Once in a Lifetime
And it was—for 30 of the top sales reps from a leading biotech company and their spouses. This extraordinary trip was the culmination of a nine-month sales incentive program that kicked off with a product launch. Not only did this select group receive tickets to the awards show, but their airfare and accommodations at the Regent Beverly Wilshire were included, as well as a spa treatment and makeup session so everyone could look refreshed for the big night.
Talk about rolling out the red carpet. You might think this would be a tough act to follow, but there are many companies out there that are putting together equally impressive offerings—whether it's to race a 600-horsepower race car at 180 mph or shoot rockets off the USS Hornet in the San Francisco Bay—because the incentive industry has required it.
"Today's incentives demand greater creativity than ever because most employees have 'been there, done that,'" says Mark Bondy, partner/president, VIKTOR Incentives & Meetings, Traverse City, Michigan. As vice president and board member of the Society of Incentive & Travel Incentives (SITE), he says today's companies are under increased pressure to keep their employees motivated and however they do it, it has to get better every time. "Both employees and corporations are more sophisticated now and incentive planners need to create better and increasingly unique and challenging events from those in years past," Bondy says. In today's pharmaceutical marketplace, "better" typically means more ambitious, creative and adventurous, which is much like today's corporate marketplace.
If you don't get in the game, you are missing the game already in play, say many industry experts. Susan Lejeune, vice president of operations, Maritz McGettigan, Philadelphia, has not seen any decrease in incentive trips, but she admits some destinations have changed due to budgetary concerns over the declining US dollar. According to Lajeune, most pharma reps want fun and sun and less structure. "They want more adventurous type activities because they tend to be a younger age group," she says.
John Wilkinson, president, Total Adventures Inc., a San Francisco-based team building, training, and entertainment company, has found that despite post-9/11 travel fears and the economic downturn, there has never been more demand for incentive trips. "This year's first quarter is double over last year, and over our fifteen years in business, we've never been busier," he says.
Incentive travel originated in reward trips to exotic ports of call for top performers. But over the last two decades, incentive travel has evolved, embracing numerous client tailored activities including—but not limited to—team building, adventure travel, product launches and training. Rather than signing up for one incentive activity, the current trend is to let attendees select from an la carte menu, developed based on the company's budget, number of participants and objectives.
"Today, we're seeing a trend toward offering winners a choice of activities, based on their personal preferences," says Bondy. Offerings can range anywhere from spa treatments to golfing fees to individual dining costs at pre-selected locations with arrangements handled by the incentive planner.
It's all about knowing the audience and tailoring the trip to the group.
All in a day's work? Hardly. Yet, the inspiration to negotiate that next sales contract might come from the experience of having successfully negotiated the Las Vegas Superspeedway. In today's incentive travel industry, bringing peak performance back to the office may have more to do with literally climbing peaks than negotiating around yet another conference room table.
"We are known as the world's fastest driving experience," says Kevin Oelschlager, corporate sales manager, Mario Andretti Racing School, which is located just 15 miles from the Las Vegas strip and offers Indy-style cars, authentic racing uniforms, awards, full instruction, and pit crews. Oelschlager recently hosted an event for the top 25 national sales performers from a Midwest pharmaceutical company.
Wilkinson has created another adventure—a rocket launching expedition on the USS Hornet on the high seas of the San Francisco Bay. It combines adventure with teamwork and problem solving, and is custom designed to meet a corporation's individualized needs and goals.
For those interested in more sedate and scenic adventures, Dan Austin, director of Austin-Lehman Adventures, Billings, Montana, has lead many a pharma executive through a Costa Rican adventure tour, immersing them in a world of smoldering volcanoes, winding rivers, and majestic rainforests. Such groups have biked within the shadows of the Arenal volcano, soaked in a hot spring, discovered wild monkeys on a cruise down the Rio San Juan, kayaked the canals of Tortuguero, and rafted the Pacuare River. Austin-Lehman also offers trips to Belize to visit lush rainforests and magnificent ruins.
Led by native guides, groups paddle the Mopan River, explore the mysteries of Xunantunich, Tikal, and Caracol Maya sites, blaze jungle trails on horseback, and gaze upon the artifacts of Barton Creek Cave.
Austin's business continues to grow with sales incentive trips. For a group of 11 top sales reps and executives from a Midwest pharmaceutical company, Austin-Lehman chose Vancouver Island for combined pampering and outdoor adventure, amidst a spectacular Pacific Northwestern locale, popular in the incentive travel market.
"By day, participants enjoyed hiking, biking and sea kayaking. It allowed them to let down their guard, try something that really pumped them up, network with one another, and enjoy all this in a spectacular and relaxed setting," Austin says. At night, the reps relished the finest the region offers, staying in three world renowned five-star island properties: the Aerie Resort, Sooke Harbour House and Hastings House. "By night, we wined and dined them. As a reward program, it was strictly high end—no camping out for this group," he says.
Team Building Team building program content is custom-fit to meet particular goals, such as improving teamwork, communication, trust, leadership, creativity or problem solving skills. Experiential training, where people are encouraged to interact through challenging activities such as rope courses, are games designed to encourage participants to work together as a team.
One of Wilkinson's more popular team building games is MotoVino which Yamanouchi Pharma America played at a conference in Orlando. This unique game pits teams against one another in a race to blend wines using genetically altered grapes. Of course, the game is far more challenging—and fun—because teams must first decipher the blueprint to the mixing machine to put the contraption back together from a jumble of parts. After the team solves that problem, the final challenge is to emulate the properly colored wine and then distribute the concoction into wine glasses in a bottling line.
According to Wilkinson, to get the brightly colored wines flowing, teams need to use plenty of "brain juice" and just as much team collaboration.
In the Big Easy, a not-so-easy but fun collaborative and creative team effort was required when a pharma group had to rescue their "kidnapped" president. Carling Dinkler, IIIinois president of Custom Conventions, created a "Mission Impossible" team building exercise designed to bring co-workers together, and at the same time, give them a taste of New Orleans' historic French Quarter.
With the group seated in a hotel function room, listening to the company's president deliberately drone on about company facts and figures, two thugs in trench coats broke in and "kidnapped" him. The surprised group was quickly organized into teams and given clues to find their abducted leader. Each team, desperate to be the first to rescue the boss, raced through the French Quarter, following the myriad clues leading to such historic sites as Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, Ursuline Convent, Napolean House, Café Dumont and the Lefite Blacksmith shop. Each clue led them to the next site until they found their president at the bar Maison Bourbon, where he bought all his rescuers a drink.
"People were jumping in cabs, hiring horse and buggys, desperate to be the heroic team to find and liberate the president. At the same time, it was a great way for people to see the French Quarter, which was exactly what the president wanted," says Dinkler.
Training While training is serious business at Beckton Dickinson (BD) and Company, a medical technology company based in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the company likes to send its troops to off-site training in sunny climes. In March, Shannon Smoot, a sales consultant in the BD Pre-Analytical Systems division, was sent to Arizona to a Foundations of Negotiations seminar, conducted by an outside company. "My manager and I choose two or three of these seminars for me to attend each year," she says.
Smoot admits these seminars entail a certain time commitment, but she says it's refreshing to get out of the office to exchange ideas with peers in a new setting.
"While the annual incentive trip is still an important part of recognition, it's usually based on sales production," says Dave Caldwell, vice president, pharmaceutical sales for Maritz McGettigan. "Some companies, however, have added different criteria for those to qualify for the trip, such as successful completion of training. This helps the reps better train the doctor and prepares account planning and other business tools," he says.
"When companies take the time to plan training in a resort setting, for example, it's saying to the troops, 'You're worth it, you earned this,'" says Dick Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has put together training meetings in conjunction with travel programs. "Bringing people together in a more relaxed setting gets them to share ideas on different topics, or different problems they've seen crop up," he says.
RPMC also managed the online communications, marketing and merchandising of the program. With a private password, participants could log on to the RPMC site to discover program details, from contest rules to the vast array of awards. Winners could forgo the Grammys in favor of the SuperBowl or ski or spa travel packages.
Incentives à la Carte "The definition of incentive travel has definitely evolved over the years," says VIKTOR's Bondy. With more and more individual choices, corporations often select their desired incentive menu items à la carte to encompass many specific goals."
After delegates had two full days to enjoy Banff, Alberta, Croil sent them to the Winter Olympics—their own. Sales reps enjoyed toboggan and ski racing. And for those who couldn't ski? "They learned fast," chuckles Croil, and without any complaints. "In fact, they had a ball," she says. After the sporting events, the group moved into huge snowbound tents with roaring bonfires within and a spectacular Rocky Mountain backdrop. Here, the sales reps had a country-and-western barbecue, rocked to a live band and were given a selection of cowboy memorabilia.
True to trend, this group combined two days of company sponsored play with two days of intensive meetings. "Those first two days enabled them to relax, enjoy, forget about work, and meet their counterparts," says Croil. "When it came time for the actual meetings, they were in the perfect frame of mind because they had spent time together in a relaxing, fun way."
Executives at many of today's leading companies are asking themselves questions about how to hold onto top performers, and how to maximize the return on investing in methods to help keep stars motivated. And while in-house offerings like round table lunches or training seminars are often appreciated, it's unlikely that a top performing sales reps is going to stay on board at an organization because he got a free catered lunch in the boardroom. Today, companies need to go the extra mile to convince superstars that they're where they want to be.
Not only is incentive travel fun—and likely to leave a favorable impression with reps— but many industry experts and incentive planners maintain that incentive travel is actually a more effective meeting or training method than what can be done at company headquarters or in classrooms. And besides the individual impact, bonds formed on company trips often result in enhanced cooperation and teamwork between co-workers once everyone returns to the office.
"What we're finding is that employers want their sales people and other employees to have a good time," says Sheila Anderson-Cousins, marketing manager of Eagle's Flight, a teambuilding company outside of Toronto. "But they also want to show return on investment."
Anderson-Cousins recalls doing a program, referred to internally at Eagle Flight as Swashbuckler, for a group of 130 sales reps on the beach in Cozumel, Mexico. "I think they'll not only take back a feeling of 'Wow, our company values us enough to take us to this great spot,' but they'll also walk away with great lessons in effective communication and teamwork. They'll have a common language they'll take back to the office," she says of the memorable experience. Incentive trips, says Anderson-Cousins, are "a real value for the employer when it comes to motivating and retaining their employees."
Jennifer Juergens, the former editor of Incentive magazine, is a freelance writer in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com
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