JERRY MCGEE HAS A STORY he likes to tell about how not to launch an incentive campaign.

“When the company contacted the incentive winners to book their travel, some of them had absolutely no idea there had even been a contest — let alone that they had won,” says McGee, chief operating officer of Ambassadors, a meeting and incentive services company headquartered in Newport Beach, Calif. “It was the complete antithesis of what the company had been trying to accomplish.”

Of course, his example is extreme, but McGee's point is that companies need to launch their incentive contests in a way that grabs the attention of participants — then back them up with strong promotional campaigns. Yet companies rarely put enough money and energy toward the kickoff event and the communications that follow. If the kickoff is a dud, warns Alan Townsend, director, national accounts, for Atlanta-based incentive house US Motivation, “your participants will be turned off right from the beginning.

“There's a reason why an incentive kickoff event is called a launch,” he adds. “If you think in terms of launching a rocket, you have to have all that power and lift to get it off the ground. So it needs a lot of punch.”

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Through the years, Concerto Software has consistently made its sales goals. But the Westford, Mass. — based company had historically relied on one or two worldwide regional sales teams to take up the slack for other teams that have come up short.

In 2003, Ralph Breslauer, Concerto's executive vice president for sales and marketing, decided to issue a challenge — if every one of the company's four regional sales teams made its fourth-quarter sales goal, his salespeople would be given the chance at Concerto's January 2004 incentive kickoff to personally help shave off his hair.

Concerto has a strong annual incentive campaign that has awarded winners trips to destinations such as the Turks and Caicos, St. Lucia, and Hawaii. But the prospect of being able to “humiliate the boss,” as Breslauer put it, seemed to motivate people in a way that mere money could not. Each of the sales teams made its fourth-quarter goal, and Breslauer was forced to make his way to the barber's chair.

The hair-shaving event was held on the last day of the sales meeting. Breslauer decided to give salespeople the option to bid for the right to shave off a strip of his hair. There were plenty of bidders, and by the end of the evening, the charity of his choice, Lifelines — which assists homeless shelters across Massachusetts — was $4,000 richer. Most important, he says, his salespeople walked away from the kickoff energized and motivated for the next year's incentive program.

Motivation, Breslauer believes, must go beyond monetary compensation and the promise of trips and bonuses. In this case, “The troops looked at me as someone who was willing to invest personally in the company's success.”

Theme It

It's important to tie the kickoff event to the upcoming program, and rolling out the theme is one way to do this.

Ron Piccioli, director of sales for Maynard, Mass. — based Salesdriver Inc., had a client who chose a “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme. At the kickoff meeting, participants were greeted with calypso music and entered a room filled with sand and decorations, including treasure chests. “An incentive program by its nature is fun,” he says. “The kickoff event should reflect that. It needs to be memorable, and it should put people in a receptive state of mind.”

Often, incentive kickoffs are “events within events” held during the previous year's incentive trip, because the company already has many of the qualifiers in one location. Most companies hold the kickoff on the last day so that the trip ends on a high note.

“Let's say you're at the end of a very intense three-day sales conference,” says Townsend. “Everyone's been called together for an announcement about next year's ‘President's Club’ incentive. It's all very much a stage show. If the trip is to Scotland, when it comes time to make the announcement the lights will dim and you'll hear bagpipes in the distance, and all of a sudden a bagpipe band starts marching around the room. A custom-produced video announcement follows. It's something that makes a huge splash and will send everyone out of the meeting thinking, ‘That was so cool.’”

Get Executive Support

Everyone agrees that when it comes to selling an incentive program to participants, having senior management at the kickoff is a necessity.

“Participants want to understand how high up the program goes,” says McGee. “The higher the executive, the higher the expectations. That's why they call these incentives things like the ‘President's Club.’”

The higher up the executive who makes the announcement, the better, even if it requires a video message from off site. Better yet, McGee says, get a senior executive to broadcast a message from the actual incentive destination when he or she does the site inspection.

Most important, Townsend says, is to make sure that by the end of the kickoff meeting, participants not only understand what's in it for them, but how they can qualify. While it may not be necessary to go through all the rules, planners should at least make sure that participants go home with brochures or a Web site they can log onto.

“First, get their attention. Tell them what they need to do in order to earn the incentive,” says Townsend. “And then tell them again, and again — and again.”

Baseball + Training = A Winning Kickoff

If you plan to add training to a kickoff meeting, make sure it's done in an interactive, engaging way. “You don't want your participants just sitting around taking notes,” warns Ron Piccioli, director of sales for Salesdriver Inc., Maynard, Mass.

Take the example of accounting and consulting firm J.H. Cohn LLP. The company has, over the past four years, run two highly successful sports-themed team incentive programs, designed, according to Marketing Director Sally Glick, to bring in the new business by encouraging office employees — from partners on down — to market the firm on a daily basis.

Last year's baseball-themed incentive was launched in the summer, with a daylong event that, along with motivational speeches, a midday barbecue, and fun and games, included training. To start, employees were assigned randomly to teams (complete with major league names), coaches were selected, and “playbooks” were handed out that included the rules for the incentive contest. The playbooks also included tips for marketing the firm, whether that involved a partner writing an article or a telephone operator avoiding keeping callers on hold.

Between the playbook/training session and an after-lunch sit-down strategy session (designed to help players devise action plans they could follow that would help their teams score runs), Glick says the 150 office employees left the launch educated and motivated.

Although Kohn is a huge firm, with 50 partners and close to 750 employees, the program is only used in its Eatontown, N.J., office. “This kind of program thrives in an intimate environment,” Glick says. “It wouldn't have worked across all of our offices, but for Eatontown, it fits just right.”