Patrick Sullivan, president of PRA Destination Management New York and incoming president of The Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, shares his insights on the incentive industry.
Patrick Sullivan is a busy guy. A really busy guy. As president of PRA Destination Management New York, he brings the wow factor to events for corporate clients around the world. He's also the incoming president of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives.
Sullivan has a broad perspective on the industry. In his more than 20 years as a corporate meeting planner, incentive house account executive, and now head of a major, he's pretty much done it all. We spoke with him in July, just after he returned from a SITE meeting in Spain, where he participated in a panel on incentive trends.
FIM: What were your primary impressions about international incentive travel and the economic slowdown coming away from the Spain event?
PATRICK SULLIVAN: The subprime mortgage debacle that we hear about all the time from the U.S. press is having an impact on European incentives. And the ever-declining U.S. dollar also affects the European market. Most important, corporate planners from the United States don't have as much buying power for international incentive trips abroad when the dollar is low.
FIM: So with the dollar so low against the euro, will international incentive programs fall off the map again, as they did after 9/11?
SULLIVAN: We're definitely seeing a decrease in the number of programs going outside of the U.S. The dollar is so low right now, and with the economic downslide, everybody's really sharpening their pencils and deciding whether they can take a program overseas.
FIM: Are there any solutions?
SULLIVAN: Yes. Many European DMCs and hotels are getting smart about coming up with U.S.-dollar-guaranteed packages, so planners can lock in rates. The guaranteed dollar format allows them to know what they're spending.
FIM: Does that imply planners should lock in a little quicker to get the guaranteed rates?
SULLIVAN: My advice to planners is to lock in quickly if it's a good value, and don't try to nickel and dime the prices down. The suppliers are willing to risk losing a bit of their profit margin, but the U.S. dollar guarantees won't last forever.
FIM: What are the biggest travel trends affecting international incentive programs?
SULLIVAN: The cost of fuel is a major issue for the airlines — if that doesn't change, fares will keep going up. Fuel surcharges are filtering into everything, such as carriers charging for checked luggage. Hopefully, incentive attendees will continue to recognize the value of international travel and their companies will be able to budget for higher airfares. One thing that may help is that hotels are starting to lower their price points.
FIM: How do you think rising prices will affect the way incentive meeting planners do their jobs and hold onto their jobs?
SULLIVAN: Planners are busier than ever because they've had both budget and staff cutbacks. They're constantly on the treadmill of managing one meeting after another, and doing more with flat budgets. What planners need to do is negotiate: Talk with their hospitality partners about lowering costs by providing things like free meeting room space, no additional fee on venue rentals, or a free half-hour cocktail party. Those areas should be on a separate spreadsheet for planners to show their bosses, who may not understand our industry. Planners need to prove to management not just that they ran a great program, but also how much money they saved.
FIM: As all this is happening, is the definition of incentives changing?
SULLIVAN: Yes — different generations are motivated by different things. Gen Y, for example, is motivated more by leaving something behind, and having meaningful experiences.
FIM: What will make Gen Y happy in the coming years?
SULLIVAN: That's a really good question because they've been brought up in an economy that's been very flush. For many, their idea of a posh program is going to a five-star hotel. However, it varies across the world. New Zealanders and Australians, for example, love high-energy activities like rock-climbing. Their American contemporaries tend to go for tamer activities, such as spa treatments andactivities that give back to the local communities.
FIM: How can planners meet winners' expectations in a tanking economy?
SULLIVAN: Today's producers of any age are working all the time — they are so busy in our hectic world that they probably don't have much free time to spend with their spouse or partner. So incentive programs that invite guests can be a prime example of offering quality personal time. More planners are looking at the advantages of not filling every moment of the trip. Rather, they're saying, “Hey, we want you to have some free time.” It's a cost-savings to the company, and it also gives back to the attendees and their guests. Some companies are even offering a stipend for meals and/or activities. It also shows consideration: “We respect the fact that your spouse/partner/guest has sat in the background while you've been busy out there obtaining your incentive goals.”
FIM: Let's talk about your coming year as president of SITE. What are your goals?
SULLIVAN: To continue to increase the membership of SITE. With members in 23 countries around the world, we're constantly finding new ways to grow. A new look for our Web site (with our new brand) will be launched at this year's annual conference in Montreux, Switzerland. I also want to be sure our members understand the increasing value and benefits of SITE. Communication will be key. We can never communicate enough because our members are so busy in today's world. Part of the message is, “Get involved. Participate.” Particularly in these tough times, there are big benefits to being proactive and attending. As well, there's a younger generation out there that needs more exposure to the incentive industry. For them, participating in SITE will help with education, networking, and business opportunities, ultimately helping to bring in more revenue to their company and advance their careers. The SITE board with Padraic Gilligan, Ovation Global, as this year's president has been an excellent team in starting to achieve these goals.
FIM: You served on's Hospitality Partner Committee for several years and were last year's chair. What are the incentive trends in that sector?
SULLIVAN: Financial and insurance conference planners are also facing budget constraints, as well as corporate consolidation and increased workloads. They get a lot of benefit from FICP, which is very smart strategically on how it works with the hospitality community. FICP members are a very loyal group of people, and they tend to be good at negotiating win-win relationships with their incentive suppliers.
FIM: What's your final word on how to give incentives the “wow” factor on reduced budgets?
SULLIVAN: The goal is to find that unusual, uncommon experience — be it the destination itself, or a particular activity — that will give attendees the “wow” factor that comes from something they haven't done before. Know your company and know your qualifiers. Survey them about their likes, dislikes, and experiences — your destination management company can assist with designing the survey questions and creating that “wow” experience for the winners.