How should we respond to negative publicity about  Incentive Travel?

By Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

I was skimming through Twitter posts on my Hootsuite dashboard and noticed it on the stream that captures content about incentive travel. It was short and pithy but I quickly realised the sentiment wasn't in line with the usual content that appears there:

I clicked through and sure enough this was an article about companies dropping, not adopting Incentive Travel. Moreover, these companies - all New Zealand finance and insurance companies from what I can gather - were announcing their abandonment of Incentive Travel in the same tones as a company might herald the end of workplace discrimination. They had hired the PR doctors of spin and a strong tone of attrition characterised the communication: "We're sorry. We shouldn't have done that. We're stopping immediately. We won't do this any more".

Oh dear, I thought. Not this again. For, of course, this is not new thing. Every couple of years it happens. A story emerges about an unethical sales person who imposes a product or service on a vulnerable buyer – often an elderly couple with limited financial means – to secure the suite upgrade at the company incentive in Bora Bora at the Four Seasons. To mitigate this monumental breach of trust on the part of the corporation, the entire Incentive Travel programme gets cancelled or discontinued.

Perception & Incentive Travel

Incentive Travel is not an easy concept to understand. What it looks like, and what it is, are not one and the same. So, before we even get out of the blocks, we have a egregious perception problem.

Part of this perception problem stems from basic human psychology  - schadenfreude is a German word that describes the human tendency to delight in the misfortunes of others. With incentive travel it's a kind of inverted schadenfreude where we're aghast at the good fortune of others. The infamous quote that's often ascribed to Gore Vidal comes to mind "whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies". "Why wouldn’t I raise questions around the validity of my neighbour’s company funding a luxurious trip for her to Bora Bora? The bitch!"

We have ourselves to blame for the other part of the perception problem. Despite some recent examples to the contrary (Bravo, Meetings Mean Business!),  as incentive travel professionals we've failed to communicate the unique and seminal role of  Incentive Travel as a key element in a suite of benefits that a company might offer to recruit, retain, reward and recognise its staff. We have talked far too much about the reward ("Look at me in Bora Bora!") but failed to highlight the implications and impact of the reward on individuals, businesses and, indeed, on society.

Altering Perception about Incentive Travel

So what can we do? Realistically I'm unsure there's anything that can be done about the latent envy that causes some of us to always highlight what looks like an easy ride. If you're a teacher, as I was for many years, you'll be very familiar with the perennial, wearisome argument about cosy conditions.

What your neighbour sees are the 5 hour days, the half day on Wednesday and the lengthy vacations. She doesn’t see the long hours of preparatory work, the extraordinary stress, the extensive volunteerism or the relatively low pay and prospects by comparison with other professions. But try having that argument and see how far you get. You’ll be lucky to get past an opening statement. The same holds true for Incentive Travel. “You’re going to Bora Bora simply because you worked hard?”

The Real Benefits of Incentive Travel

It may not be possible to overturn your neighbour’s deeply rooted viewpoints but that doesn’t excuse us from our duty to communicate effectively the holistic benefits of Incentive Travel to individuals, businesses and, indeed, to society at large.

Our over-focus on a very reductive concept of Return on Investment and a misdirected passion for numbers (“If it doesn’t have a number, it doesn’t count!”) have severally limited the metrics we use to measure success in Incentive Travel. We exclusively measure hard financial outcomes and overlook the soft, more enduring, transformative returns.

So what should we be do? We need to harvest, channel and communicate the plethora of ancillary benefits that accrue to individuals, corporations and society at large as a result of Incentive Travel programmes. This is Incentive Travel beyond sales and profitability. These benefits include but are not limited to:

Stimulation of cultural curiosity Individual
Encounter with new places and peoples Individual
Development of global perspective Individual
Discovery of diversity Individual
Fostering and deepening of workplace relationships Corporation
Encounter with best practice Corporation
Exposure to new benchmarking Corporation
Facilitation of connections between different levels within a workplace Corporation
Creation of shared workplace memories Corporation
Building of better work / life balance Corporation
Strengthening of workplace morale Corporation
Re-enforcement of company values Corporation
Expression of company culture Corporation
Fostering of global citizenship Society
Encouragement of tolerance and acceptance Society
Fostering of inter-cultural relations Society

This list purposefully omits any financial considerations at all even though these too are extensive, accruing to all three stakeholders, the individual, the corporation and society. As Mark Twain famously said "Travel is the enemy of bigotry" - by forcing us out of our comfort zones, it promotes tolerance, fosters understanding, breaks down barriers.

Cancelling or abandoning Incentive Travel programmes because of breaches of trust is akin to cancelling or abandoning concerts or football matches because a small number of fans engage in anti-social behaviour. The abandoning of the activity doesn't actually address the issue at all,  no more than dealing with the symptom eliminates the root cause. As Incentive Travel professionals we need to emphasise always and everywhere how transformative travel can be for individuals, businesses and society while encouraging companies to set rules and regulations around qualification that eliminates any hint of unethical behaviour.


Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events / MICE sector. Pádraic also serves as Chief Marketing Officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE)