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When hitting targets means hitting the beach - and a nail head

Alison Boyd used to spend the week before her company's reward trip for top sales staff shopping for sunscreen and a new bathing suit. But in 2008, the year the recession really hit, she was in Staples, buying pencils and notebooks for the Jamaican orphanage they would visit.

As the organizer for Rudi's Organic Bakery's incentive trips, Boyd had been on a lot of indulgent trips. But that year, after postponing the trip once already, she decided to reward staff again - but this time, to make it about more than pina coladas and Jodi Picoult books.

"We were certainly adversely affected by the economic downturn and put off incentives because of that…," she says. "I think [our shift in focus]has more to do with the changing environment within the company, acknowledgment that we were very lucky to still be in business, to still be growing."

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The sales stars still got their fun in the sun at a four-star resort, but they also spent half a day at an orphanage, meeting the children and giving them supplies, as well as a cheque for funds the sales staff had raised. The stouter among them returned the next day to help out with physical labour.

Rudi's is one of hundreds of mostly sales-oriented companies to have rethought their approach to what is known in the travel industry as incentive travel.

Some have taken Rudi's approach and made the trips less sybaritic and more conscientious, either because of a change in attitude (like at Rudi's) or for more purely optical reasons (AIG's notorious $450,000 incentive trip to Monarch Beach St. Regis in the immediate aftermath of the crash tainted the practice in the public eye).

Still others have cut incentive trips back, or cancelled them entirely.

"You're not seeing the trips to Asia, where the attendees may have a silk jacket made for them while they're there," says Brenda Anderson, chief executive officer of Site, a company that specializes in employee motivation.

"There is a new sensibility, ever since the economy and AIG hit."

One Mississauga-based company that had planned to go to Jamaica decided on Niagara Falls instead.

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"What they tried to do at the end of the trip was sort of a rah-rah-rah, let's see what we can do next year to have a better place to go," says Guylaine Nikkel, the incentive-travel point person at Vision2000 travel agency, who booked the trip.

Another of her clients, who usually went to various glam spots around the United States, decided on the much less expensive Quebec City.

A third client, a staffing company that always took its people to the Caribbean, cancelled entirely this past winter.

Egencia, another large national corporate travel company, confirmed its incentive travel was similarly off.

And Anne Thornley-Brown, whose Executive Oasis International, based in Aurora, Ont., has been in the incentive travel business since 1996, says it's not just a North American shift. Her clients in places such as Sudan and Bahrain are also staying closer to home, rather than taking off to Dubai or Oman.

"In terms of economics, people are feeling, 'Wow, we've got to cut something,' " she says. "So they're cutting incentive travel, not realizing that incentive travel pays for itself [with revenue from the high sales figures of those being rewarded] You don't take the trips until they've paid for themselves."

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She says she's noticed a lack of creativity in corporate responses to the downturn, and hopes for a turnaround once the economy stabilizes, though she, like everyone else involved in the incentive-travel business, is fond of talking about the "new normal" and speculating on what that might look like.

Alison Boyd from Rudi's Organic Bakery already knows what their future looks like. Her trip to Jamaica was so successful - "We got a huge return on that investment, quite frankly," she says of the enthusiasm it generated among the sales force - that this year's trip is already planned. They're going to build a school in Costa Rica.

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Follow Road Work on Twitter @BertArcher.

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