February 3, 2023

Owner Mary Catherine Barrett, left, and Tina Haley of Rocky River’s GRA Group take in the tropics.
Ashley Lawson remembers all too well where she was when the U.S. declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March 2020.
Lawson, vice president of Westlake-based global travel incentive firm Achieve Incentives & Meetings, was leading a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, when the frightening news came down. After managing travel arrangements out of the country, Lawson returned to Mexico to renegotiate a contract with a key client.
“During the pandemic, there was lots of replanning and ‘lifting and shifting’ of program dates as everything was adjusted,” said Lawson, whose family-owned company is now celebrating its 70th anniversary. “We’ve done this many times over the past few years as things kept changing.”
Adaptation has been vital for an industry now dealing with two years of pent-up travel demand. Companies that survived pandemic downturns are now sought by corporations rewarding top performers with team retreats, paid family vacations and other exclusive experiences.
The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) outlook for 2022 predicted a 34% increase in overall incentive travel budgets this year. Meanwhile, according to Corporate InSITE’s Changing Face of Incentive Travel report, 94% of companies surveyed considered incentive travel a crucial means of rewarding and recognizing their employees.
A subset of the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry, incentive travel is generally described as a perk motivating employees or partners around company objectives.
A report from the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida defined an incentive event as “a corporate sponsored meeting or trip to reward effort and create company loyalty, often built around a theme; and a celebratory event intended to showcase persons who meet or exceed sales or production goals.”
Local enterprises involved with the industry are no longer concerned about incentive travel making a comeback — their focus now is continuing to adjust in line with evolving travel restrictions, testing protocols, local regulations, and prevalent supply chain and labor disruptions.
Lawson’s team creates packages around client travel demands while also contracting hotel rates, booking flights, planning tours, heading up marketing, and handling any of the myriad issues that arise on the ground.
Part of Achieve Incentive’s reinvention during the pandemic has been speed to market. Prior to March 2020, planning and marketing a trip was an 18-month process where the client wanted to drum up hype and excitement around the pending journey. Today, executives desire rapid turnarounds — sometimes as little as 60 days — before heading off into the wild blue yonder. To that end, Lawson will source second- and third-tier cities with less visitor compression or hotel room demand.
“Businesses are seeing how important it is to bring people together and show appreciation to their team,” said Lawson. “Instead of revenue-based incentives for individuals, companies are now choosing to incentivize entire teams. They’re using trips as a tool for talent management and customer acquisition, because it’s an advantage to reward the team and make people feel special.”
The GRA Group in Rocky River creates incentive travel packages for wholesaler trades — roofing, plumbing, the HVAC industry and more. Incentive trips are far more attractive than gifts or cash handouts, as clients are giving employees an unforgettable experience, believes owner Mary Catherine Barrett.
Keeping this credo in mind, GRA Group puts together basic packages to Cancun as well as Alaskan cruises and all-inclusive jaunts to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Creating what Barrett calls a “wow experience” is a priceless relationship builder for a company.
“It gets people thinking about you as more than just a business and bottom line,” Barrett said. “The value is relationships and loyalty.”
Barrett had a 75-member group in St. Lucia on the eve of the U.S. pandemic emergency. She helped get her charges off the island on time, while harnessing skills as a practicing attorney to rearrange hotel contracts.
With incentive and leisure travel nearing pre-pandemic levels, Barrett remains proactive to counter labor shortfalls that have hotels operating at less than full capacity. Planning a year or even two in advance is a necessity with leisure travel prioritized over Barrett’s industry.
“I tell my clients, let’s book now,” Barrett said. “You want those January or February 2024 deals done fast so you can get a decent rate.”
GRA Group is always working to book trips in accordance with various travel restrictions and vaccine regulations. Barrett recently eliminated Turks and Caicos as a destination due to vaccine requirements for all travelers ages 10 and older. With the former travel hot spot off the rolls, she now focuses on parts of the world with less restrictive laws.
“I’m proposing places where it’s easier to travel in and out of,” Barrett said. “It’s like taking your shoes off at an airport — this is the new norm, so we’re trying to normalize (issues around vaccines).”
Local incentive travel groups also are using technology more than ever. Rather than shipping out paper travel booklets in the run-up to an excursion, organizers will provide a website and app dedicated to the event. All-encompassing apps deliver pertinent trip information and serve as a communications hub through which users send direct messages.
Achieve Incentives sends trip-ready clients digital flight data and additional “know-before-you-go-information,” Lawson said. On-site, travelers are given photo uploading apps that later can be incorporated into an album.
Nor are changes around technology, booking and tour planning expected to fade even as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a more controllable entity. Like many industries, incentive travel must remain nimble to succeed, Lawson noted.
“Our motto is pressing the easy button around planning,” Lawson said. “Easier planning is a win-win all around for us and our partners.”
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