The Impact of Coronavirus on Incentive Travel

COVID-19 has created unprecedented disruption which requires a new look at the world of incentive travel. After social distancing, people will be eager for authentic face-to-face interaction, but also more health-conscious than ever before. To shed more light on how incentive trips will adjust, Brightspot held a webinar that ended up being our most attended presentation to date.

It was evident that there is a desire in the industry not only to understand what the “next normal” will look like, but how we can start preparing for it now so programs can resume as soon as possible, and are executed safer than ever before.

The 12 points covered in this post come from the webinar focused on incentive travel; however, these points will likely also crossover into the upcoming webinars on meetings and roadshows. Feel free to register and bring your questions for the Q&A segment, or drop us a line and get a response right away.

2020 View on Incentive Trips

The first expectation we’ll look at is the view for the rest of 2020. The below graph from the Incentive Research Foundation shows a survey from April 2-16 that interviewed companies on their plans for incentive travel programs planned in 2020. We then compared the responses with what we’ve experienced with our programs at Brightspot (marked with a Brightspot badge) because after the survey closed over the last two weeks of April more trips shifted from Q3/Q4 to 2021 (see changes on first two bars).

IRF Survey for Incentive Travel Outlook on COVID-19

IRF Study showing companies’ plans for programs compared to what we’ve seen at Brightspot

Brightspot has been working hard to accommodate changes in scheduling for our clients’ trips, thus having fewer programs cancel. Instead, we’ve seen a large number of trips moved to 2021, and even a handful to 2022. Because of this, fewer programs are trying to relaunch in Q3 and Q4 of 2020, making our outlook for the rest of the year even more reserved than the IRF respondents.

Despite the setbacks to 2020 schedules, there is an emphasis on the safety of attendees and planners, as well as the fear of having to reschedule once again later in the year due to any possible return of travel bans or shelter-in-place laws. The biggest takeaway: 2020 may not see as big of a return of incentive travel as we’d prefer, but postponing is a better option than canceling. Incentive travel participants will still desire their bucket-list trip when it becomes safe to travel, and canceling will mean a bigger blow to budgets in the long run.

Consumer Psyche

Health concerns, quarantines, and travel shutdowns have certainly damaged consumer confidence, but research is indicating an increase in traveler optimism.  A consumer survey conducted by the online booking site Skyscanner suggests that 85% of Americans believe it will be safe to fly domestically by this fall and 74% think an international flight will be safe.

traveler perception covid-19

North American travelers response for “when will it be safe to travel again?”

global travel after coronavirus

Global travelers response for “when will it be safe to travel again?”

Another survey conducted by iVisa, an online travel visa processing website, first asked North Americans when they would consider traveling again, and 43% indicated they would be willing to travel July – September. When a Global audience was asked the same question, 29% indicated they would be willing to travel July – September, with that number increasing in the fall months.

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease up, these numbers will be increasing weekly as people become more comfortable and willing to travel again. Our thoughts are that if extreme measures such as temperature checks are still being required in the fall, that incentive travel will likely not pick up. Reasonable precautions such as washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and maybe even masks (on flights only) should not deter traveling.

Preferred Destinations

One of the more common questions we’ve received is, “where will incentive travel return first?”. We’ve seen that North America, Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii are perceived as safer destinations with returns for incentive trips poised for Q3 and Q4 of 2020. Travelers will be more willing to stay domestic as opposed to putting their passport to work. While there are a handful of riskier exclusions, such as Las Vegas, these destinations should be on schedule for a late 2020 return to form (barring any further setbacks.)

North America perceived to be safer for incentive travel after COVID-19

On the flip side, countries that were hit harder by COVID-19 like Italy, Spain, and China are going to suffer from the adverse press and will have to overcome a perception challenge well into 2021. Cruise ships all over the globe can also expect a more prolonged setback due to news of vessels stuck at sea with passengers that contracted coronavirus early-on in the outbreak.

Destinations with perception problems for travel after COVID-19

Please note that these perceptions are coming from a North American point-of-view. We’ve seen reports from countries across the Atlantic that North America, in their opinion, won’t be prepared for a return to incentive travel in 2020. It seems that wherever you are, there is an emphasis on staying closer to home. The last thing attendees want to happen is to be stuck in another country if anything unfortunate were to occur either at home or abroad.

Sourcing/Screening

In the RFP process, we recommend sending a Risk and Safety Assessment to your vendors (specifically hotels and destination management companies) to understand their processes and procedures during an emergency. This document should also include COVID-19 specific questions so that you can ensure that the destinations and properties you are considering will provide a safe, healthy, and hygienic environment for your attendees.

Some questions to include:

• What are their sanitizing and cleaning practices in guest rooms and public spaces?
• Does the destination have quality healthcare to handle COVID-19 cases?
• What are the # of reported cases in that destination?
• Are they testing their employees before they can come back to work?

When researching properties, we recommend looking for opportunities where you can do a private buy-out (specifically smaller boutique properties) that will give you more control and fewer variables.

With regards to hotel contracts and Force Majeure, we are finding most hotel brands and DMC’s are offering more flexibility than just Force Majeure, in terms of moving dates and deposits with very small penalties.  In general, most are going above and beyond the terms stated in the contracts to help our clients, and we feel that trend will continue.

Additional Registration Questions

As you launch registration for rebooked or new programs moving forward, communication will become very important as we learn to walk the fine line between mitigating risk and liability, and not scaring our attendees into foregoing the trip and staying at home.

Information we need to provide to our attendees:

• Let them know that we are prepared and being cautious
• Outline the steps we are taking to ensure their health and safety on-site
• Set expectations for interaction and behavior – for example, no handshakes or any other physical touch
• How we will respond to any suspected illness on-site
• Thorough explanation of what they can expect throughout the entire program

Additional information we will need from our attendees:

• Have they been sick or seen a doctor in the past fourteen days?
• Do they have any underlying medical conditions we need to be aware of?
• More detailed medical screening questions

Much like the days of Zika when pregnant women were at risk, we will need to ask about individual considerations associated with age, underlying medical conditions, etc. We will have to tread carefully here, as this could potentially raise sensitivity with personal privacy concerns for some.

Finally, we will need to ask attendees and guests to confirm their understanding of these policies and expectations, which is a nice way of saying that we will require waiver signatures. Questions about recent travel or sickness, which may be asked in the form of a waiver, will likely be asked at registration and possibly on-site. Additional considerations for waivers may also include their agreement to notify staff if sickness or fever occurs while on-site.

We’ve begun implementing these waivers and even have a couple that have been approved by corporate legal teams, so please reach out if you have any questions on what this might look like for your next incentive trip.

Safe Travels

Most airlines have canceled flights and significantly reduced lift into many destinations. All major airlines are requiring masks to be worn by passengers as well as flight crew. A few are blocking middle seats to help with distancing. Many have announced extra plane cleaning but there is never a guarantee that every surface will get cleaned. It is never a bad idea to travel with antibacterial wipes to clean your seat armrest, tray table, seatback pocket, air vent, seat touch screen, headrest, and window blind. An interesting article on Forbes.com explains how air travel is safer than you think. Aircraft cabin airflow is vertical, the air is dispersed at the top of the cabin and on sidewalls. The air is then pulled out of the cabin through grills at the bottom. Air is replaced every two to three minutes with fresh air that passes through a HEPA filter that can capture over 99.97% of micron particles. You are probably safer on an airplane than you are in a restaurant!

Pre-Gifting

Over the last 10 years, on-site gifting experiences have grown as trip rewards, such as sunglass fittings, sandals, custom athletic shoes, apparel, electronics, and watches. But now, clusters of attendees surrounding a table in a tight space touching merchandise and admiring the new look on others does not align with social distancing guidelines.

Pre-COVID-19, we saw an increase in our clients wanting to do more pre-trip online shopping experiences. These experiences allow attendees to pick items such as luggage, Bose headphones, or design custom Nikes’, which would then be shipped to their home prior to the trip. Many gifting companies have increased their capabilities in these online experiences, and we think we will see a lot more of this moving forward. This type of gifting experience is a great alternative to an on-site gifting experience.

Another idea that we are suggesting for pre-trip mailers would be custom health kits. These kits could include hand sanitizer, wipes, tray table covers, and masks; all of which can be customized to the trip theme.

Additional alternatives will depend on the group, but gift cards to shop for the sandals and sunglasses online will certainly be an option, either as a pre-trip gift or handed out on-site. Some companies are opting to display gifts at the hospitality desk to highlight what attendees will receive when they return home, while some are utilizing their mobile app to send push notifications of gift images. Maybe after a day at leisure, a push notification goes out saying, “we hope you had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Grand Cayman today. When you return home, you will receive this beautiful hand-painted and signed print to serve as a reminder of your stay in paradise.” Room drops will be taking a temporary hiatus as hotels want to limit the number of times staff go into a guest room.

We are getting creative and gifting partners are working hard to make this easier for us, so don’t let gifting be a source of stress, there are many options available!

Food & Beverage

Food and Beverage is an area that we will see a great change in events moving forward.  Many of these changes occurred during the SARS outbreak as well, so our hope is that eventually, we will get back to normal practices for F&B. For the foreseeable future, we will see some, if not all, of these changes:

No more butler passed hors d’ oeuvres or self-serve stations for receptions. Waiters will have to plate your selection or offer items that are pre-plated on small plates which could be passed out to guests. Having more bars in the space will help prevent people from crowding or congregating.

Offering plated dinners is likely the easiest solution for service but not the most ideal for the attendees as it limits their options. It also limits the ability to offer cultural foods that are specific to your destination. While attendees often like to experience cultural cuisine, they don’t necessarily want that to be the only option.

Buffets are still possible but will look very different. They will be single-sided with hotel staff serving to keep fewer people touching utensils. However, this will cause lines to back up, especially if we must keep physical distancing. So, an alternative could be to have more stations available and section-off the tables, assigning them to specific stations. We could easily have fun with this, building it into the theme and décor of the event, so it looks like it was supposed to be that way all along.

In addition, keeping less food on display and replenishing often would help limit the amount of food touched and possible contamination. Typical items such as salt and pepper shakers, sugar holders, condiments, salad dressing, etc. will no longer be part of the table set up. Instead, attendees will have to ask the waiter for those items. The waiter will bring and then remove immediately and sanitize in between uses.

Fewer Events, More Space

In general, no matter what size your group, more event space is going to be required in order to accommodate physical distancing. This is potentially going to cause some issues for hotels that have multiple events going on at one time. A room that might have accommodated 450 people will likely now only accommodate 150 people. Space is going to be at a premium.

With receptions, you’ll need to allow for more personal space than normal. As mentioned earlier, adding more bars will help to avoid congestion. Plan on using more rounds with fewer people seated.  Standard is 10/12 people per 72” and 8/10 people per 60” table, the new norm maybe 6 at 72” and 4 at 60”. One side effect of this is that more table linen and centerpieces will be required, which will affect the budget.

Space out every other table to avoid overcrowding and maintain separation

Take advantage of outdoor space when it is available (weather permitting) and be certain that the back-up space is larger and allows guests to still maintain the space for physical distancing.  While “intimate cozy-gatherings” may be a thing of the past, that feeling can still be created with the right layout and furnishings in a larger space.

Consider reducing the # of events or times where the guests are brought together. For example, by combining the Awards Dinner with the Welcome Reception we could reduce the number of times the group is gathering. Instead of everyone attending one Awards Dinner, break the group down to smaller groups (based on region/district or another differentiating factor) or hold dinners on different nights. Another option is to give attendees more meals at leisure; they never mind that!

Entertainment

Dance floors may be a thing of the past for a while, consider having background music and other entertainment such as improv/comedian, company talent show, cultural performers, or something that doesn’t require close contact.

Dine Arounds

Dine Arounds can still be done but should be kept on property where we have more control of cleaning and sanitation standards versus going off property. Obviously, seat in smaller groups and stagger times to not overwhelm the kitchen and avoid crowding the restaurants.

Alternative Recognition

There are other ways to provide alternative recognition (in lieu of Awards Dinner)

• Consider virtual awards ceremony or doing a pre-recorded video
• Recognize award winners in other ways – display photos on the hotel tv, create a “hall of fame” in the hospitality suite, or display on the beach for a “beach walk.”

Solo Activities

Normally we would be preaching to keep your attendees together for activities such as catamaran sails, snorkeling, or a private group beach party, but this may be the one and only time (we hope) that we are going to temporarily recommend you do the exact opposite. Destinations are scrambling to set guidelines for group activities, but in the interim, major attractions and government monuments, museums, etc. will limit visitors. For now, we will suggest individual activities such as jet skis, horseback riding, or ATVs that will allow attendees to keep their “personal space”. Spa may also still be an option if the attendee is comfortable with it. No doubt the hotels will have strict guidelines on the use of Spa amenities, but treatments should be able to be done in a safe manner.

COVID-19 leading to more individual activitiesWe instinctively want to pack agendas with activities, but many times survey results show that our attendees want more downtime, and now is the time to give it to them.

There is an App for That

Incentive travel apps have only recently started to catch on as a best practice for programs but will start becoming a near necessity in the post-COVID environment. Not having printed materials handed out and touched by staff and attendees is a major health-conscious decision, so having an app that contains itineraries, safety instructions, and information on the destination will be more valuable than ever.

COVID-19 incentive travel appBesides the prevention of contamination, apps also offer a significant benefit to safety in the way of acting as an emergency notification system. Push notifications from the app can alert attendees of critical safety updates immediately and give specific direction to program participants in a uniform manner.

Attendees can also use the program’s app to communicate with other attendees via an in-app chat feature and message board. While cutting back on face-to-face time is not a popular decision, for the foreseeable future finding safe alternatives for authentic interaction will be a crucial point of interest for incentive trips.

Budget Impact

Safety is going to come at a cost, and expenses will increase:

• Transportation costs will increase due to fewer people per vehicle
• Larger banquet space is going to be needed to allow for fewer people at tables
• More tables mean more linens and décor, which means more budget
• More staff is going to be required to ensure that the vendors and hotels are following appropriate standards for cleaning and sanitation
• More hotel staff will be required for events, and the hotel will need to offset these expenses with increased menu prices, room, rentals, and labor costs

While expenses will undoubtedly increase, attendance will inversely decrease, creating a problematic scenario for meeting planners and the companies they serve. In a few cases, we’ve seen almost 50% of proposed attendance and room block for returning incentive travel programs.

With fewer attendees and higher costs comes a difficult budget conversation. Public companies may have to go through two or three budget cycles to replenish a program budget, so we expect those large organizations to take longer to bounce back. In most cases, however, we expect a return to form by Q1 2021 without a significant setback.

Be sure to tune-in for the upcoming webinars in the “Next Normal” series for what to expect after COVID-19 for meetings and roadshows.

Special thanks to our webinar panelists Michael Butler, Julie Blank, and Mike May plus the Re-Imagine Incentive Travel Task Force of Kim Dierks, Hailey Jump, Karolyn Hemmig, Hope Duffie, Kara Benz, Courtney Schroeder, and Lauren Struffolino.

Kim Fox

Author Kim Fox

Director, Meetings & Incentive Travel | Providing an exceptional experience for attendees that result in them feeling valued by their company, empowered with knowledge and inspired and motivated to excel.

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