chester, Pa., says that it's important to ask whether the company warehouses its merchandise. “If they don't, you know your request might have to go another step,” he points out. “You could be competing with Wal-Mart.”

Skeaback tries to find out if a company is flexible enough to handle large programs and how customer service — oriented it is. “If something goes wrong, what are they going to do about it?” he asks. “Will they value our business enough to say, ‘We're going to make this right’?” In the end, he echoes Mednis of JourneyMasters — “It comes back to references.”

Too Many Titles

In its annual resource directory, the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives lists a range of different kinds of incentive companies, from simple travel agencies to full-service incentive marketing companies.

According to SITE Executive Director Brenda Anderson, SITE members self-select the category in which they belong. But the category differences may not be so black and white.

For example, in the directory, a full-service incentive house is described as one that performs “all the services of a full-service incentive marketing company but utilizes only incentive-class travel as an incentive.” But Impact Incentive and Meetings Inc., East Hanover, N.J., chose to identify itself as a full-service incentive house, despite the fact it offers a full range of incentive services.

Impact actually describes itself as a “full-service performance improvement company,” which Ira Almeas, CITE, vice president of sales, says signifies that it is much more than a travel or incentive award company, and can become intimately involved in creating the structure of an incentive program.

More important than titles are issues such as experience. Says Mona Meretsky, president of Comcor Event and Meeting Production Inc., a Fort Lauderdale-based incentive travel fulfillment company who finds her company listed in the same category as the industry's giants, Maritz and Carlson, “After 31 years in business, I know what's negotiable in a hotel contract and can do a lot better on a hotel contract than my clients can do on their own.”

CITE: The Incentive Industry's Elite

Most people don't realize that the Certified Incentive Travel Executive certification, offered through the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, has been granted to just 42 SITE members.

“It is the elite designation in the industry,” says SITE Executive Director Brenda Anderson. “It's equivalent to getting a PhD.”

Members must fulfill specific requirements to get the CITE designation, including passing a written examination, preparing an original research paper on a pre-approved topic, and demonstrating an achievement of excellence within the industry.

The designation, Anderson says, does not imply that a CITE designee is a more qualified incentive supplier than his or her competitors. However, she says, it does mean “they have gone the extra mile and achieved a certain level of expertise. When someone sees CITE after the name, it carries a lot of weight.”

Ira Almeas, vice president of sales for Impact Incentives & Meetings Inc., East Hanover, N.J., is one of the few with a CITE designation. He acknowledges that while the designation sets him apart to an extent, it does not necessarily mean that he is more expert than his colleagues. “It does mean that you can rest assured that the person with the designation completely understands the incentive market and industry and can completely manage your incentive needs,” he says.