Creative Group was the Research Advocacy Partner for the IRF’s Signature Study: Engaging Program Owners in the Incentives Marketplace. Interviews were conducted with program managers and owners, with a common theme that emerged: many of them fell into their jobs by happenstance. Most of what they know about incentives they learned on the job or through hotel contacts. Incentive companies and suppliers can also be a great resource. Because incentive planning is not a career track taught in school and a library of resources is not easily accessible, program managers are at a loss locating useful industry information.

Access the study here: Incentive Research Foundation Signature Study: Voice of the Market

The Ultimate Incentive Resource: Third-Party Planning Companies

Program managers who work with a third party find themselves with a leg-up in planning effective programs. Although they may be skeptical of releasing some of the responsibilities they are so fond of, they should partner with an incentive planning company as a value-add, versus their replacement. Working directly with an expert in the industry will provide program managers with a coach to help them drive behavior change in their business. Plus, creative ideas can be executed much more smoothly when a partner is involved.

The role of a great planning company is to consult on best practices and fresh ideas, help benchmark against other companies, and provide industry resources that further support the client’s incentive programs. The Signature Study revealed that incentive program managers are extremely eager for this type of information.

Incentive Planning Resources

Many areas of interest addressed in the Signature Study can easily be tackled with the help of planning companies. Most provide a full range of offerings from design to implementation. And they can help with the all-important rule structure and marketing campaign – the foundation of a successful program. Not to mention, they have the experience and resources to recommend solutions for reward selection, fulfillment, and platform design.

When done correctly, this type of consultative approach is well worth the investment of working with a third party. Especially when compared to purchasing a self-learned, self-administered software that is probably more generic than personalized for participants.

In addition, third parties can also help put people in touch with the right resources.

Best Practices

Best practices are derived from companies that have storied success in aspects such as revenue growth, customer retention and satisfaction, customer acquisition, and employee retention and satisfaction. Don’t we all want to learn from top-performing companies? There are best practices to keep in mind – such as the use of non-cash rewards, making sure incentives are the right solution for your challenge, and intertwining social recognition.

Because each incentive program is uniquely based on company structure and values, participant demographics and psychographics, and business challenges – best practices can only take a novice so far. A program manager is instrumental in providing detailed information to an incentive company so they can put decades of best practices and successful program knowledge to work for them.


Incentive companies can provide benchmarking information (and easily apply learnings) because they work with so many different clients in all types of industries. For example, we asked 120+ program leaders 10 simple questions about their programs to find out how confident they were when it came to the program’s purpose and effectiveness. As it turned out, most program leaders lacked confidence in these categories.

An unbiased third party can take a fresh look at the program to evaluate it and determine:

  • If there’s a return on a specific program and what it is
  • If the strategy is aligned with organizational goals and objectives
  • If the program motivates the largest percentage of your audience
  • If you can leverage awards across programs and initiatives to drive greater performance and better budget allocation
  • If spend is optimized on performance improvement initiatives across various activities

Fresh Ideas

In addition to benchmarking, working with clients in a wide breadth of industries allows third-party planners to be an endless source of the best ideas. Whether it’s where to go and what to do on an incentive trip, or the trends that impact travel experiences as a whole, the days of recycling the same trip over and over are gone.

Industry Resources

The best industry resources come from a mix of real-life experience sharing and research. The Incentive Research Foundation provides extensive insights into key areas, such as the psychology behind behavior change, participant preferences, and program manager interviews. The foundation also brings together experts in the industry to discuss how they are seeing the industry change. Because the information is so in-depth, partnering with a planning company can help make the data applicable to a company’s situation.


Peers are a great source of learning. Program managers looking for ways to network with others in similar positions might look to groups like SITE or SHRM. The Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) is the only global organization dedicated to strengthening and supporting the incentive travel industry. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the world’s largest HR professional society. While geared toward Human Resources in general, many program managers fall under this umbrella. Furthermore, they can find program execution and destination experts at third-party planning companies.

Putting Resources to Work for You

According to interviews conducted by the IRF, it’s clear program managers are passionate about what they do and find joy in the trip-planning, rewards-purchasing aspect of their jobs. Most of their experience comes from on-the-job training. As valuable as that may be, there’s an entire industry dedicated to the psychology, ROI, and intangible benefits of reward and recognition programs. Experts in the industry, namely third-party planning companies, can help program managers discover a deeper knowledge and understanding of how and why incentives work, so they can further enhance their programs.

What Resources Can We Provide You?