How can I top myself next year? That's the refrain of incentive planners in a game of one-upmanship that's played out in insurance company marketing departments around the country. Judged against internal standards as well as those set by competitors, executives often feel the weight of history as they plan upcoming rewards. Every year needs to be a bit more spectacular: A five-star resort instead of a four-star, a six-day trip instead of a five-day, Sydney instead of Scottsdale--it's hard to step off that upward spiral of increased expectations.

But that's exactly what Interstate Assurance Company in Des Moines, IA, has done, and Rod Foster, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, is happy to tell you why. "We want to get back to offering trips that are a true incentive," he says. "We were leaving our producers behind. Our product has a middle-America audience, and we're looking for the

middle-America agent."

In what many might call a radical marketing move, Interstate has switched the focus of its incentive program from elite agents to lower producers who are at the core of its sales efforts. This year for the first time, Interstate has rolled back its qualification levels, shortened its qualification period, and changed the style of the trip to draw more agents into the winner's circle. Instead of about 125 qualifiers, Interstate expects at least 250 when it convenes for a five-day program at the Rim Rock Resort in Banff, Alberta in May 1998.

Adjusting Downward Interstate's last incentive program, in 1996, was every bit a luxury. It began with four days in Montreal for the top 125 producers, then those who also qualified for the second tier (46 agents) flew on to London for five days. The top ten producers went on from there to Paris for three more days. A wonderful trip, to be sure, but a tough reward to reap. Fewer than one percent of Interstate's contracted agents reached the production requirement for the lowest tier: $75,000 in net annualized premium over a two-year contest period in a minimum of 20 new applications. And those who went to London, needed double those premium dollars.

Looking ahead, Interstate executives calculated that to keep up the pace of their ever-more spectacular rewards, a two-year qualification level with production requirements of about $55,000 per year would be necessary for the low-tier of the next program. That's when they put on the brakes. "By setting our qualification levels so high," Foster says, "we were totally missing our target agent." Qualification levels had gotten to the point where the trip was a reward, but not a motivator, he says. High-end producers had come to expect the trip, but most others had dismissed it as unreachable.

Compare the old requirements to this year's: For the Banff trip, qualifiers need $35,000 in net annualized premium over a one-year qualification period--and agents are required to bring in only one new application. And the format of the meeting will change as well. "We've redesigned this meeting from the bottom up," Foster says. "We asked our producers and our marketing companies what they wanted. They wanted interaction and they wanted education." Instead of a pure incentive focus, the meeting is now called a retreat, and the program will include education on three levels: peer-led, nuts-and-bolts breakout sessions; high-level industry discussions; and a spiritual or motivational component. "We're trying to create more of an experience. We're good at bonding and good at getting our message across when we get the chance," says Foster. So far, Foster reports no resistance to the new format from the elite achievers, but he hasn't ruled out a system of upgrades or extensions that will recognize their special sales efforts.

The qualification period for Interstate's incentive experiment is about half over, and numbers are looking strong. Foster's plan to "at least double" the number of qualifiers seems likely, and now it's time to start worrying about overflow.

And it may not be too soon to start planning the next retreat. Foster calls Banff a "transition location." While he plans to bring the 1999 retreat to the U.S., he didn't think that after so many first-class meetings abroad that he could start right off in the continental U.S. this year. For the second retreat, Foster is looking for a U.S. site with an upscale appeal that can support his larger meetings and educational focus, as well as help answer the question that, despite the changes, undoubtedly still nags: How can I top myself next year?