Dorrie Green got lucky. She has been selling incentive travel for at least 15 years, and in today's climate, that's not the lucky part of this story.
However, by the time the financial system teetered and high-end corporate travel took on a patina of shame, Green was already developing plans to supplement her incentive travel offerings with merchandise-based rewards.
By the end of this year, she expects sales of the merchandise programs, which generally cost a company less per recipient and don't have the high visibility of travel awards, to add $3 million to $4 million in gross sales for the agency. That will more than make up for lost incentive-travel contracts, she said.
Green is the president and majority shareholder at Atlanta-based Sprayberry Travel/Travel Leaders, a $22 million, single-location agency with 32 employees.
The business is 60% corporate, 20% leisure and 20% meetings and incentives. Everything is down this year, Green said, but incentives, down 35% from 2008, have taken the biggest hit. Incentive trips are usually contracted for two years in advance, she said, but some have been canceled and some postponed. In other cases, the trips have been modified, and besides, Green said, there are or will be fewer participants on operated trips because it is harder to make qualifying goals.
Before offering a merchandise plan to others, Green wanted some experience with the concept, so she introduced a rewards program at her own agency a year ago. She began giving points for achievements that went "beyond paycheck performance" and learned quickly that she needed a technology platform to make the effort efficient. "So I took care of that," she said.
Sprayberry brands its meetings and incentives business as Vision-Makers and brands its technology as RewardsWithVision.com.
After seeing "the tide turn against travel," Green said, the agency "started to get serious about this last fall." At that time, "we finalized our technology platform and started getting together our marketing materials and target lists" but decided because of the mood of the country and the fast-approaching holidays that it would be better to begin the real push in January.
The agency signed its first contract in March, worth $150,000 gross, but is on track for larger deals now.
The clients use the technology to input data on points earned, then the agency acts as the back office. It tracks the points earned, redemption levels and other details as well as data that recipients need for tax purposes.
A third party provides the goods, which include small appliances, apparel and electronics, but travel is one of the options in some cases, as well. One company is allowing its recipients to earn their way to a national meeting, for example.
Green said two agency staffers have the merchandise program as part of their brief, and she is deeply involved, as well. She said the agency is still working at getting up to top skill level in this field. "We are reading all we can" on what motivates employees and how to measure results, she said.
The agency promotes the merchandise program to existing clients, and it makes cold calls and uses email marketing to troll for the business.
Green is much involved in developing meaningful plans for customers. Some want to reward sales, she said, but others may be rewarding practices that promote safety or that produce cost savings. In any case, the plans work if they involve "measurable things and are easy to track," she said.
Like many travel professionals, Green has been frustrated by the lack of understanding, and hence the bad publicity, of the value of incentive trips. Sales-related trips are based on earnings "above and beyond, so the trip is paid for and there is extra profit." In addition, the travelers or their employers pay taxes on the cost of the rewards.
The key to incentives is recognition for employees, the thing they want most, Green said. She has been surprised at how uninformed companies are about how to improve staff performance, and "put me right in there" with the learners, she said.
The recognition doesn't have to be travel, Green continued. "It could be a certificate that says, 'Atta boy, atta girl, you rock.' "
She said, "Finding ways to motivate people and move the bar on performance is kind of fun. If you do it properly, you can establish higher norms."
Marc My Words
The psychology of business travel
By Marc Mancini
Why don't corporate travel planners receive more training opportunities? Yes, the National Business Travel Association offers a wealth of certification paths and learning resources, and on-the-job experience can be a rich source of occupational growth.
But the dearth of learning opportunities for corporate travel professionals becomes keenly apparent when compared to what leisure agents can choose from. CLIA alone provides 23 online classes, 18 live seminars and 15 DVDs on different cruise-related topics. Add the dozens of supplier, association and destination certification programs, breakfast seminars and full-day workshops, and you begin to realize that leisure agents have hundreds of learning opportunities.
However, maybe corporate travel planners don't need as much training as leisure agents. If you're efficient, have superior GDS skills, strive to control costs and can juggle complex logistics with a short lead time, what more do you need? After all, that sort of mind-set can't be taught.
But corporate travel managers could indeed profit from some leisure-type training. The big reason: Unlike leisure agents, most corporate travel planners have little experience with what their customers deal with all the time. They rarely travel for business, whereas leisure travel agents take vacations or fam trips regularly. That fact in itself makes a strong case for more training.
Moreover, corporate travel training tends to dwell on "hard" skills, like ticketing, making reservations and enforcing policies. Leisure agent education, however, leans toward soft skills, which can be very useful to corporate agents, as well.
Let's consider a soft training topic that rarely gets attention: the psychology of business travel. What insights could such a course provide? Consider these three:
1. Business travelers consider travel a necessary evil. Long flights in 14-inch-wide seats, dealing with connecting times that would challenge Olympic sprinters, waiting for one's rental car shuttle -- these annoyances accumulate and wear down those who travel for business.
If you're a corporate agent, then, be patient when your client makes a big deal about a seemingly little thing, like getting that bulkhead window seat or feather pillows in the hotel room. These clients are trying to make the best out of low-grade torture.
2. Despite the headaches, corporate travelers love certain aspects of business travel. For some, being away from home is a good and needed thing. Attending a winter meeting in Miami when the folks back home are digging out of the latest snowstorm, having a great meal in San Francisco rather than ordering delivery at home from Domino's, having someone else make your bed -- such business benefits can soothe the soul.
3. Many studies point to one conclusion: A majority of business travelers use travel to achieve recognition. Frequent flyer upgrades, limo transfers, concierge-level lodging, they all reinforce the business traveler's desire to be recognized and rewarded. So be patient with those little requests for extra benefits. They may constitute the most positive aspect of the highly stressful lives of the corporate travelers you serve.
Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant.