Incentive Travel Trends and Solutions for 2023

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Incentive Travel Trends and Solutions for 2023

By Beth Buehler

A few comments in the Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) 2023 Trends Report about Incentive travel trends in 2023 really stood out when examining how this sector of the U.S. meetings and events industry has changed and recovered since the COVID pandemic emerged nationally in early 2020.

First, incentive, recognition and reward programs are expected to have broader reach and deeper impact. “The new decentralized workforce comes with new expectations, new drivers of performance, and new considerations for the structure and delivery of engagement programs to inspire employee performance and loyalty,” the report notes.

Also, one third-party provider who responded to the survey shares, “More stakeholders are also jumping in to ensure incentives are not just driving sales but are a retention tool as well. HR is playing a bigger role in decisions.”

Using data and comments from this trend report and other IRF research, let’s look at incentive travel trends and solutions for 2023, along with why Colorado is a prime destination for incentive programs.

Increasing demand paired with challenges

While demand for incentive travel is returning, a few roadblocks are resulting in smaller incentive group sizes. Compression in hotel inventory, reduction in staffs, and increased costs are common barriers to delivering an incentive trip on the same scale when compared to 2019. Thankfully, this is expected to be a short-term trend, with incentive travel buyers indicating the number of people participating in incentive travel programs will increase by 48% in 2023 and 61% in 2024.

Even as some of the compression caused by displaced 2020 and 2021 programs eases, there is still high demand and reduced hotel inventory especially in Tier 1 and Tier 2 destinations. In addition, pre- and post-program availability can be a challenge. The solution? Planners must be flexible with date patterns and book as early as possible. Colorado has a huge range of destinations to choose and offers four seasons of fun, and the option of easily going between cities, mountains and plains.

Hotels and destination management companies (DMCs) are not the only ones challenged by staffing shortages and service levels. Many incentive program owners also have found the need to utilize part-time contractors or bring their own additional staff onsite as well. Fortunately, service levels are typically back to expected levels at high-end properties and resorts, according to incentive professionals who took part in a December 2022 IRF roundtable discussion.

Inflation and cost increases also are impacting the planning and execution of incentive travel programs, especially in the areas of air travel, transportation/fuel surcharges, talent, and venue rental costs. As a result, incentive planners are faced with delivering increased budgets to corporate leadership.

Colorado has continued to open its fair share of lodging properties and venues since 2020, and Denver International Airport has become the third busiest airport in the world during this time period. As a result, a broad selection of direct flights is available to and from The Mile High City along with connecting flights to regional airports that crisscross the state.

Friendly and attentive ranch staff, courtesy C Lazy U Ranch

Upbeat news and group preferences

Despite the challenges, the good news is that incentive travel activity is expected to be strong in 2023, with the IRF’s Incentive Travel Index suggesting that 56% of buyers are increasing per-person spending over 2019 levels.

Yet, as incentive travel programs rebound to meet pent-up demand, expectations are higher than ever. “Incentive travel needs to be more exciting, more exclusive, more experiential, more authentic, and more memorable than ever,” the report indicates.

Unique and memorable experiences are a top driver of destination choice among buyers today, such as private access to normally crowded venues, exclusive guides and inside stories, and meals in places that are unexpected. Another third-party provider notes, “We are finding it doesn’t necessarily have to be a top-of-the-line property, but the experience needs to be custom, personalized and unique.”

Ample time to relax is ranked as the most important feature of an incentive trip by 89% of participants, according to additional IRF research. Attendees want more choices in their schedules, time between programs, and blocks of time to recharge or catch up with work. Some participants also want some group activities shifted to individual experiences.

In the Incentive Travel Index, 46% of incentive professionals noted that free time was key to a successful program. Given inflation and budget pressure, attendees’ desire for downtime can be helpful. When hotels have pools and other appealing on-site amenities, downtime can be a no-cost way for attendees to relax. The index also revealed that 72% of respondents believe relationship-building activities are important to a successful incentive program.

Colorado specializes in unique experiences, whether it is staying at a guest ranch, going snowcat skiing, biking between wineries and breweries, or attending a concert at the world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre. There also is a wide range of boutique hotels and resorts that offer amenities like rooftop bars and pools, cozy fire pits surrounded by snowcapped mountains, cooking and mixology workshops, and on-site outfitters that provide everything from hands-on falconry sessions to rock climbing excursions.

Electric Bike Tour with the Flatirons as the backdrop, courtesy Visit Boulder

Moving forward with intent

While the easy route might be reverting to pre-pandemic approaches, remember that the workforce, expectations, costs, and more have changed. Take the time to check in with program participants, suppliers, clients and other partners to ensure your incentive programs are on the mark. See how the information you gather compares to these incentive travel trends and solutions for 2023.

The nonprofit Destination Colorado Meetings stands ready to assist at no cost through an easy-to-use, online RFP process that connects meeting, event and incentive planners to a network of 130 members and a website that is filled with information about destinations, venues, meeting service providers, and more. Get in touch today!

Festive atmosphere in Old Town, courtesy of Visit Fort Collins

Top Photo: The Jacquard’s Kisbee on the Roof inCherry Creek, courtesy The Jacquard


Colorado native Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 18 years, helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine, and is on the team introducing Southwest Meetings + Events this spring. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.