CHICAGO – The newly released 2020 Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII) survey found that two-thirds of incentive travel buyers and suppliers expect incentive travel to recover within one to two years, once post-COVID conditions have been reached. Post-COVID conditions were defined as those in which travel can occur safe from COVID, such as with widely available vaccine(s) or disease containment.
“While our industry has witnessed widespread impact due to the pandemic, those professionals have responded not only with structural changes to incentives such as program delays and implementing alternative rewards, but also new investment,” said Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) President Stephanie Harris. “The industry has built important capabilities to position it for future success, such as improved digital marketing and a renewed focus on the motivational power of travel rewards. This shows the continued commitment to and high perceived value of incentive travel.”
The desire to travel is the greatest positive factor expected to influence the recovery, with 64% citing greater appreciation for travel after being restricted from doing so. Most senior-management stakeholders (83%) who sponsor incentive travel remain committed to incentive travel, although many buyers expect incentive travel will need to fundamentally change to reduce risks. Key impediments to this recovery include company risk aversion to travel and qualifier reluctance to travel post COVID-19.
“Once recovered, 77% of survey respondents expect incentive travel to be very similar or moderately changed relative to pre-COVID conditions,” said Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) Executive Director Steve Bova, CAE. “Sanitation and health security will be permanently more important risk management strategies. Within the financial and insurance industry, we see greater optimism about recovery and stronger desire to travel, but this is counter-balanced by greater reluctance among qualifiers to travel and higher company risk aversion. Given the more conservative nature of our sector, it is not surprising to see a significant shift toward participant safety.”
In addition to new risk management strategies, future destination selections and program characteristics and activities are also anticipated to shift as a result of the pandemic.
“Regarding destination selection, the survey confirms what we’ve been hearing anecdotally for some time: in the short to mid-term, domestic and close-by destinations will replace trans-continental and international destinations. However, there’s also a decisive shift away from buzzy urban locations to quiet countryside retreats and a definite preference for ‘the road less travelled’,” said the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) Chief Marketing Officer, Padraic Gilligan. “Not surprisingly, destinations with a low incidence of COVID-19, or those perceived to have dealt effectively with it, rank very high - even if they’re long haul - with the Caribbean, Abu Dhabi / Dubai, Canada and South East Asia, coming in the top five for UK buyers.”
In the post-COVID world, incentive travel buyers also anticipate “soft power” benefits such as improved engagement, enhanced customer satisfaction and better relationship-building both between employees and management and among fellow employees to be among the greatest benefits of incentive travel. This marks a shift from 2019, when company sales and profits were top-ranked benefits. A renewed focus on experiences that will delight the individual traveler, with fewer corporate obligations such as group dining and team building, was seen in post-COVID incentive program activities.