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Posted: March 10, 2009

Stop trashing meetings and incentive travel: It brings ROI

Negative press fails to recognize travel's economic impact

Robert Polk

Meetings and incentive trips are being canceled by companies across the nation, as the economy heads south and the media continually runs stories of corporations squandering begged-for bailout dollars on expensive incentive trips and retreats for their top-earning executives. 

The Department of Labor reported almost 200,000 jobs lost in the travel industry in 2008 and other sources are predicting even more this year. Hotels have been forced to cut staff due to canceled meetings and conferences deemed “excessive” or, even worse, simply out of the question in today’s belt-tightened economy. These hotels, some nearly empty, are literally begging for any of your business to keep their doors open and their staff employed. We’ve seen some offers as extreme as OBOs for rates!

As the CEO of a travel agency with a meetings and incentives division, I am taken aback when meeting and incentive travel is generalized as excessive and wasteful. While I cannot vouch for the ethics behind each and every meeting or incentive trip U.S. companies have funded, I believe the black and white of this situation is, in fact, awfully gray and needs to be treated as such.

I cannot count the number of articles that our Meetings & Incentives Department has forwarded me in recent weeks. Top name meeting and incentive planning companies, hotel chains, tour operators and other members of the travel industry are coming together to defend the merit of these events. I have now read dozens of articles, white papers and letters to Congress. The President and CEO of Wells Fargo even published an open letter in the Washington Post last month defending these programs and detailing the benefits to his employees and the community.

From all of these articles, here is the "Cliffs Notes" version: Meetings, conventions and events are integral to many industries and offer a higher ROI than many other advertising, marketing and employee recognition options. They help companies engage with their staff outside of the office to bring innovation back to their processes, energize their company culture and increase employee retention. They assist companies in conducting research on potential new products and debuting new products to potential customers and distributors. They incentify their staff and increase overall business. Moreover, meetings, conventions and events often produce measurable short- and long-term results. 

Even as budgets are cut and advertising dollars see a decrease, many companies turn to this type of employee and customer recognition during uncertainty. This can vary from company to company, but the fundamental reasons remain true.

These programs have low fixed costs with variables driven by performance and specific goals. You have the ability to target audiences and groups you would like to incentify, market to or recognize very specifically. I know of no other form of mass marketing or advertising that can effectively target an audience with the same level of accuracy, personal connection and flexibility. 

There is a relative ease of measurement and success, unlike advertising dollars that are hard to quantify to results, for example, and there is huge potential for both short- and long-term results. Whether it is a group of customers or a group of employees, when you have a list of names to drill down to, it is pretty easy to measure the success of a program.

One article written by the Incentive Performance Center offers me a brief reprieve from the doom and gloom of today’s travel industry news. They suggest incentive programs have not only endured economic downturns in the past, but have in fact, "managed to grow following the recessions that occurred in the late 1980's, the downturn in the late 1990's and after September 11th, 2001." 

Will the same be true following our current economic crisis? In the wake of so much negative press on companies funding meetings and events, will we see the same upturn that followed past economic downturns? How can a company know if they will be criticized for a recognition program? 

I think one must simply apply the same metrics to quantify meeting and incentive travel as one would for any other business expense. Several travel industry organizations and event planning companies came together and have published a suggested model to be used when considering planning and paying for meetings, events and incentive travel, especially those that are receiving taxpayer money to stay afloat. You can click here to read the entire thing. Without over thinking the situation, allow me to summarize its message, which is to ask yourself: Is the proposed meeting, event or incentive program going to help your business make more money than it spends? 

In his open letter published in the Washington Post, John Stumpf closes by saying, “Since we aren’t thanking our award winners in person this year, we’ll have to do it this way.”  While I don’t know how much the ad space cost for the letter, I would bet my last airline upgrade that money would have gotten a greater return at an awards dinner for his employees.  

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Robert Polk is CEO of Polk Majestic Travel Group, Denver's largest independent travel agency. He welcomes your comments and questions at

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Readers Respond

That seems a bit counter-intuitive, no? Professional in the travel industry cutting back on travel expenses? I guess I understand the reversed logic, but I can also tell you this. I wouldn't hold a travel professionals word in very high regard if he or she was not well-traveled. Thanks! By Arthur in Lakeland Florida on 2009 04 21
Cindy, here is a link to an article by Bob Polk of Polk travel on the value of meetings and incentives. Love, Jeff By Cynthia Fischer on 2009 03 11

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