Meeting and Incentive Industry professionals will find lots to love in the Events Industry Council’s (EIC) recently released Economic Significance of Meetings to the US Economy. Just consider these top line results. On overall revenues, the meetings and events industry generates $325 billion for the US economy, ahead of automotive, oil and gas, music and movies. In terms of impact on direct employment, it’s even more impressive as the industry ranks second to healthcare. This is all good stuff, underlining beyond doubt that, as an industry, we’re not laggards and more than pay our way.

Incentive travel professionals will be happy to note that “incentive meetings” are included as a specific category, comprising 7% of overall meeting activity. Oxford Economics estimates the aggregate value of  “incentive meetings” to be $22 billion or $1,438 per attendee, a figure 12% higher than the average spend for all other types of meeting. Compared to the 2012 study, Incentive Meetings showed the greatest growth increase over all meeting types and a significant increase (66%) in the number of participants.  

However, when compared with the average attendee spend in annual surveys of incentive travel conducted by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) this figure seems low. SITE Index 2018 shoed values between $4,000 and  $5,000, depending on the industry sector, while the IRF has an average spend per attendee of $3,915

The value of Incentive Travel is much greater

That said, whenever I read studies or white papers that highlight the industry’s economic impact there’s a part of me that sighs with sadness. Why so, you ask? These studies make me sad because, ultimately, they mean we’ve allowed ourselves to be measured by implements and tools that cannot possibly provide a holistic view of our impact and worth to society.

Incentive travel experiences clearly generate economic impact, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If you only measure economic impact then you miss 90% of the value that’s hidden below the surface. The true potential of incentive travel extends to the heart of society as it provides extraordinary experiences for individuals and families in and through the transformative power of travel. It facilitates human encounters, helps overcome barriers, builds understanding, cultivates connections and promotes peace.

In the past incentive travel experiences may have promoted elitism by being extravagant and focusing on luxury. Over the past 10 years, however, there’s been a radical change both in terms of qualifier expectations and company policies, with incentives now pivoting around the pursuit of authenticity and social responsibility. In fact the SITE Index for 2018 shows 94% of corporations now include some element of CSR in their incentive travel programmes.

So, if the impact of incentive travel is this broad should we eschew all measurement in relation to its impact? On the contrary. We should extend the measurement while also doing the following:

  • Continue to evolve the model for incentive travel around “new luxury”, i.e., the pursuit of authentic experiences, the cultivation of new learning, the focus on discovery
  • Continue to incorporate CSR and sustainability elements into incentive travel programmes
  • Measure the impact on team morale of incentive travel experiences both in relation to qualifiers and non-qualifiers
  • Extend the qualification criteria beyond pure economic or financial measures
  • Alter the way we talk about incentive travel – highlight its transformative potential for individuals, communities and societies
  • Build case studies around the lifetime impact of incentive travel experiences for serial qualifiers who have travelled the world as a result of the availability of incentive travel experiences within their organisations
  • Challenge attendees / qualifiers with destination selections that take them out of their comfort zone
  • Implement wider measurement criteria to include change in attitudes and behaviours as a result of the incentive travel experience

Will this happen? Who knows! What we do know is that incentive travel works – that’s clear from all of the research – but until we broaden and extend the horizons of our metrics we’ll always be under-selling and short-changing the industry’s power to affect change.

Pádraic Gilligan is Chief Marketing Officer at SITE. He is also Managing Partner at SoolNua, a specialised agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events industry.