Create short-term contests with individual travel awards and keep motivation high during the qualification period for your big group trip.

It isn't the promise of an engraved pen set that shifts sales reps into high gear. It isn't the corporate logo polo shirt either. It's the exhilaration of boarding flights bound for places they've never been. It's departing in snow and landing in sunshine. Nothing motivates like seeing the country - or the world - on the company's dime. But the year (or more) of working to qualify for a big group incentive conference can start to drag. How can you keep the spring in the step of sales reps so they'll remain in the game for the long haul?

One answer: individual incentive travel certificates.

Individual travel awards offer flexibility for recipients, who get to choose their travel time and destinations, and simplicity for meeting planners, whose "planning" is done as soon as they hand over the certificates to the winners.

Jump-Start Sales Jana Stern, director of conventions at ReliaStar Life in Minneapolis, for example, ran a six-month contest to boost sales, rewarding her winners with individual incentive travel certificates. Three prize levels were awarded: a two-day Marriott hotel stay, a three-day stay, or a three-day stay plus air.

More than 200 of the 2,500 eligible agents qualified for trips and the contest increased sales at an even higher rate than expected.

Among the drawbacks of using individual incentives, according to Stern, is the fact that some winners forget about them and then request extensions after they've passed the expiration date. (Awards are typically valid for 12 months.) "Marriott was extremely flexible and easy to work with," Stern says, but she adds that next time around she'd consider sending out reminders to recipients when expiration dates near.

Also, some qualifiers assumed that air was included, even when they'd won just the hotel certificate, so Stern points out the necessity of clearly stating what the award entails. She negotiated the price of the certificates upon purchase: "The more I bought, the better the rate."

Overall, she was pleased with the outcome of the competition. "Conventions are great for networking, but our agents loved the fact that this trip was just for them and a guest," she says. "It was a nice perk, and it drove sales."

Jack Connor, of Global Incentives in Boston, believes that individual incentives work because of their immediacy. "It's not just any trip, it's a special trip, and one they wouldn't ordinarily be taking," he says. Create as many memories as the budget will allow, he advises corporate customers, to reap the dual benefits of employee loyalty and a strengthened family support system. "A spouse who also enjoyed the trip will be more supportive of the lengths it takes to get there next time."

Here's a directory of certificate programs offered by the major hotel companies and airlines.

HOTELS Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts Individual incentive plans are customized by each property's staff to accommodate a company's needs and price range.

Details: June Locke, National Insurance Manager, Chicago

% (312) 944-4949 june.locke@fourseasons.com

Hilton Hotels Corp. Individual incentive plans are customized to accommodate a company's needs and price range.

Details: Francine Liem Cobb, Director of Insurance Sales, Moline, Ill.

% (309) 762-7929 francine_cobb@hilton.com

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts Hyatt Stay Certificates - redeemable for stays at Hyatt properties in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and select international properties

Classic: $99/one night

Choice: $135/one night

Premier: $165/one night

Elite: $249/one night

Hyatt Weekend Certificates - include breakfast for two

Select: $298/two nights or $447/three nights

Prestige: $418/two nights or $627/nights

Hyatt Check Certificates - available in denominations from $25 to $500

Hyatt $100 Certificates - good for $100 off a two-night stay ($10 each with minimum order of 2,000)

Details: Angela Sikkema, Specialist, Corporate Relations, Chicago

% (312) 920-2325 asikkema@corphqpo.hyatt.com

Marriott International Marriott/Renaissance North America Weekend Awards - redeemable on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights; include breakfast for two

Flex: valid at 136 participating Marriott Hotels and all Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites, and TownePlace Suites hotels; $109/one night

Gold: valid at more than 165 Marriott properties in the continental U.S.; $135/one night

Select: valid at any Marriott or Renaissance property in North America; $199/one night

North America Anyday Awards - redeemable any time; include breakfast for two

Gold: valid at more than 165 Marriott properties in the continental U.S., Canada, and Mexico; $169/one night

Select Platinum: valid at more than 310 Marriott and Renaissance properties in North America; $199/one night; $597/three nights; $995/five nights; $1,393/seven nights

Worldwide Awards - valid any time at Marriott and Renaissance properties worldwide; breakfast included; $295/one night

Marriott Cheques - available in denominations from $10 to $100

Details: Denise Durgin, Director of Certificate Marketing, Bethesda, Md.

% (301) 380-4283 denise.durgin@marriott.com

Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company Prestige Travel Awards - $220/one night, select Ritz-Carlton properties; include breakfast for two

Royal Prestige Travel Awards - $295/one night, any Ritz-Carlton worldwide, include breakfast for two

Royal Prestige Suite Travel Awards - $335/one night, suite accommodations, any Ritz-Carlton property worldwide, breakfast for two

Ritz-Carlton Currency - available in denominations from $25 to $500

Details: Pam Ferguson, Director of Insurance Sales, Midwest, Chicago

% (312) 527-5100 pam.ferguson@ritzcarlton.com

Alexis Romer, Director of Insurance Sales, New York

% (212) 888-6800 alexis.romer@ritzcarlton.com

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Details: John Jeffrey, Global Account Director, Flower Mound, Texas

% (972) 691-3105 john.jeffrey@starwoodhotels.com

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Prices not published Value Awards - redeemable on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights AnyTime Awards - redeemable any night of the week Both available in four categories:

Bronze: valid at select Wyndham

Hotels and full-service Wyndham Garden Hotels in the continental U.S.

Silver: valid at more than 90

Wyndham Hotels, Wyndham Garden Hotels, and Wyndham Resorts in North America and the Caribbean

Gold: valid at Wyndham and Wyndham Garden hotels in North America and select Wyndham Resorts in the Caribbean

Platinum: valid at Wyndham Resorts in the U.S. and Caribbean, and at Wyndham and Wyndham Garden hotels in North America

Wyndham Gift Checks - available in denominations from $25 to $100

Details: Laura Tallman, Dallas

% (214) 863-1338

AIRLINES American Airlines Something Special Incentive Flight Certificates - available as one-way or roundtrip coupons; prices depend on destination and range from $399 to $999 (coach only); Saturday-night stay normally required

Incentive Gift Certificates - available in any amount in increments of $25, which can be applied toward the purchase of any published fare

Details: Incentive specialists

% (800) 677-9555 Or order online at: www.aa.com

Continental Airlines World of Thanks Certificates - available for roundtrip travel; prices depend on destination and range from $350 to $3,500; Saturday-night stay normally required

Details: Sandra Golden, Incentive Sales Manager, Houston

% (800) 322-8662 sgolde@coair.com

Delta Air Lines Win The World - available for roundtrip travel; prices depend on destination and range from $369 to $3,599; Saturday-night stay normally required

Minimum order: 10 certificates

Details: Tom Cangelosi, Atlanta

% (800) 241-5008, ext. 7156893 tom.cangelosi@delta-air.com

Hawaiian Airlines Wings of Paradise - pre-paid air travel certificate, offering a set fare discount valid for one year Gift Certificates - available in denominations from $25 to $250

Minimum order: five round-trips or 10 interisland segments

Details: Hawaiian Airlines Group Resources

% (800) 554-2924, ext.18

Northwest Airlines Northwest/KLM On The Move Individual Travel Rewards - available for travel on the Northwest/KLM route system; prices depend on destination and number of certificates ordered; certificates can be personalized with your company's logo; Saturday-night stay normally required

Minimum order: 10 certificates with a travel period of one year

Details: Northwest World Meeting & Incentive Line

% (800) 328-2216 Or order certificates online at www.nwa.com/services/bustrav/mice.shtml

Southwest Airlines Southwest Airlines Gift Certificates - available in denominations from $10 to $100; can be used toward travel to any Southwest destination

Details: Beth Harbin, Projects Manager, Dallas

% (214) 792-5452 bharbin@wnco.com

US Airways Dividend Incentives - individual awards available for up to 50,000 dividend miles per year (equal to two roundtrip tickets anywhere in the continental U.S.); cost is two cents per mile in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,500, and 5,000 miles

Minimum order: 50,000 miles

Details: U.S. Airways Service Center

% (800) 883-1019