IF YOU PACKED A ROOM with incentive industry members and asked them about the coming year, you'd be buzzing from their excitement about the business rebound. The year is off to the most optimistic start in recent memory, and here's why:

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL IS BACK

Bill Boyd, president of the Society of Incentive & Travel Professionals and president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel, Irving, Texas, reports that his company is experiencing more requests for proposals to Europe and Asia than it has since 1998. “This means that the offshore market is back.”

“The surge in interest in international programs that we've seen from our clients over the last three to four months is beyond optimistic,” says Mark Bondy, partner/president, VIKTOR Incentives & Meetings, Traverse City, Mich. The same is true with Rachel Elliott of Global Event Partners, Washington, D.C., who reports that more companies are looking at exotic destinations again. But she also sees the sagging dollar influencing their decisions. “It's causing planners to take a harder look at exchange rates and seek stable currencies.”

Laurie Sprouse, CITE, CMP, DMCP, of Ultimate Ventures, Dallas, also sees “a definite trend to venture farther away again.” Her clients are choosing mostly the Caribbean “as well the discounted cruise ships.”

INCENTIVE BUDGETS ARE GROWING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN RECENT MEMORY

“Value is still important, but we're hearing phrases such as, ‘We want wow,’ ‘We want extravagant,’ ‘We want unforgettable,’” reports Elliott. Sprouse concurs. “Confidence in the economy is definitely coming back, with budgets slightly increasing again as well,” she says.

PEOPLE ARE GETTING USED TO PROCUREMENT

Incentive execs are learning to work with their new partners, and now realize that they still have a seat at the table. “We're finally realizing that traditional procurement practices through a purchasing department will never become the successful model for incentive program purchasing,” says Bondy. “It has never been all about price, and it takes more than a procurement department to realize true value on as large and important an investment as an incentive marketing program.”

For more on our readers' outlook for '05, see our Annual Incentive Trends Survey on page 38.