Incentive travel industry adjusts to pandemic-related standards

Ashley Lawson remembers all too well where she was when the US declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March 2020.

Lawson, vice president and managing partner of Westlake-based global travel incentive firm Achieve Incentives & Meetings, was leading a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, when the frightening news came down. After managing travel arrangements out of the country, Lawson returned to Mexico to renegotiate a contract with a key client.

“During the pandemic, there was lots of replanning and ‘lifting and shifting’ of program dates as everything was adjusted,” said Lawson, whose family-owned company is now celebrating its 70th anniversary. “We’ve done this many times over the past few years as things kept changing.”

Adaptation has been vital for an industry now dealing with two years of pent-up travel demand. Companies that survived pandemic downturns are now sought by corporations rewarding top performers with team retreats, paid family vacations and other exclusive experiences.

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) outlook for 2022 predicted a 34% increase in overall incentive travel budgets this year. Meanwhile, according to Corporate InSITE’s Changing Face of Incentive Travel report, 94% of companies surveyed considered incentive travel a crucial means of rewarding and recognizing their employees.

A subset of the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry, incentive travel is generally described as a perk motivating employees or partners around company objectives.

A report from the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida defined an incentive event as “a corporate sponsored meeting or trip to reward effort and create company loyalty, often built around a theme; and a celebratory event intended to showcase persons who meet or exceed sales or production goals.”

Local enterprises involved with the industry are no longer concerned about incentive travel making a comeback — their focus now is continuing to adjust in line with evolving travel restrictions, testing protocols, local regulations, and prevalent supply chain and labor disruptions.

Lawson’s team creates packages around client travel demands while also contracting hotel rates, booking flights, planning tours, heading up marketing, and handling any of the myriad issues that arise on the ground.

Part of Achieve Incentive’s reinvention during the pandemic has been speed to market. Prior to March 2020, planning and marketing a trip was an 18-month process where the client wanted to drum up hype and excitement around the pending journey. Today, executives desire rapid turnarounds — sometimes as little as 60 days — before heading off into the wild blue yonder. To that end, Lawson will source second- and third-tier cities with less visitor compression or hotel room demand.

“Businesses are seeing how important it is to bring people together and show appreciation to their team,” Lawson said. “Instead of revenue-based incentives for individuals, companies are now choosing to incentivize entire teams. They’re using trips as a tool for talent management and customer acquisition, because it’s an advantage to reward the team and make people feel special.”

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