Wednesday, May 14

A reader on the business of incentive travel

(Originally published in TOURISM)

“True incentive travel is reward travel,” according to the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Michele Saran. Incentive travel sales is the area Saran looks after out of the Chicago office. “A classic example would be a corporation wanting to entice their top salespeople to achieve sales benchmarks in a given year. So what we try to do at the CTC is make Canada one of the prizes they can win for achieving those benchmarks.”

These prizes can be merchandise and the like, but travel is usually one of the most motivating things to get people to achieve their goals, Saran explains. “So we compete against pretty much the entire world. Our biggest competition is probably places that are sun and sand and perceived as glamourous like Hawaii, the Caribbean and Mexico. But Canada holds its own, and we do pretty well.”

When asked about trends in the incentive travel market, Saran identifies family programs as an emerging product. “People don’t get to spend a lot of time with their spouses and children; The reward then becomes being able to spend more time with the people you care about.”

Saran also notices increasing interest in winter incentives, so there are opportunities for Canada in terms of ski vacations. The hottest activities right now are fishing, by a landslide she says: “I get more calls for fishing than golf and everything else combined. CEOs love to go to the places where no one has gone before – unique lodges that are more difficult to access and are really high end. Spas are super‑hot because spouses are going to go along, and golf probably rounds up in third place.”

It is important to be seen as an attractive incentive locale; to be seen as “unique”, notes Saran: “Examples of this might be Vancouver Island resorts where you go grizzly bear watching and take float planes. This is an area where Canada has a lot to offer; it is about going off the beaten track, and because the Euro is so strong against the US dollar now, Canada – even though Canadian and US dollars are on par – still looks a lot better than Europe. And we are offering them new places they have never heard of before, like Newfoundland and Yukon. Even if it is not 5‑star, it is still exotic enough to make people want to achieve those benchmarks.”

Saran describes her business sector as a bit of a hybrid between leisure and meetings business. “Often, specifically for tax benefits, clients will have the meetings in conjunction with the incentive. Usually they will require a meeting room for half a day in conjunction with the trip. For the most part, it is the (smaller destinations) which benefit from what I do, places like Banff, Victoria, Whistler; those types of places I deal with probably more frequently than the big cities.”

What about places in Canada that are even more off the beaten track? “There has to be a little sex appeal on paper to be able to sell it. If there was a 5‑star fishing lodge in Saskatchewan, absolutely, we could market that way. The fishing places tend to be the 5‑star ones in BC — King Pacific Lodge or Clayoquot wilderness resorts, the Four Seasons of the fishing lodges. Usually, money is not as big an issue. I really don’t have people complaining about rates that much, unlike what some of my colleagues would experience in other markets. They are really looking for the experience.”

How does Saran go about building her end of the incentives business? “I have really great relationships. First and foremost, I deal with companies that are "incentive houses". They are third parties which deal with corporations to put these full incentive programs together. There are incentive houses working with IBM’s salespeople for example, and they will ask them ‘what do you want to achieve during the course of a year?’”

They will put together a whole campaign to inspire these people to achieve those benchmarks, she notes: "Potentially, for example, if they achieve the first benchmark, they will get a little plaque. If they achieve the next one they’ll get their picture in the company newsletter. They’ll put together charts on the wall, so people can monitor their progress; they’ll have computer systems to monitor; they’ll put together a whole package to monitor these people during the course of the year and hopefully Canada will be the Grand Prize. So it is my job to have those great relationships with the incentive houses to keep pushing Canada as that prize.”

Saran developed her knowledge about the incentive sector when she worked with Tourism Toronto “a million years ago,” she says. “I have been doing it for nine years now at the CTC. People don’t tend to move around that much in this business. Some of these incentive houses have been around during my entire career, so you get to know these people really well. Hopefully, when they think of Canada, they think of me! The idea is to always keep Canada top‑of‑mind, so we always get the chance to bid.”

Saran emphasizes that “seeing is believing; initially clients might think Canada is not that sexy, but 85% of the time, when I get them up on a site inspection to see what we are proposing, they tend to book the business.”
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