In search of higher purpose

The following from SITE CMO Pádraic Gilligan originally appeared in Conference and Meetings World

Chief marketing officer at Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), Padraic Gilligan analyses some shifting sands in the incentive travel sector

Research over the past five years into the reasons why corporations run incentive travel programmes demonstrates a swerve away from hard dollar returns and an increasing focus on soft power.

While the top reasons for having a corporate incentive remain sales, revenues and overall company profitability, it’s interesting to note how ‘softer’ objectives have climbed the rankings and are now impacting the design for incentive travel. We have seen this repeatedly in the results of the annual Incentive Travel Index, undertaken by SITE Foundation and IRF, in partnership with Oxford Economics.

Profitability is still No.1 objective for incentive travel

The ascent of softer objectives may also be seen via the comments which respondents provide on survey forms: “Alignment around company culture”, “Recognition and generate a sense of purpose”. Have we finally and totally abandoned “Return on Investment” as the ultimate objective for an incentive travel experience, replacing it with limp-wristed nonsense and a clarion call to assemble, join hands and sing Kumbaya?

No is the obvious answer, especially when you look at the survey results. So Financial Controllers, Procurement Officers and Bean Counters in general can relax in the knowledge that their hegemony in the boardroom is secure, at least for the foreseeable future.

What can be detected, and noted as a ‘trend’, however, is the fact that softer objectives are rising significantly in the ranking. Not to the point, perhaps, that board rooms will be overrun by joss sticks and kittens, but enough to report an underlying change in mood, a recalibration, the faint but distinct sound of the beginnings of a counter melody.

Counter melody in business literature

But this is not surprising. It’s been bubbling under in the corporate world for a while. It was, perhaps, first called out by the management guru Peter Drucker years ago when he intoned his famous ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  Pioneers are, by definition, ahead of their times and Drucker’s dictum may have fallen initially on poor soil. But it did eventually germinate, and grow and nowadays there’s a robustness about it as the culture conversation flourishes.

These days the word ‘culture’ appears more and more frequently on the pages of Harvard Business Review, a sure bellwether of what’s really happening in the corporate world; and now another word has joined our business vocabulary: purpose.

Incentive travel and the search for higher purpose

This brings us back to the whole notion of incentives and motivation. What motivates me, increasingly, is not what I do or, indeed, how I do it. It is, rather, why I do it, that is the higher purpose that I find at the core of my work. To use a hackneyed phrase, it’s work as a ‘vocation’, work that binds me to a deeper sense of meaning, a reason more than money or recognition to get out of bed and spend eight hours in an office.

How is incentive travel connected with higher purpose?

This all brings us back to the research and to what it’s telling us about workplaces today. While, on the one hand, we’re seeing a focus on profitability, we’re also seeing an emerging picture about workplace culture as a massive area of concern for corporations, who are now trying to put their houses in order because employees, particularly millennials and GenZ, are voting with their feet, leaving well paid jobs, not because the competition pays them more or provides a better catered breakfast, but because it offers purposeful, meaningful employment.

It’s heartening to note how incentive travel is evolving so as to respond to this shift in emphasis. I recall many years operating a programme in Killarney for an FMCG company where the qualifiers all had standard rooms and the officers all had suites. The officers made the speeches and handed out the awards but rarely mixed with the qualifiers.

We now know that incentive programmes facilitate connections between all attendees. Increasingly, we’re seeing this impact on aspects of programme design with, perhaps, place settings being used to connect officers with specific qualifiers. I predict it will lead to smaller, but more frequent programmes, with a shift from quantity to quality as higher purpose increasingly becomes an aspirational outcome of incentive travel.

Written by

Pádraic Gilligan

Pádraic Gilligan


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