THIS YEAR, MARKETSHARE FINANCIAL INC. OF INDIANAPOLIS WILL HOLD its annual incentive meeting at the Trump Sonesta Resort in Miami Beach. ECA Marketing Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., will be sending its top producers on a seven-day Caribbean cruise on a Princess Cruise ship next January. And Broker's International Ltd. of Panora, Iowa, has Los Cabos, Mexico, on its future incentive agenda.

While these are fairly standard incentive trips for top-selling agents, the companies themselves are anything but standard insurance firms. Rather, they're insurance marketing organizations — known in the industry as IMOs — and they're accounting for an increasing amount of the industry's incentive business.

“It is a growing market,” says Ed Ledford, president and chief operating officer of Marketshare Financial, who prefers to use the term independent rather than insurance when discussing IMOs, because they provide services to the entire financial services industry. “Ten years ago there were few, if any, IMOs that were hosting these types of trips. Today you see more and more,” he says.

Lynette Owens, president of Lynette Owens & Associates in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., a hotel marketing firm specializing in the life insurance and financial services market, has seen an increasing amount of incentive business coming from IMOs, and has referred to them as “the wave of the future” for financial services and insurance meetings.

Why are IMOs becoming a more significant player in the incentive travel business? Jim Henson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Shenandoah Life (a traditional insurance company) in Roanoke, Va., says it is because IMOs are distributing more product and are becoming increasingly important players in the industry as a whole. While IMOs aren't new, both Henson and Ledford agree that they have come into their own over the last decade. As more and more insurance and financial services companies downsize their internal marketing and administrative departments, IMOs — particularly the larger ones — are stepping in to fill the void.

What Is an IMO?

Generally speaking, IMOs provide contracted agents access to products from affiliated insurance companies and broker/dealers. According to Henson, the best description defines an IMO as an “organization that provides producers with one-stop shopping.”

In the case of Marketshare Financial, this means that producers have access to the products of dozens of carriers within an organization that also provides a considerable amount of marketing and administrative support — including incentive trips and training.

“What has happened is that the whole IMO marketplace has evolved to pick up marketing initiatives that had been provided by [traditional] carriers,” Ledford says. “Many insurance companies have in effect outsourced their marketing and sales force development, rather than bring those forces in house.”

“The [specialized services of the] IMO system is very attractive to the insurance industry,” Henson adds. “I don't have to have 20 regional vice presidents.”

As IMOs increase in size and scope of services, chances are they will look to set up their own incentive trips. “The bigger and better the IMO, the more it's going to want to endear itself to agents,” Henson says, adding that agents can go elsewhere and find similar products to sell with comparable compensation rates. But, what can set an IMO apart, Henson believes, “are the trips.”

New Kinds of Incentive Trips

Henson divides IMO incentive trips into three categories. The largest category includes those IMOs too small to organize their own incentive meetings. Instead, he says, they “tap into” incentive trips held by affiliated carriers. The second category comprises IMOs that organize their own, small-scale incentive trips, such as a weekend getaway.

Then there are a “certain select group of IMOs who don't want their agents to go on any other insurance incentive trip,” Henson says. “They don't want the agents to be recruited by other IMOs.” So these IMOs offer full-scale incentive trips — the kind that traditional insurance companies use to reward their top producers. These incentive programs follow different business models, Henson adds. An IMO might be the sole sponsor of a trip, or it might convince affiliated insurance carriers to “dig into their own pockets” and be co-sponsors.

While some of the larger IMOs are beginning to provide “more luxurious” incentive trips, Ledford adds, many have refrained from hiring an in-house planner. Ledford often uses Lynette Owens & Associates to handle some of the details of Marketshare Financial's incentive trip planning and site selection. Owens observes that she is working with an increasing number of these IMOs — “who do not have the large travel planning staffs and dedicated meeting professionals [of traditional companies]” — as clients.

Who Does the Planning?

Nevertheless, some IMOs have developed their own in-house planning expertise. Brokers International Ltd., based in Panora, Iowa, identifies itself as one of the largest IMOs in the industry and began sponsoring incentive trips about four years ago, says Maria Christian, the company's travel and seminar coordinator. She came into the position with no incentive experience, she says, when company CEO Roger McCarty asked her to start planning company trips. “It's become a big thing in the industry to pat our agents on the back,” she says. “So many companies offer trips and incentives. We want to make sure our agents understand what we can do for them.”

Brokers International sponsors at least two incentive trips annually for its top producers, and CEO McCarty is very much involved in the decision-making, Christian says, particularly when it comes to choosing sites. Then Christian will do most of the logistical planning, with the exception of air travel arrangements. She recently planned a Caribbean cruise on Holland America's Oosterdam for 75 top agents, which took place in March, and is in the process of planning a 2005 trip to Los Cabos, Mexico.

But most IMOs do not have an in-house planning staff. ECA Marketing Inc., an IMO in Eden Prairie, Minn., heavily promotes an annual incentive trip, which next January will be a seven-day voyage on a Princess Cruise ship out of San Juan. The company has no dedicated planning coordinator, so Chief Operating Officer Jean Cobb and her staff handle most of the event arrangements, with the assistance of a travel agent for air ticketing.

How many IMOs offer agents a full-blown, single-sponsor incentive trip? Henson believes there are roughly 500 IMOs in the marketplace today. “Probably not more than 10 percent of them have their own full-scale trip,” he says. “But the number is growing.”