Not long ago, computer training firm Element K spared no expense when it came to its incentive programs.

Not any more.

Carol Schweinsberg, manager of travel and events, returned from the Rochester, N.Y., company's incentive trip to St. John, U.S.V.I., in June only to discover that next year's trip will be cut to a single day tacked onto a sales meeting. Since then, she has been faced with trying to make the trip special.

“While of course I understand the need to cut costs, I have to present my case to management,” Schweinsberg says. “Then I have to sell it to the salespeople.”

How It Works

Element K's incentive program has always been divided into two qualifying groups: the President's Club, for those salespeople who meet their sales goals, and the Chairman's Club, for those who reach 125 percent or more of their goals. The 2001 winners in both clubs were awarded trips, along with a significant other, to St. John; President's Club winners earned a three-day stay, and Chairman's Club winners earned a five-day stay.

Even for this year's trip, corporate bottom-line concerns stripped away a bit of the glitz: For the first time, Chairman's Club winners did not fly first-class.

But that's nothing compared to the cutbacks for next year's President's Club trip. It will be a one-day affair added to the company's annual sales meeting, to be held in Miami in January. Spouses/significant others are not included.

“While we're staying at a very nice hotel [the Biscayne Marriott], it's not of the level we would normally book for either the President's Club or the Chairman's Club,” Schweinsberg says, adding that she met resistance when she proposed hotels that were incentive-oriented, rather than meeting-oriented. “As yet, we have not announced the changes, but there's certainly going to be negative feedback. I've gotten many e-mails from our 2002 winners saying how important the St. John trip was to them, and especially to their spouses and significant others.”

As for the Chairman's Club trip, the location is still undecided. Early on, it was going to be added to the sales meeting, but Schweinsberg was able to convince management to make it a stand-alone event. All she knows at this point is that it will be in March and be cut from five days to two or three. Whether spouses will be included is still undecided.

“Where we hold it will probably wind up being a last-minute decision, and price will definitely be an important factor,” she says. “One problem is that Rochester is the fifth-highest market in the U.S. in terms of airfare — you can't get to many places on direct flights from here, so it's expensive to fly anywhere.”

Make It Special

Suzanne Kussie, a regional director with HelmsBriscoe, based in Seattle, not only helped Schweinsberg with site selection but also offered suggestions on adding special touches to the President's Club trip.

“I suggested that Carol do something special at the hotel, like make sure the winners get upgraded rooms with ocean views, if possible,” she says. “I suggested a gift be placed on the bed at turndown time, and that a hospitality suite be arranged where the winners could have drinks and refreshments throughout the meeting as well as their own one-day stay.”

While Element K is the first company Kussie has worked with that slashed its trip to this extent, she has seen many cutbacks among her clients. “I've worked with many companies that have switched their trips from, say, Hawaii to the mainland.”

However, she believes that qualifiers understand the economics.

“Whether they do or not, you have to plan with the idea in mind that you're going to make it as good and as successful a trip as it can possibly be.”

A bit reluctantly, Schweinsberg has geared up for the challenge.

“I have to get our executives to believe that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to how important these trips are, and how special they must be,” she says. “But it's not easy.”