Want to Inspire Staff? Give Them a Vacation!

THE pirates sailed their flotilla of sailing yachts into the remote Caribbean port and moored them side by side. The party was about to begin. Another party jetted into Budapest and took a private train to Vienna. In Vienna, they chartered all 10 of Vienna's antique cable cars for touring the city and took a trek by antique steam train.

This isn't the life of international jet-setters.

No, these were Buick dealers and Dayton Tire wholesalers who had separately won sales-incentive contests to boost productivity.

``It's the trip of a lifetime,'' says Judy Roper, president of Corporate Promotions & Incentives, a company based in Alexandria, Va., which arranged a touring trip to Austria and Hungary for Dayton Tire wholesalers. ``As individuals, they couldn't have arranged this kind of vacation.''

And that's just the point as companies compete, not only for market share, but for the retention of talented employees and distributors.

``These programs are kept top secret,'' Ms. Roper says, ``because they reveal something about the marketing strategy for the coming year.''

Companies don't typically reveal the increase in sales which results from such trips. But company officials say they are pleased with the results.

Incentive travel programs have soared in the past five years. Industry officials estimate that the business grew to $5 billion in 1988 from $2 billion five years earlier.

Incentive trips to the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Europe are common. Contests offering trips to Bangkok and even Beijing are increasing, says Richard Graham, president of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE), a loose network of travel companies, airlines, hotels, and resorts. And with friendlier relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, trips, such as Dayton's to Hungary, may become more frequent.

INCENTIVE contests offering travel and merchandise to motivate the sales force have been around for a long time. Now American business is looking to expand the use of contests to the non-sales force to increase productivity and solidify a position in the global marketplace.

With good reason. The sales force accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of all workers in the US. Furthermore, American labor productivity has grown at a paltry 1 percent annually for the last decade, according to the American Productivity and Quality Center.

``It turns out that the competitive marketplace is forcing employers to look for ways to motivate workers,'' says Don McAdams, the executive vice-president of the center, a Houston-based nonprofit research operation.

The use of incentive awards can be very powerful motivational tools, experts say, because they tend to keep employees more focused on their jobs, much in the same way professional athletes are motivated to perform to their potential because of incentive clauses in their contracts.

Looking ahead, Mr. Graham predicts that companies will move toward allowing individuals to tailor their own performance rewards. Under his scenario, workers will ``set their own measurement programs, setting the criteria upon which to be judged. If you can tie performance to the rewards the individuals want, that's true leverage.''

These program rewards are expected to be more modest as businesses see how successful they are in generating savings, profits, or both. ``Companies are going to nudge into these areas,'' Graham says. ``They'll offer merchandise or more modest travel.''

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