As if navigating the Society of Incetive & Travel Executives (SITE) through these travel-phobic times weren't enough, SITE's new president, Peggy Whitman, also faces a troubling economy and a change in SITE's administrative leadership, with CEO Jill Harrington's recent resignation. It's enough to make anyone a little … anxious.

But not this 22-year veteran of the hospitality and incentive industries. Whitman, who is western regional sales manager for Marriott Incentive Awards, worked with the Doral, Hyatt, and Doubletree hotel companies before moving into the incentive field with the Arizona Biltmore and the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. She joined SITE in 1989, and has served as chapter president of SITE Arizona, chairwoman of SITE's 1999 University of the Americas, and host committee chair of the 2000 University of the Americas — and in 1997 she was named SITE's Member of the Year. Whitman sat down for an interview with Corporate Meetings & Incentives shortly before she stepped into her new role.

Q: Congratulations on your new position. What do you consider your biggest challenge as 2002 SITE president?

A: Definitely it's losing our executive vice president/CEO, Jill Harrington, as of March 31 and finding someone to fill her shoes. We have just launched an executive search, and we're hoping we find someone who is as good as she has been for the organization.

Education is Jill's first love, it's her area of expertise, and we're looking for a way to continue benefiting from her expertise as an educator. She has done so much in her tenure with SITE to build awareness of the importance of incentive programs in the business world.

Q: Speaking of education, how do you plan to work with SITE chapters to continue to improve that?

A: The chapters are truly the strength of our organization — our grass roots. I've worked my way up through the chapters and had the benefit of their professional development, teamwork, and camaraderie. About 72 percent of SITE members belong to their local chapters around the world, and we want to increase the number of chapters in the organization so that all our members can benefit from them as I did. There are still opportunities to develop chapters in the States and internationally. We're not focused on any one geographical area; we just want to grow chapters where we need them. That will make SITE even stronger.

As for education, we have made huge strides over the past few years, mostly under Jill's guidance, and we have great plans in place. We will focus on delivering information and educational seminars on topics that our members tell us they need and want. “Harnessing the Power of Incentives” is one seminar that is much in demand, and nowadays, with the economy being what it is, seminars and information about return-on-investment are crucial.

Q: It's been a tough few months for the travel industry in general, which of course affects the incentive industry. How do you think things are shaping up?

A: At the SITE International Conference in Lisbon [December 1 to 5], we took an instant, digital survey of the attendees, asking them their opinion of the effects of September 11 and the [weakened] economy, and what their outlook was. Now keep in mind these were international attendees — we had some 250 people from 39 countries. The responses were very optimistic. The majority said they felt that we could see a full recovery by the second or third quarter of 2002, barring, of course, any further terrible events. They said it wasn't so much fear of flying anymore that was causing the travel industry to be down, but the troubles with the economy.

They also said that it's more important than ever to know how to maximize and measure ROI, both for the supplier and corporate planners, who in turn can pass that information on to their clients.

Q: Will certain kinds of incentive awards gain in popularity and group travel decline because of economic reasons and/or lingering doubts about air travel?

A: I'd be remiss if I didn't say that individual travel incentives have really taken off. They allow people to choose where they want to go, when they want to go, who they want to go with, and how they want to get there. That's not to say that individual incentive travel will ever replace group travel — nothing can take the place of the face-to-face networking that you get with group incentive travel — but individual travel awards are trending up.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the travel-incentive industry in particular, and the travel industry overall?

A: We went through this same kind of thing during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and I think we learned from that. We found that the companies that really suffered were the ones that put their head in the sand and waited it out, while the ones who were aggressive and pursued a course of business as usual were the ones that prospered.

Q: Given the uncertainty of today's world, this is a difficult final question, but give it a shot. Looking five or even 10 years down the road, what changes do you see in the travel-incentive industry?

A: It's hard to tell about changes, per se, in the industry, but I will make a prediction. Recent SITE Foundation research shows that tangible incentives in the form of money or gifts increase worker performance by an average of 22 percent. Clearly, employers need incentives in order to get the most [productivity] from their employees. So my prediction is that over the next 10 years, you're going to see the incentive industry grow significantly — just as we've seen it grow over the past 10 years.

Up & Coming

In March

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  • Defining Luxury — What's the difference between hotel ratings? We sort it all out.

  • ADA Update — Answers to important questions about the Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • The New ROI — One reader has found new ways to prove meetings' return on investment.