Companies spend $8.4 billion annually on incentive travel, according to a new study conducted by The Incentive Foundation, a coalition of leading associations, manufacturers, and suppliers in the premium and incentive field.

The first comprehensive study of the incentive industry to be conducted in five years, it reveals that some 26 percent of the nation's ten million business organizations currently use travel or merchandise to motivate consumers, company salespeople, dealers, distributors, and nonsales employees. The use rate indicates major growth opportunities for the industry, according to a press release from one of the coalition members, the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE) Foundation. Other key findings:

* Dealer programs represent the largest segment (48 percent) of incentive travel usage, followed by sales incentives (42 percent).

* Companies with more than 100 employees represent the bulk (69 percent) of incentive users.

* In 1997, one third of respondents planned to increase incentive programs for nonsales employees.

A cross-section of American businesses was selected for the sample pool in the study. Some 6,500 surveys were mailed; the response rate was 16.4 percent.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of buyers and suppliers in the incentive merchandise and travel industry converged on Chi-cago's newly expanded McCormick Place in October for the Motivation Show, which combined the 25th Incentive Travel & Meeting Executives Show and the 64th National Premium/Incentive Show. Some 3,500 exhibitors occupied 700,000 square feet of space during the show's three days.