As co-owner, president, and CEO of USMotivation, an Atlanta-based performance-improvement company, Michael Hadlow has grown his company into a national provider of multimedia promotional communications and corporate incentive-program consulting. A recognized industry expert and spokesman, he accepted four Crystal Awards in 1999 from the Society of Incentive Travel Executives on behalf of USMotivation for Outstanding Trip Delivery; Best Regional Program--U.S.A.; Communication and Promotion; and Best Multiple Motivation Award Program. This is a man who knows how to build an award-winning incentive program.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives sat down with Hadlow following the recent SITE Crystal Award ceremony.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives: USMotivation must do some pretty exceptional things to have won a record four SITE Crystal Awards for 1999. Tell us about some of your company's innovations when it comes to incentive travel programs.
Michael Hadlow: I think we were one of the first to recognize and put into practice the idea of promotions in the incentive travel industry. While a lot of people were just delivering trips, we were thinking about promoting the incentive travel concept, and eventually it evolved into the kind of communications and mass-media promotional services we have now. But most incentive companies today have gone from providing great trips to providing incentive campaigns. We've all had to develop and evolve our skills and services. Basically, our industry has become more professional.
CMI: What are the major changes you've seen in incentive programs over the past decade?
M.H.: Years ago incentive trips were referred to as "a room and a ride." In other words, companies would get people to a destination, get them to a hotel, and then leave them pretty much on their own.
Today, it's much more inclusive, much more involved. People don't just want an airplane ticket--they want a first-class airplane ticket. They don't just want a hotel room--they want a room with an ocean view. Years ago, a trip's final-night gala was the "wow" event--now, people expect a "wow" event every night. Basically, people are more sophisticated, so their expectations are much higher.
CMI: When you consult with a corporation on what they want from their incentive program, what is their typical answer today, compared with what it might have been a decade ago?
M.H.: Years ago, companies would use incentives to increase employee performance, and they'd say, "We'll take a piece of the increased revenue that comes from the financial impact of the increased performance to pay for the program." Today, many companies don't necessarily think they're getting incremental financial benefits from an incentive program--and that's especially true with incentive travel.
Here's an example: Not long ago, an insurance company executive told me that the main goal of her program was to get her company's executives to rub elbows with its top 20 percent brokers who would be on the trip.
I guess you can break it down into the "old" and "new" justifications for incentive travel: Companies used to justify it by saying it helped improve sales; now they say it helps them keep valued associates.
There's one other difference. Years ago, companies that used incentives didn't ask to see quantitative proof. Today, they're more skeptical. They want to see hard evidence that these programs work. There are a lot of companies yet to be convinced of the value of non-cash awards. It's faith vs. proof--today, companies want to see what their return on investment is going to be.
CMI: With these changes in mind, how have you had to adjust your thinking to ensure that the incentive programs you plan truly meet your clients' goals?
M.H.: It might be more instructive to look at how things haven't changed. If you look at an incentive program, specifically one that includes travel, the challenge is to deliver an experience that exceeds expectations. That's true today, it was true in the past, and it will be true in the future. You want to create a unique experience.
What has changed? Incentive trips used to be longer--seven nights used to be typical. Now they're shorter, mainly because companies don't want their best people out of the office for that long. This, coupled with the higher expectations I mentioned before, means that you have to pack more memorable experiences into a shorter period of time and still meet the higher expectations.
CMI: You've talked about how the industry has evolved and how incentive trips have changed. Have the qualifiers themselves changed?
M.H.: The audience companies are targeting is more diverse. It used to be more male; now it's male and female. The age groups are different, and it's more ethnically diverse. With all of that, you get more diverse interests on these trips, so the "one program fits all" trip doesn't work anymore. You have to customize the experience somehow.
Another big change is that people used to be happy sticking to the itinerary. Now, with access to the Internet, people are much more informed and have a better idea of what they want to see. You have to give them free time to do that, and you have to have a knowledgeable, qualified staff who can assist them in doing what they want to do.
CMI: While we're on the subject of destinations, what are today's hot incentive destinations? What about in the years ahead?
M.H.: We were just talking about that with Kim Cameron, our director of incentive travel research. She said that a lot of the U.S. cities that were once popular for incentive trips, like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, have gotten pricey, to the point where companies are saying, "If we're going to spend that kind of money, let's go somewhere more exotic." Now we're seeing more trips to Mexico's resort destinations instead. Vegas is hotter than ever, because now the whole family can have fun there--it's not just for high-rollers.
As far as international destinations, the classic cities--Paris, London, Rome--will always be in vogue. Kim told us that Asian destinations are popular--Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Thailand. South Africa is more stable, and people want to go there now. Russia is emerging, and so are eco-tourism destinations. She specifically mentioned Sharm El Sheik, on the Red Sea in Egypt. As for the future, Kim said that Iceland may take off, and Egypt, too, as long as it remains politically stable. In this country, she said the Gulf Coast may well be the next U.S. boom destination as gambling legislation in those areas make them more popular.
CMI: Can you give us an idea of the changes we can expect to see in the future?
M.H.: Corporate America is finally waking up to something I think is obvious: that cash is no longer the best way to motivate people. The Incentive Federation recently did a study showing that only 26 percent of American companies use incentives.Over the next two or three years, I think you're going to see that number jump to 80 percent.
Specifically, travel will be the most sought-after reward. We see how important travel is to people, how desirable it is--and companies need to remember that. People are becoming infinitely more sophisticated about traveling. They want to go to exotic places and do exotic things while they're there. Today's travelers--and today's qualifiers--don't want to be tourists as much as they want to be explorers.