The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) is gearing up for its 19th annual Incentive Invitational educational and networking event, hosted this year at the year-old JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa from May 30 to June 3.
We spoke with Matt Harris, chairman and trustee, and Terry Epton, CITE/DMCP, who’s president of USA Hosts in New Orleans, to get an update about this year’s event.
Prevue: What are some of the benefits of the Incentive Invitational for buyers?
Terry Epton: Buyers like the fact that they’re treated to the latest research that can support their performance and proven strategies, and they feel like they get an important leg up on their competition by being the first ones to learn about the research.
They have the opportunity to create new relationships or maintain relationships with leaders in the incentive travel industry on several levels. That might be knowing the person from a cruise company that is the decision maker in the incentive industry, or the lead person for Ritz-Carlton or JW Marriott. Those relationships are very valuable.
Finally, I think they see a lot of value in being treated to an excellent incentive-quality destination showcase, to build their knowledge on various incentive opportunities that they can use.
And the benefits for suppliers?
Epton: As far as suppliers are concerned, I think most of them are multi-year, repeat sponsors. Last year we had a significant percentage of new sponsors but it wasn’t because we lost old sponsors, it’s because we had new involvement. The suppliers see the invitational as the cornerstone of their incentive market business strategies. The ones I know have attended every single invitational since I discovered it, which was the second year it took place.
The suppliers meet new industry buyers that are highly-qualified for the market industry that they work in. Clearly, hotel corporations aren’t sending association market experts to host incentive buyers at the invitational; they’re sending their incentive industry people. It’s a casual atmosphere that is high on relationship building and maintenance.
I think one of the things that makes the invitational so special is that it’s not an industry event where someone can just pay their registration fee and be there. Everybody at the Invitational is at the director level or other senior position in their companies. This means that it’s a higher level conversation and there’s not a tremendous amount of hard selling going on.
Also, the suppliers have an opportunity to sharpen their saws at the educational sessions. When they learn more about what their customers are doing and what makes their customer’s decision process take place, they’ll be better at selling things, and the smart ones realize that. It also elevates them in the eyes of the buyers.
How has the Invitational evolved over the last five years?
Matt Harris: When I started attending six years ago, it was very clear that people were coming for a chance to see the destination and get ideas, and the main priority was to network. I would say we’ve started gaining ground on making the educational content as important a reason for going. This year’s invitational is really going to have that portion of the event be a strong value for attending.
We’ve gotten more aggressive about our research agenda in the last couple of years, so we’re actually now starting to see the benefit of that research. Basically, we’re coming out with more frequent and more varied research that we have to share.
We’ve also gotten more focused around the idea that part of our mission is really to share information, whether it’s from the IRF directly or from others. Even if it’s not a piece of research we did, we can help identify it. For example, two out of the three sessions are not about IRF research…. We’re actually putting together a really great end-user panel to look at trends and best practices that people can employ, etc., so that’ll be really helpful too.
When will the final agenda be determined?
Terry: It’s very close. We’re down right now to looking at three educational sessions and possibly a fourth. We just want to make sure they have a good session hooked to them. This event has really morphed into an educational event with a lot of really cool incentive quality things to make it attractive and give it added value, from when it was a fundraiser.
It has to do with the quality of the research we’ve produced. I tell you, I sit in those board of trustees meetings and I’ve never sat in a room full of more brilliant people than people like Matt and Jeff Brody from United Incentives and Mike Ryan from Madison Incentives. And we bring that to people in a way that’s understandable in bite-size pieces.
Why San Antonio this year and why the JW Marriott?
Terry: The short answer is because it’s ready and it’s incentive quality. They see, just like the previous destinations that have chosen to host an IRF, the impact that it has on the destination. Every destination that has hosted us has had extraordinary upticks in their incentive travel business from IRF being in the destination. It’s a tremendous responsibility and expense to host one of these things.
San Antonio has some really unique cultural offerings that I think are best appreciated in person, and the Tex-Mex atmosphere and people and food and the destination in general are underappreciated unless you see it for yourself. I know they are very excited about the opportunity.
The JW is the centerpiece of the whole thing. I can’t wait to see it in person myself. Without the JW Marriott this would not be possible. The host hotel property is the linchpin to hosting the Incentive Invitational.
How is the concept of “luxury” being perceived in the marketplace?
Matt: It’s kind of mixed. In general, things were trending better industrywide in terms of perceptions and attitudes. Then something happened between spring and fall last year and we had a hot mess with the budget crisis in Europe. I mean, there was a big difference between the spring of 2011 and the fall of 2011. In the spring, 25 percent of our poll respondents said the economy was having a negative effect on the ability to plan travel incentives, and in the fall that went up to 62 percent.
As a matter of fact, they said because of sensitivity to internal pressures, competitor reactions and perceptions of extravagance, the levels of negativity were equivalent or worse than it was in 2008. As opposed to back then when it was the economy plus AIG, it seems to be more specifically aimed at the economy now.
When we look at budgets and whether people think they’re going to get their budgets cut, it’s kind of even. In our latest research, 28 percent expected budgets to decline, 45 percent think there’s no change and 27 percent actually expected a slight increase.
Terry: I’m the president of a company that runs a consortium of DMCs in 70+ destinations around the world and we meet periodically and converse with each other. I think the media is less vicious toward that over-indulgence fat cat storyline and now it’s more of an understanding of what the incentive business is about. We’re not perfect but we’re better off than we were before. The general news that I’m hearing is that resorts are exhaling now and spas as well, and they’re beginning to see business pick up. I think the business is feeling like it’s not dangerous to go to a resort or luxury destination now.
We hear a lot about more meetings being incorporated into incentive programs. Your thoughts?
Terry: I don’t think we’ve seen an incentive program in our company that hasn’t had a meeting component to it. I don’t know what the statistics say but I know what I see. Companies find it invaluable when they have the cream of the company crop available to engage, relate and plan, and the value is just incredible for the company.
Are there certain destinations that are starting to become more popular?
Terry: I think people are becoming comfortable traveling to some places that were not on the board a few years back. I think the Eastern European destinations have started to gain a really great reputation for high hospitality and service levels. I know people are talking about places like Croatia and Turkey.
In general, there’s less of a fear to go to these places. I also think that there was a run to safe destinations. What I mean by that is that if a destination wasn’t sexy, that’s where they went because they didn’t want to get painted with that unfortunate brush that was being used when the recession first started.
I think people took meetings to Chicago instead of Miami, or San Antonio instead of Hawaii. They still had beautiful resort hotels and high quality offerings but it wasn’t so much in the bulls-eye. If there’s a trend it might be that people are starting to find their way into resorts and spas and casino destinations.
The destination I’m sitting in right now, New Orleans, was viewed as a safe place to go. We have wine and dine opportunities here all over the place, but it’s also seen as the right thing to do since we’re recovering from a disaster.
Those destinations that were viewed as safe may see a fall off and the luxury destinations may see a pick up.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of sustainability?
Matt: In the study we just did, it showed that CSR activity dropped 10 points, leaving it at 31 percent. Looking at the reasons behind that, it’s most likely just tighter budgets. It just depends on the way you look at it. I mean, it’s down but there’s still 1/3 including it in their itineraries. I think it’s here to stay.
Terry: In terms of the company I run, the trend has been pretty steady that CSR is a significant part of many programs we do. There will be a CSR component at IRF. The trend to include CSR has had great results. It’s good for the PR department at the company, but there is some hidden value that people don’t realize. In terms of employee loyalty and employees feeling good about the company they work for, and in terms of the teamwork benefits that come out of CSR activities, the value is just extraordinary.
Working side by side to paint an orphanage or paint a school is something that people remember for a long time. The teambuilding aspects are really strong too.