First class: executed correctly, exclusive travel incentive programs can be your one-way ticket to building stronger long-term relationships

First class: executed correctly, exclusive travel incentive programs can be your one-way ticket to building stronger long-term relationships – Pro Watch

Chris Wood

What if you could find the perfect hook to capture new accounts, icrease loyalty and sales with current customers, motivate your sales force, and enjoy a pina colada on the beach all at the same time? It may sound too good to be true, but pro dealers investing in travel incentive programs say you can do all of this while at the same time generating gross sales results that will “last a lot longer than a suntan and a couple of flower leis.

Of course, travel incentives aren’t anything new–companies have been hosting client trips to Las Vegas and the Caribbean for years. But in today’s increasingly cost-competitive environment, savvy LBM dealers and travel incentive program providers say customization and marketing focus will mean the difference between a business trip that leads to more profits and just another back-slapping junket.

To reap the rewards, travel incentive programs must be centered on customer appreciation, backed up by” solid marketing support, mid used as part of an ongoing sales relationship instead of a one-time reward. ‘Above all, you should use travel incentives to build customer loyalty–that’s the biggie,” says Carl Meadows, president of TIMBR, a Castle Rock, Colo.-based travel incentive provider that works exclusively within the pro dealer industry. “Whether you go to Paris or Hawaii or Mexico, you are throwing your best customers together with the president and the sales manager of the company in a social atmosphere over a week’s time,” says Meadows. “You can use that advantage to get your customers to open up to you about issues both good and bad”.

Whether offered as a reward for doing business, an incentive for using new products and services, or a motivational tool for reaching certain volume or margin goals, travel incentives work best when combined with a full-scale marketing approach, travel insiders say. “Vacation incentive awards can be used … to introduce a new product, to support training, to foster teamwork and build morale, and to improve customer service levels and increase new customer pipelines,” says Debbi Gilmer, marketing manager for Clearwater, Fla.-based Sabre Marketing Group, a travel incentives provider that has worked with Ford, General Electric, and Roadway Trucking, among others. “To increase the value of your program, set realistic program goals and back them up with good marketing communication,” Gilmer advises.

Bon Voyage

That message is not lost on McCray Lumber, a seven-unit pro dealer based in Overland Park, Kan., with 2002 gross sales of $97 million that coupled an incentive trip to Maui with an ongoing marketing pitch based on the popular “Survivor” reality television series. The promotion took place over the course of the 2002 sales year, beginning in January when each customer contestant received a kickoff kit, including McCray-brandcd sunscreen and lip balm, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, a hula girl, a lei, Hawaiian coffee, and a “passport” with ‘all of the program’s rules and regulations. Participants then were contacted through e-mail and direct mail at least once a month with additional materials, including trip itineraries, points updates, and electronic postcards with a picture of their hotel in Maui and a countdown of how many days were left until the trip.

“Travel incentive is something that you have to work at–you want to communicate results and standings on an ongoing basis,” says McCray president Chandler McCray “You want to keep the customers actively involved and interested by keeping the direct mail and marketing going in forward momentum.”

In all, McCray invested approximately $500,000 in the “Survivor Maul” travel incentive, but saw gross sales improve over the contest period by 20 percent. “The rise in gross sales was great, but we have also had a lot of carry-forward business since we took the trip this past February,” McCray says. “A big part of the program was not only to reward the loyalty of proven customers, but also to attract new business at the same time, because if we can get a customer coming back for at least a year, we can usually keep them.”

Indeed, although most travel incentive firms provide programs at various economic points, taking 50 or so contractors (plus some of your sales staff) on a highend vacation is never going to be done on the cheap, and suppliers interested in developing a program should be prepared to make an up-front dollar commitment. “Travel incentives set you apart from your competitor,” says Carl Tindell, president of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Tindell’s, a four-unit pro dealer with 2002 sales of $35.5 million that has taken contractor customers to Australia, Ireland, Greece, London, and France, and also has a trip planned to Maul later this year through TIMBR. “It’s not for the faint of heart–it’s a big-ticket investment–and I know a lot of lumberyards won’t go for the cost because you don’t get any [direct tangible sales] like a stack of lumber in return.”

Travel Upgrades

Tindell says he also has heard a common argument that travel incentives are payouts on sales that might have come your way anyhow. He counters by arguing that the incentive should be viewed as the continuation of a business relationship rather than as an end-all ultimate reward. “I never liked incentive-type trips where you just hand your contractor a ticket and send him somewhere mad tell him to have a good time–that’s not a benefit to anybody” Tindell says. “Loyalty is the reason you do it–but you’ve got to work it. Nobody Is going to go build extra houses just because you’re offering a trip. But for the hours they are building, this is one reason why they will prefer you over your competitor.”

To widen the gap between you and your competition and take your incentive trip to the next level, Meadows suggests tactics such as inviting suppliers along to co-sponsor a night’s entertainment or partner up with you during 19th hole sales meetings. “Use the opportunity to leave all of the participants with a ‘Wow,” Meadows advises. “Launch a new product line or unveil a new service, or simply announce next year’s destination, anything to put you in the limelight and generate some additional oohs and ahs.”

In all of the excitement that surrounds an approaching incentive trip, Tindell says it’s also important to make sure your largest customers aren’t the only ones getting the first-class treatment. “Don’t forget to offer something else to your smaller customers that aren’t going to make it, whether it’s a day trip to a manufacturer’s site or something else. You don’t want to hand things out to everybody, but you don’t want any program you run to make your smaller hut just as loyal customers feel left out.”

And no matter how many chuckles you get when you tell people you’re headed to Maul for work, Tindell adds, don’t let anyone convince you that incentive travel isn’t real business, sunscreen and all.–Chris Wood

COPYRIGHT 2003 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group