“These are tough engagement times,” says Jim Ruszala, director, marketing, Maritz Travel. It’s not a news flash. But here are some sobering stats Ruszala offers to back up what we’re all feeling: The MetLife 2011 Employee Benefit Trends report showed that one-third of current employees are so disenchanted that they hope to be with a new employer within the next 12 months. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey revealed that 95 percent of executives are worried about losing their key employees, while a Leadership IQ study reported that 47 percent of top performers are currently looking for a job. Can incentive travel programs help? Sure. But how much they help, and whether they work over the long term, depends on their design.

You Have to Move the Middle
The Incentive Travel Council and the Site Foundation recently surveyed 1,000 earners and non-earners of incentive travel awards to discover what program participants find to be “meaningful, motivational, and memorable” enough to get them to act. Or, as Ruszala puts it: “What gains and retains participants’ engagement interests and commitment to ‘yearn to earn’ an incentive travel reward? In addition, what types of experiences provide for a positive and memorable event that helps improve on such objectives as building loyalty and production in the long run?”

On the plus side, more than three out of four respondents said they are “motivated” or “extremely motivated” to work toward incentive travel awards. What was not so impressive: When respondents were asked about their emotions (positive or negative) and the intensity of those emotions (high or low) during a trip, “nearly fifty percent of people were riding the middle on emotion,” Ruszala says. “They were on the fence. That’s not doing anything for you! We need to create more relevant and engaging experiences to provide short- and long-term value. How? Involve participants in designing your motivational strategy.” That means using carefully designed survey tools that reveal how they weigh different program aspects.

The strategy of companies putting on incentive conferences is well known—“we look at ROI and ROO to make sure they outweigh the cost,” Ruszala says. “But it’s a different math for participants. They have an engagement choice. They are making decisions based upon whether or not the incentive travel opportunity is worth their time and effort.’” Beyond that, for participants who do engage and who do qualify for the incentive trip, “what is the residual value of that trip to the participant?” How are they feeling 30, 60, 90 days afterward, and beyond? If you’ve surveyed them pre-meeting, you’ll be able to survey them post-meeting and find out.

“We can’t allow ourselves to become complacent,” Ruszala says. To him, that means not allowing “legacy programs” to continue un-studied. “What we need is a more strategic design and execution that is also participant-based.” The way to get that is “to develop a 360-degree view of all [incentive travel] stakeholders. And there is an increasing melting pot of departments that have a stake in meetings and incentives: procurement, finance, marketing, sales, human resources. They all have to agree on not only the core objective of the program, but also on the measures that will evaluate performance.”

For the C-suite, the overall objective is connecting with their people. “Executives in the boardroom know they can’t assume what their people want to engage with,” Ruszala says. “The risk factor is too high today.” When you, as the meeting expert, are able to deliver the data on precisely how employees want to be engaged, that makes you indispensable.

The Budget Battle
Of course, there are practicalities to consider as well. Which is code for your shrinking budget. Because if it’s flat, it’s shrinking, as hotel, travel, and F&B prices rise. That’s when you need to think about “addition by subtraction,” Ruszala quips. “For example, do you need to plan for 10 different activities at a given time? You may be spending a lot of money to offer choice—but it is uninformed choice.” Find out what people really want, reduce the options to, say, five, and save that money or reinvest it in areas that provide for better participant experiences.”

Qualifiers often want more leisure time, which costs you nothing. “But you do have to drill down,” Ruszala cautions. “It’s not that they want to do nothing.” A well-balanced incentive travel program provides for the right mix of both group and individual based time. “This leads planners down a decision trail of determining what interests and preferences exist from a participant viewpoint,” he says. Maybe all you need to do is make them aware of activity options such as tours, shopping, and dining. Or, Ruszala suggests, you could work with the local destination marketing organization to provide VIP access to local sites. “These efforts can have virtually no hard costs associated with them, but can greatly help provide for the type of exceptional experiences participants want.”