Most incentive travel buyers and suppliers expect the sector to recover within one to two years. Data from the Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) 2020 Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII) survey found that two-thirds of incentive travel buyers and suppliers are projecting that timeframe to be around when post-COVID conditions have been reached. The survey defined post-COVID conditions as those in which travel can occur safe from COVID, such as with widely available vaccine(s) or disease containment.

“While our industry has witnessed widespread impact due to the pandemic, those professionals have responded not only with structural changes to incentives such as program delays and implementing alternative rewards, but also new investment,” says IRF President Stephanie Harris. “The industry has built important capabilities to position it for future success, such as improved digital marketing and a renewed focus on the motivational power of travel rewards. This shows the continued commitment to and high-perceived value of incentive travel.”

The desire to travel is the greatest positive factor expected to influence the recovery, with 64 percent citing greater appreciation for travel after being restricted from doing so. Most senior management stakeholders (83 percent) who sponsor incentive travel remain committed to it, although many buyers expect incentive travel will need to fundamentally change to reduce risks. Key impediments to this recovery include company risk aversion to travel and qualifier reluctance to travel post-COVID-19.

“Once recovered, 77 percent of survey respondents expect incentive travel to be very similar or moderately changed relative to pre-COVID conditions,” says Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) Executive Director Steve Bova, CAE. “Sanitation and health security will be permanently more important risk management strategies. Within the financial and insurance industry, we see greater optimism about recovery and stronger desire to travel, but this is counter-balanced by greater reluctance among qualifiers to travel and higher company risk aversion. Given the more conservative nature of our sector, it is not surprising to see a significant shift toward participant safety.”

In addition to new risk management strategies, future destination selections and program characteristics and activities are also anticipated to shift as a result of the pandemic.

“Regarding destination selection, the survey confirms what we’ve been hearing anecdotally for some time: in the short to mid-term, domestic and close-by destinations will replace transcontinental and international destinations. However, there’s also a decisive shift away from buzzy urban locations to quiet countryside retreats and a definite preference for ‘the road less traveled,’” says Pádraic Gilligan, chief marketing officer for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE). “Not surprisingly, destinations with a low incidence of COVID-19, or those perceived to have dealt effectively with it, rank very high—even if they’re long haul—with the Caribbean, Abu Dhabi / Dubai, Canada and Southeast Asia coming in the top five for UK buyers.”

In the post-COVID world, incentive travel buyers also anticipate “soft power” benefits such as improved engagement, enhanced customer satisfaction and better relationship-building between employees and management, and among fellow employees to be among the greatest benefits of incentive travel. The IRF notes that this is a shift from 2019, when company sales and profits were top-ranked benefits. A renewed focus on experiences that will delight the individual traveler, with fewer corporate obligations such as group dining and team building, was seen in post-COVID incentive program activities.

For more findings from the 2020 ITII survey, click here.