The Incentive Research Foundation’s Invitational 2014 drew a record turnout of incentive industry professionals, sponsors, and guests May 28 to June 1 at the newly opened Secrets Puerto Los Cabos in Los Cabos, Mexico. According to IRF President Melissa Van Dyke, data from the 12 studies IRF conducted in the past year, along with research from other sources, is telling the story of an industry that is strong, and growing. It currently stands at $77 billion, she said, $22.7 billion of which represents spending on incentive travel.

“We don’t have to be shy about our place in the new economy,” Van Dyke said. In fact, according to IRF Chief Research Officer Roger Stotz, who gave a presentation during Education Day on some of the recent IRF research findings, more than half of those incentive planners surveyed said that their budgets for 2014 and beyond are on the increase.

And IRF itself also has much to crow about, including more than 400 buyers and sponsors participating in this year’s event. The Invitational also drew 132 first-timers, who were given their own special welcome reception, as well as many returning sponsors, some of whom have been supporting the industry for 20 years. Ninety percent of the buyers were director-level or above.

The goal of the annual event, said IRF’s education consultant Lynn Randall, is to create bonds between people, which is why IRF offered 50 hours of structured and unstructured networking time during this year’s program. And also to connect people to big ideas: IRF doubled its educational offerings this year, and its newsletter and Web site also experienced 100 percent growth over the past two years, according to Van Dyke.

Building on SuccessThe event kicked off with a full day of education that was structured so that each short session built on the previous one. It began by exploring how consumers are changing their behavior in our increasingly digital world, moved into how “Big Data” is changing the incentive industry, and continued with how mobile-app gamification builds on both those trends to keep learning fun for incentive and recognition program participants. But since corporate America also is about increasing the wellness of its employees, those same mobile apps are being used in health and wellness programs, something the next session delved into—especially, how health and wellness affects performance in more ways than you might expect.

But did you know your brain has its own “hidden app” that can be turned on to think creatively about stubborn issues? Bill Donius, author of Thought Revolution: How to Unlock Your Inner Genius, gave participants the key to doing just that. (It involves turning on your right brain by writing the first thing that comes to mind about a topic using your non-dominant hand). Participants then went off to “innovation suites” to chew over both lunch and, using their new “brain app,” ways they would reinvent the industry if they could start it from scratch right now.

Afternoon sessions led participants through designing “the ultimate attendee journey” and the hows and whys of creating positive engagement at events. IRF capped off the education day with an engaging and positive talk by former national CBS News anchor and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research Michelle Gielan. She pointed to a Harvard Business Review article, “The Value of Happiness,” which found that “the biggest competitive advantage today is a positive, engaged brain.” Gielan then outlined a three-point strategy for upping your happiness and optimism quotient:

1. Start with a power lead: Make sure the first thing you say is a positive, even if a very small one.

2. Fact-check your negative thoughts. Don’t let something stressful blind you to evidence that the situation is not hopeless. Sure, go ahead and vent, but then think of why what you think is dire may, in fact, be resolvable.

3. Help good thoughts go viral by focusing on broadcasting the positive side through personal contact, social media, and other communication channels.The happiness theme was carried throughout the rest of the event’s programming, which provided some pretty amazing experiences, from golfing at the Cabo Real Golf Club and the Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club, to sightseeing cruises, ATV tours, snorkeling, zipline adventures, outback and camel safaris, and swimming with dolphins.

And the IRF Invitational app included a happiness game, where people could rack up points and win prizes for things like taking photos of their “happy places” at the resort, connecting with others, tweeting highlights, and uploading and tagging photos from evening receptions at the Hilton Los Cabos, Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, and Secrets Marquis Los Cabo. Judging from the squeals of joy emanating from winners of both the silent and live auctions of some wonderful experiences—the auctions raise funds to continue the IRF’s research efforts—and the big hugs as they left for the airport, many attendees expect to continue to reap the happiness benefits, tangible and intangible, of their experiences at the 2014 Invitational in the future.