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The Business of Meetings

Mar 5, 2024

The Business of Meetings – Episode 208 – Incentive Travel: Driving Business Growth with Stephanie Harris  

We are delighted to welcome Stephanie Harris, President of the Incentive Research Foundation, as our guest for today's show.

Stephanie brings a wealth of knowledge to our discussion today. Join us as we dive into the impact of incentives, focusing in particular on non-cash options like incentive travel.

Stephanie’s Journey

Stephanie's professional journey has been anything but linear. She began her career as a strategist for advertising and sales promotion agencies, mainly working within the client categories of shoes and shopping.

After over a decade in the agency world, she transitioned to the client side, joining Merits to work on their internal marketing agency, despite knowing little about incentives and motivation then. However, her passion for the incentive world flourished during her tenure there, encompassing everything from program development to travel and gift card rewards. Her expertise caught the attention of American Express, leading to a strategic alliance role where she gained invaluable global experience, exploring diverse cultures and their attitudes toward incentives. Four years ago, she began leading the Incentive Research Foundation. 

The Economic Impact of Incentive Travel

Stephanie discusses the challenges in measuring the economic impact of incentive travel, highlighting a study by the Events Industry Council, showing a 1.6 trillion dollar impact on the economy. She explains that although it is difficult to accurately measure the impact of incentives beyond travel, such as gift cards and merchandise spending, she has seen that organizations consistently employing incentives tend to outperform their peers, making incentives a competitive differentiator.

Strategic Use of Incentives to Motivate Workforce 

Exploring the evolving reasons for using incentives to motivate the workforce, Stephanie has noticed that they are increasingly seen as essential for building organizational culture, particularly in light of how the pandemic influenced remote work. Stephanie shares insights from the Incentive Travel Index, highlighting how leadership perceives incentives as essential for increasing organizational success and retaining top talent.

Personalized Experiences and Authenticity in Incentive Travel

Looking at the importance of personalized experiences and authenticity in incentive travel, Stephanie emphasizes the need to tailor incentive destinations to the preferences and psychographics of the participants. She explains how unique and authentic experiences foster employee motivation and loyalty, with organizations increasingly seeking to surprise winners with exclusivity in their incentive destinations.

Prioritizing Mental Health and Wellness in Events: Stephanie shares personal anecdotes highlighting the importance of prioritizing mental health and wellness in the events industry. She discusses the impact of the pandemic on remote work and the need for face-to-face interactions to combat loneliness and improve mental health, looking at strategies like incorporating breaks, offering structured networking opportunities, and designing programs with wellness in mind.

Role of AI in Event Planning

Looking at the role of artificial intelligence in event planning, Stephanie highlights how AI can streamline tasks, generate content, and offer valuable insights for event organizers. She encourages industry professionals to embrace artificial intelligence as a helpful tool for enhancing efficiency and innovation in event management, emphasizing the need for hands-on exploration and experimentation with AI technologies.

Bio: Stephanie Harris

Stephanie Harris is President of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). In her role, she directs the strategy and efforts of the IRF, which funds and promotes research and education to increase understanding, effective use, and benefits of non-cash incentives for businesses globally. 

Before joining the IRF, Harris was part of the American Express Meetings & Events leadership team, leading global event strategy, thought leadership, and marketing. She started her career in incentives with Maritz, where she was VP of Brand Marketing & Strategy. Harris currently serves on the board of the Events Industry Council and has served on the boards of the MPI Foundation, and Incentive Federation.

Harris resides in St. Louis with her husband, has four (mostly grown & on their own) children, and a Labrador Retriever.

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