There are as many corporations asking for individual experiences as there are companies that provide them. The industry has grown exponentially since these awards first started to gain popularity 15 years ago; Marriott's Individual Incentives division, a major player, has grown from about $1 million in revenues in 1992 to more than $75 million today, according to Steve Maselko, vice president of business development.

Dick Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives in Marblehead, Mass., recently worked with Heritage Marketing & Incentives in Norwood, Mass., to create individual awards for client Star Lumber in Wichita, Kan. The program, which is geared toward the company's middle- and lower-echelon salespeople, is structured similarly to frequent-flier programs. Participants accrue points for awards such as hotel stays, trips to Walt Disney World, the Richard Petty Driving Experience, or merchandise. Gaeta says one trend he is seeing is multiple levels of individual incentives. “We've also seen these awards bundled with car rental or food and beverage.”

Incentive industry veteran Jim Feldman, president of Incentive Travelers Cheque, Chicago, sees more of his clients combining merchandise and travel. “If you're setting up a golf day, include tees, golf balls, and a golf shirt,” he says. “I say to clients, ‘If you're going to spend $1,500 for a New York theater experience, why not make it $1,800 and add a custom shirt, tie, and cufflinks to wear to the theater?’”

Bob Guerriero, president of The Journeymasters, a Salem, Mass. — based incentive company, sees a trend toward higher-end individual awards. “Clients are asking for first-class airfare and first-class experiences.” His company's Above & Beyond certificate, with a $3,200 price tag, includes five nights in a junior suite at the Banff, Alberta, Fairmont; airfare; and complimentary breakfast.

High-end trips are also on the rise with customers of ITAGroup Inc., Des Moines. “They want the Ritz-Carlton, and we've gotten more requests for Europe and the South Pacific,” reports Doralene Abdel-Halim, manager of product development for individual awards. According to her, the individual incentive industry is a mirror of what is happening in the greater travel industry. “People are going farther and spending more.”

Phil Leger, vice president of operations and award management for Incentive Logic in Scottsdale, Ariz., says the biggest trend that he is seeing is experiential awards. “People are achieving on their own and are not tied to what everyone else does, so they want their own experience, like a spa, or golf.”

That's the premise behind Great American Days, a Decatur, Ga., company specializing in “experience awards” — 7,500 of them, to be exact. “We offer flight lessons, a weightless experience with an astronaut at Cape Canaveral, trekking with polar bears in Canada, or driving a racecar at NASCAR,” says Colin Reid, director. “These days, it's not where did you go, but what you do when you get there.”

Scott Siewert, region manager, US-Motivation in Atlanta, recently helped one incentive winner take exactly that kind of trip. “With the help of our in-house travel concierge, we set up a hot-air balloon ride in Southern California so he could propose to his girlfriend.”

Talk about an experience they will never forget.

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