The incentive travel segment of the meetings industry is expected to perform well despite whispers in economist circles about the inevitable end of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.

Results from the 2019 Incentive Travel Industry Index, a joint research effort from SITE (the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), IRF (the Incentive Research Foundation) and FICP (Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals), point to an uptick in incentive travel spend over the next few years.

“There’s uncertainty—there’s no doubt about that—but yet the results of the Incentive Travel Industry Index do really point to a positive future,” said Pádraic Gilligan, chief marketing officer for SITE. “We are looking at growth rates of as much as 5% over the next couple of years.

“There’s still a lot of optimism from within the incentive sector because it empowers companies [and their employees] to do better,” he added.

Listen to the full interview with SITE CMO Pádraic Gilligan:

The 2019 Incentive Travel Industry Index survey received responses from more than 2,600 respondents in over 100 countries.

While spending is up, Gilligan mentioned trends such as benefiting the host destination of the incentive trip and sustainability are increasing in importance.

“Spending is up, which everybody in the channel is very happy to hear particularly for hotels, and the hotels’ percentage of the spend has increased quite significantly,” Gilligan said. “Perhaps the biggest takeaway is not a hard dollars takeaway at all; it’s a soft-power takeaway.

“It’s to do with the very, very clear centrality of soft power issues, like company culture, relationship building, connections, engagements and so on that are coming up more and more as being the objective of incentive travel that corporations are organizing,” he added.

Domestic Versus International Incentive Travel Preferences

Incentive travel destination preferences expressed on the study were weighted more heavily on close-by or far-flung end of the scale, meaning that planners should observe preferences.

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“On the one hand we’re seeing a lot of focus on domestic destinations, and we do know from the research over the years that most incentive travel experiences remain within the source market from which they’re contracted,” Gilligan said.

“But we’re also seeing a huge uptick in far-flung destinations like New Zealand and Australia,” he added. “Thailand … has really sort of surged forward as a long-haul destination that North American incentive professionals are putting business into.”

The Changing Structure of Incentive Travel Programs

SITE’s recent “Bangkok Manifesto” project, produced by SITE members at its Global Conference held in the Thai capital in January 2019, also emphasized the growing preference for incentive travel programs to benefit the host destinations they are in.

“It becomes really important even in terms of destination choice that planners of incentive travel programs figure out sustainability, and from a responsibility perspective where they should bring business, because not all business is good business—and particularly in that context of overtourism where the tourists have in a way displaced the citizens,” Gilligan said.

“And I think incentive travel, with its focus on authenticity, with its focus on going beyond what is the trend and the tested and the normal, I think incentive travel can play a big, big role in terms of being an antidote to overtourism,” he continued.

2019 Incentive Industry Index Full Report

A preview of the Incentive Travel Industry Index results was presented at IMEX America on September 9, 2019. Key results from the study can be viewed on SITE’s website.

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