RUNNING A SUCCESSFUL incentive program can be difficult enough, but summoning up the confidence to plan and implement one for the first time can be downright terrifying.

“It's a scary thing for the company that decides to take that chance,” says Paula Kelly, vice president of American Investors Life in Memphis, Tenn. Kelly helped Insurance Agency Marketing Services of Omaha, Neb., plan its first-ever travel incentive program, held at MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in October 2004. IAMS, which has about 2,400 agents under contract, is a national insurance marketing company that does half of its annual annuity business with American Investors Life.

Steve Murray, vice president of IAMS, had been thinking about launching an incentive for some time. While he was obviously interested in building and maintaining agent loyalty, he was also looking for a program that would bring agents together to network, share leads, and engage in a team-building experience. In mid-2003, he asked Kelly, who works in American Investors Life's marketing department and has many years of experience planning incentives, to outline a proposal. They reached an agreement in late 2003, giving them just 10 months lead time to plan the program.

Las Vegas was chosen as the site because it is a tried-and-true destination with a variety of activities available for attendees. The major challenge was to create enough excitement about the trip in order to get independent agents — who have other incentive options at their disposal — to want to qualify.

“When you are trying to help a company that is in heavy competition,” Kelly says, “you have to find some kind of carrot to dangle.” In this case the carrot was Elton John, who was performing in Las Vegas during the IAMS incentive. When an Elton John concert became part of the activity package, Kelly says, it created a buzz. “All of a sudden you had all of the spouses wanting to go,” she says. “I think it made it [the incentive] lift off the ground.”

Lessons Learned

Thirty-two agents qualified for the trip — twice as many as Murray originally expected. In addition to the Elton John concert and pre-concert reception, activities included an awards evening and golf. The main educational component was a session on how to run insurance seminars for consumers, and there were several IAMS company presentations as well. “The meetings were well attended, even when they were optional,” Murray says.

Although Murray and his fellow IAMS executives “were a little nervous until the whole thing was over,” says Kelly, “I think it was very successful.” Murray adds that the teambuilding benefits of the program “exceeded what I hoped for.” In fact, the incentive could become an annual event, with a second Las Vegas program already in the planning stage. “People like [Las Vegas], and there is a lot to do there,” says Murray. But, he adds, the second time around he will do some things differently.

This time, the program will have a one-year qualification period instead of the eight-month period used for the 2004 incentive, so more agents will have the opportunity to qualify. Murray was also unhappy with a two-tier qualification level that had a lower qualification number for producers who traveled alone, versus a higher number for producers who traveled with a spouse or guest. “[Qualifiers] are going to want to take their spouses,” Murray says matter-of-factly, so for subsequent programs he's establishing one qualification number to cover agent and guest.

And while the Las Vegas program adhered to a strict budget, Murray believes that costs can be managed even more efficiently the second time around. For example, “I think with a little more lead time we can do better on airline tickets and golf costs,” he says.