It may be that the events of September 11 have ushered in a new era in the incentive-travel industry. In the same spirit that saw citizens everywhere extend a helping hand to victims' families, some companies are using travel awards as a way to give back to the communities they visit.
“We all know how horrible it [September 11] was,” says Louise Hall Reider, CITE, president of Louise Hall Reider & Co., an independent incentive-travel management firm based in Bellevue, Wash. “But it's a wonderful thing when you look at how these terrible events have rekindled that part of us that wants to give something back. We've gotten back our giving spirit.”
There has been something of a charitable epiphany — a desire, even a need, to give — since September 11. Hall Reider underwent a similar epiphany back in 2000, one that resulted in her forming her own company, whose goal is to plan “incentive programs with a difference.”
It all began when Hall Reider was an executive with WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives and was researching a destination near Cancun for a Muzak Corp. incentive trip.
“Muzak has always been very community-minded, and among other things had established the Heart & Soul Foundation as a way of bringing music to underprivileged kids domestically. When I was traveling through a little town near Cancun, I came upon La Casita, a shelter that had been established by a dentist from Mexico City to help the needy children there. It was a life-changing experience for me.”
She decided to integrate that experience into the philosophy of her new company. When working with a client to plan an incentive trip, she'll suggest donations, either of time or money, to a charity near the destination. For example, as part of an incentive program she is planning for Muzak later this year, the company will purchase bricks inscribed with the names of the winners. The proceeds will go toward building the Grand Bahama Children's Home.
“We're also hoping to get local children to perform at our various functions, and we plan to donate money toward the costume fund for their local festival,” she says.
“Giving back doesn't have to be a big thing, you know,” she adds. “Even something small can help make people feel good about themselves.”
Small enough to fit on a pillow, even — which is one of the services offered by Helena Faith Miel, who heads Earth Mum, New Milford, N.J. (www.earthmum.com), an environmental consultancy to corporations wanting to make a difference. Among the services and merchandise Miel offers are environmentally friendly pillow gifts.
“I also encourage companies to purchase pillow gifts from the local community where they're holding their program,” she says. “That helps the economy, even if in a small way.”
Miel also sells incentive gifts that are made from materials that haven't been manufactured with chemicals: hats, caps, shirts, and other items made from hemp, rather than chemically enhanced cotton; award plaques made of recycled wood or glass; and sculptures, candleholders, and key chains made by African tribes.
“Not only does being socially responsible help a company's image in the marketplace, but potential stockholders and investors look at this,” she says.
Miel sees another benefit to this attitude: “When companies do incentive trips where participants take part in some kind of socially conscious activity, such as aexercise, it brings them together even more effectively than a beach olympics ever could. They wind up feeling really good about themselves — and really good about the company they're working for.”
That has been the experience for Anthony Vento, senior meeting and incentive planner for American Express, New York. Last February, as part of a five-day conference in Las Vegas, attendees participated in activities to benefit the Las Vegas division of Olive Crest Homes & Services for Abused Children. American Express rented the Las Vegas All-American Sports Park, and Olive Crest kids were treated to an afternoon of food, arcade games, batting cages, roller skating, go-carts, and rock climbing. In addition, 1,400 of the 1,700 American Express employees participated in a 1.5-mile fun run, with a voluntary entry fee of $5. The entry fees exceeded $11,000, and the money was donated to the local Olive Crest home, in addition to $10,000 donated on behalf of American Express Corporate Services Group President Ed Gilligan.
American Express employees have taken part in similar activities at past conferences. Attendees painted and repaired a homeless shelter in Las Vegas and helped to clean up a watershed area that people had been using as a dump. At the AmEx Human Resources Conference in Miami, attendees visited a children's cancer ward and a nursing home; attendees in San Antonio planted trees and flowers, installed a sprinkler system, repaired and painted benches and built a fence at a park.
At every major conference AmEx hosts, attendees bring books, which are donated to local shelters and other charitable organizations, as well as used clean business attire for organizations that assist people entering or re-entering the work force.
“We survey our people after these events,” Vento says, “and we always get excellent feedback. Ninety percent of our employees say they have more self-esteem and a more positive view of the company. They feel proud that this giant company is using its power to help make a difference in people's lives.”
According to one source, the Millennium Poll, customers not only care about social responsibility, they expect it from companies. This survey, conducted in 1999 by Environics Ltd. in conjunction with the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, polled 25,000 citizens in 23 countries regarding corporate social responsibility. Among the findings:
90 percent of respondents said they want companies to focus on things other than profitability.
60 percent said they form their impression of a company based on its social responsibility, which the survey defined as “regard for people, communities, and the environment.”
40 percent said they responded negatively to, or talked negatively about, companies they perceived as not being socially responsible.
17 percent said they avoided using the products of companies they perceived as not being socially responsible.
Ask hotels and venues about environmental policies during initial meetings.
Arrange and plan your program's green initiatives and donations with the hotel at the pre-conference meeting.
Practice the 3 R's (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle):
Print on both sides of the paper; use recycled paper; ask the hotel conference manager to arrange recycling in your on-site office; save boxes for repacking at the end of the conference; collect plastic name badges after the conference and re-use.
Donate leftover food to shelters or charitable organizations.
Donate leftover pens, pads, supplies, and promotional items to local schools or other programs.
Purchase locally made and/or environmentally friendly pillow gifts.
Educate attendees regarding the destination's local customs and traditions.