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In the early years, incentive travel was limited to a few incentive houses that specialized in handling massive groups and were prepared to take the risk of chartering whole aircraft. With deregulation of the airline industry, incentives were no longer confined to charter movements and whole planeloads; instead, operators could purchase small blocks of seats on regularly scheduled aircraft. This brought down the size of incentive groups from the hundreds to perhaps 50 or fewer people-a number easily handled by a travel agent or meetings planner-and minimized the risk. Indeed, the burgeoning growth in the incentives industry is due to the huge numbers of small incentives groups. Now, 48 percent of all incentive trips are arranged by travel agents rather than by incentive companies, according to Incentive Magazine.

Apart from travel agents, the number of incentive travel companies is small-perhaps only 100. Only five companies are considered major, full-service incentives houses:

Maritz, St. Louis County, MO

Carlson Marketing (formerly E.F. MacDonald),


S&H Motivation, Hillside, IL

Business Incentives, Minneapolis

Top Value, Dayton, OH

Besides the incentive travel companies, travel agencies, and meetings and conventions planners that arrange these trips, incentive specialists are in heavy demand at companies that are the biggest users (like Shaklee, Merrill Lynch, Fader's, General Electric). Tourist offices, like the British Tourist Authority, French Government Tourist Office, and Irish Tourist Board, also employ incentive specialists, both to promote these kinds of trips to their destination and to help planners coordinate their programs. Many travel suppliers, such as airlines, hotel chains, resorts, car rental companies, and cruise lines, also employ incentive specialists.

The "theoretical flow" of the incentives program process starts with the account executive in the field (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, for example) who talks to a potential client about its "challenge" (usually regarding the sales of a specific line). Based on the problem, the account executive brings in the marketing department, which takes this input, couples it with what they know about the industry and what has worked in the past, and makes a proposal that represents the "solution" to the problem. "Everybody has a different problem; every program is different," said an incentives executive. The presentation may involve anything from a flip chart to a "dog and pony show" of live actors to give the potential client the feel of how the agency would kick off its program. The solution usually involves "motivation/incentive" in the form of merchandise, travel, and/or recognition items.

Twenty years ago, the awards were 30 percent travel and 70 percent merchandise. Travel was reserved for the very top producers the sizzle and the steak, the icing on the cake," he said. "It was highly promotable, highly visible, but reserved for the elite group."

Now, travel accounts for 70 percent of the awards, which challenges incentive companies to come up with new destinations and a broader range of travel categories. "We're stretched," the executive continued. "Many clients take two trips a year. We have to give more emphasis to theme parties, new and exciting things to do, such as renting a limo to go across Europe, renting private homes and condos for the top winners."

Once the concept is sold, the motivation program is designed. Design takes into account contest promotion, rules and administration, and awards. It is vital for the program to have measurable results so that the company can demonstrate a return on investment to the client.

Considerably more detail is involved in coordinating an incentive trip than a regular trip. "Some are intimidated by the size of the movements-500 to 1,000 people are not unusual," noted the executive. One meeting involved an overnight trip to Atlanta for 2,400 people, which was "scary to do just from the point of lost luggage."

Getting In

Incentives companies are organized much like advertising agencies. They have account managers, who generally are business and marketing specialists and who sell the incentives programs to companies and act as the liaison between the incentive companies and the clients; a creative department, consisting of writers, artists, and audiovisual and graphic arts specialists; and a travel department, consisting of people who scout new destinations and facilities, trip planners, and coordinators.

The entry-level position is typically the account coordinator, who is involved with coordinating the incentive trip. This position provides a locus for learning the whole incentives process from conception to operation and servicing. On a major promotion, the coordinator may even participate in the trip. The account coordinator manages transportation, works with the pre-trip department on mailings, and funnels information to client and account executive.

The marketing department tends to have many people with M.B.A.'s as well as people who grew up in the industry, worked for a client, or came from an advertising agency where they dealt with the marketing concept. One account executive, for example, came out of an incentive department of a bank. Account executives and motivation salespeople may be stationed in sales offices located around the country.

The kinds of jobs at a major incentives house include data processing, administration, customer service, purchasing, graphic arts, marketing, print buying, accounting, transportation coordination, and mail room work. "The types of jobs are everything you can imagine," said the incentives executive.

Why go into incentive travel? "I'm not only involved in our business, but all the others-Chevrolet, Avon, Merrill Lynch-and how they go to market," he said. "We know the motivation business, the travel business, and our clients' businesses."

For someone who has reached the level of an account executive, the business also "gives me freedom," said one who held the position at Carlson Marketing. "You're your own boss, with your own accounts. This isn't monotonous."

The field can be lucrative as well. "The salary grows with your bottom line," he continued. The structure is generally a base salary plus commission. "It can pay well, but it takes a bit of luck in addition to skill and creativity. You have to be there at the right time, when the client is ready for a new idea. I sell ideas."

Salaries tend to be better than in the travel industry as a whole, particularly among the account managers. In general, salespeople and account executives earn more than operations people. Operations managers earn from $30,000 to $40,000; sales executives can earn as much as $50,000.

An account executive for Boston-based Tri Companies and a former advertising executive commented, "I enjoy seeing the project succeed. It excites me when the goal is reached." The ability to manipulate people is also intriguing.

Who should go into incentives? The answer is someone who loves challenge and problem solving, someone who is excited by being on the edge of a crisis. 'There is always the panic moment," one executive said. "We all like that challenge of feeling we can't resolve the problem, and then we do."

"Someone who is achievement-oriented," answered Robert Guerriero, president of The Journey masters, Salem, MA. This isn't a job; it is a way of life. This business is not for everyone. There are constant emergencies, constant challenges, constant excitements, and constant rewards. Everyone is divorced whose spouse is not also in this business because they can't understand the demands. We sell achievement. We sell joy."

"This is a high-pressured business," said James Kimball of Kimball Travel Consultants, Salt Lake City. "You have to make decisions on the spot. You need good business sense."

Other important criteria include good communications skills, creativity, imagination, self-confidence, and being a good listener.

Because the emphasis in incentives is on marketing, the industry draws more heavily on business executives than on travel professionals. Advertising professionals are also in demand. At Maritz, even the so-called travel director, an entry-level job, generally requires a college degree and business experience. Travel directors also tend to be "bright, attractive, generally youthful, and comfortable with more mature individuals," one executive observed, since they are the client-contact people who actually go out with the incentive groups and are on site, coordinating sightseeing trips and troubleshooting.

Whereas many come to incentive travel from other travel fields, Maritz prefers to go out and recruit top-level people for the travel directors' positions. They are our first line of contact. The service they give, their attitude, can determine whether that company comes back to the company another year," an executive said.
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