When MotivAction LLC won a 2005 Crystal Award from the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives in November, it brought the company's tally to a historic 30 in the 30 years that it has been in business.
No wonder MotivAction keeps winning: The program that the company created for 1,400 dealers from John Deere's Agricultural Division realized a 35.7 percent increase in sales and a 67-to-1 return on investment. Two thousand people visited Rome over a period of two months and were treated to private visits to the Sistine Chapel, and even had the chance to meet with the Pope.
The driving force behind MotivAction's success is president and CEO Bill Bryson, who took over as president in 1986 and bought the company outright in 1999. Bryson recently took time out from his schedule to talk via telephone from his Minneapolis offices about his 21 years with the company, how incentive programs and winners are changing, and how technology has turned the industry upside down.
CORPORATE MEETINGS & INCENTIVES: Tell us about your career before MotivAction. What did you do before you joined the incentive industry?
BILL BRYSON: I worked in sales and marketing management for Boise Cascade for 14 years. I was on the wood products side of the business; we were in charge of distributing wood products coming out of 40 mills across the country.
I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho. I attended the University of Idaho, graduating with a degree in business and marketing in 1968. I went into the military for two years during the Vietnam era.
CMI: What are some of the more significant ways in which the industry has changed in that time?
BRYSON: The first is that everything is on the Internet. Today, 95 percent of the programs we do are custom; clients want customized Web sites. The other thing that is way different is that all of our services and products are integrated in one platform, and the Web drove that.
And finally, again because of the Internet, all the lead times from our clients are much shorter than they were in the old days.
CMI: What are your clients doing differently with their incentive programs than they were, say, 10 years ago?
BRYSON: A number of things. First of all, today our clients want more choice in the programs, both on the travel side and on the award side. We also see more clients adding a whole new facet to the program: training. They will reward people if they pass the training that they're doing. They're now incorporating that into their programs.
There might be a medical device company or a major distributor of parts across North America, and they'll put out a program that is structured so that if you sell more, you get to go on the travel program. But they'll add criteria that has nothing to do with selling but that you need to complete to get the travel award. And that's where they add the training, maybe 10 to 20 questions that, if answered correctly, help you in the field and get you more sales.
CMI: How are the qualifiers different from 10 years ago?
BRYSON: They're very Web-savvy. Technologically, they're up to speed. They're young. And like everybody today, they want information quicker and faster. If they go in and check the status of the program, they want it in real-time. That's much different from 10 years ago. Even if you were keeping an audience up to date then, it was 30 days behind, or even 45 days. That's a big difference.
CMI: How have the rewards that you offer changed?
BRYSON: There seem to be more four-night programs instead of the six nights it used to be. It also seems that occasionally, as part of incentive programs, clients will have one or two meetings in the middle.
And incentives have to be more creative than they were 10 years ago, not just on-site but in what they offer. These people are so savvy; you have to have up-to-the-minute stuff for them. If you're offering awards out of a catalog and you don't have the ability to include the newest iPods, the Xbox 360, or the latest digital camera technology, you're not competitive. Your online abilities have to change for your audience.
CMI: What is hot in travel incentives, compared to when you started and compared to 10 years ago?
BRYSON: When you say hot, I really don't see “hot” in the marketplace. What is different is that so many new mega-resorts have come online. Hoteliers and developers spent tons of money on places we want to take our people to. Whether it's Las Vegas, the Bahamas, or Europe, we take advantage of those.
CMI: Do you see a big difference in the budgets that clients are giving you?
BRYSON: We don't. But there is a difference. Ten years ago, a client would say, “My per-person budget will be $3,300.” Today, they still want to spend $3,300! And they're comparing that to what they got 10 years ago! That is a challenge — they have not adjusted their budgets to take inflation into account.
CMI: How has technology affected your staffing?
BRYSON: Five or six years ago, we had maybe five programmers on staff and two temps. Now we have 35 full-time technical people. When you're running real-time programs and delivering on the Web, you have to have the technology and the people to support it. Our yearly budget is heavy on the technology side of the business.
CMI: How has the involvement of procurement in incentive travel decision-making affected your job?
BRYSON: That's a very good question. When that first raised itself in our business six years ago, it was a very adversarial relationship. We stopped in our tracks and said, “This is wrong.” Then we embraced it. We said, “They have a right to ask those questions.”
But we had to put a system in place to educate them — why we do what we do, why we charge what we charge. We needed to justify our costs and show how the things we do work.
Twenty-five percent of the time they don't give a rip what you say, and you're not going to participate in their business no matter what. And in 75 percent to 85 percent of those situations, we walk away. It's just not worth it.
All you have to do is look north to Detroit and see an example of supply management gone berserk. They have driven auto parts suppliers to their knees and into bankruptcy. They are demanding a product below cost. That's where supply management has not partnered as well as it should.
The other side of that is quality. You push suppliers far enough, and you are going to get a sub-par product and pay for it later. Supply management is not one-sided. I think we're in the evolutionary stage of this. It's a learning process on both sides.
There are times when a client says, “We want to use you,” and supply management says, “Wait, we want them to take 10 percent more out of the cost,” and we say forget it.
CMI: You just won your record 22nd Crystal Award, more than any other company. How do you decide which programs to submit for the award, and what makes a program stand apart from the rest?
BRYSON: That's quite a feat, I must tell you.
We have to go back and say, “Why do you even enter the Crystal competition? Your people have to do extra work.”
We use it as a benchmark for how we stack up against competitors. Can our product stand up to win a Crystal Award? Has the client given us enough information that we can measure return on investment? Did this reach your expectations, Mr. Client? Did it sell enough product? Did it move the dial on your audience? You need that information for your senior managers.
We enter programs for which we have that information and we can exactly point to the results in the program. It's kind of a process we go through. We try to build every program as if it's going to be a SITE entry, so we ask the questions up front.
CMI: Do you also do it to help measure team members and to get them recognition?
BRYSON: No. We do it solely for the process exercise of putting the program together front-end the right way. Utopia would be when every program measures up 100 percent. Not every client participates that way, but that's our goal. We want to point to results and creativity.
CMI: Of all the Crystal Award — winning programs that you have done, does one stand out — and why?
BRYSON: Yes. It's the one we did for John Deere. The reason for that is we took more than 2,000 participants to Rome over a period of two months. And each individual participant literally felt as if it was their own program because it was so customized. There were private visits to the Sistine Chapel. Even audiences with the Pope. We interwove special touches that you would expect for a 40-person program, but not for the 300 to 400 people we took at a time. The audience was hugely appreciative — and so was the client.
The sun, moon and stars all came together on that deal.
And when that was introduced to the audience a year and a half ago, the audience was extremely excited. We introduced it through a video and monthly teasers — they really got into it.
CMI: How have you most significantly changed your company since you bought it in 1999?
BRYSON: I had been president of the company since 1986, so when I acquired the remainder of it in 1999, there were not any dramatic changes.
But since '99, we've invested and upgraded our online offerings and upgraded our human capital. Since '99, I think we've also doubled our work force.
CMI: If you were to name two people who have had the most impact on your career, who would they be, and why?
BRYSON: The first was a fellow who was the chief executive officer of Boise Cascade during the time I worked there, named John Ferry. He was a dynamic guy. As a young guy, he influenced me immensely as to how to run a business the right way.
The second would be my father, who was an independent business guy. He owned a string of hotels in the West. Both of them had a tremendous influence on me.
I would also go back to my high school and college coaches, who taught me that competition is great, but that at the end of the day, you need to make sure you do the right thing. It's so simple, but it works.
Everybody, intuitively, knows what is right or wrong. We have choices. We try to take shortcuts and, in the long run, it doesn't work. It's our biggest resource, so we'd better treat people with respect.
We've got about 10 people who have been here at MotivAction since we opened our doors 30 years ago. If you treat people with respect over time, it will come back to you.
CMI: If you were to offer advice to a college student who was looking to make a career in the incentive industry, what would that advice be?
BRYSON: First of all, you need to start on the inside of the company and learn the operational side.
If you have a sales bias, you ought to be on the sales side. That gives you exposure to the client, and that's what you need. This is a customer-driven business.
That's the side where you learn the most, that's where the fun is as well as the most gratification.