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While folks across the Northeast, Midwest and other parts of the country are fed up with the dismal days of winter, flocks of fortunate ag dealers and salespeople have been soaking up sun in alluring locales such as Santa Barbara, Maui and Tampa. And for most of them, the trips didn't cost them a dime. They were sponsored by agribusiness companies that realize the positive impact incentive travel can have on their bottom line - despite difficult economic times and people's concerns about traveling.

"Incentive travel continues to be an important part of our business," says Jeff Lacina, public relations manager for Garst Seed Co., Slater, Iowa, which has sponsored incentive travel programs for more than 25 years. He acknowledges that the trips may not be as elaborate as they were years ago, but they actually may be more effective because they target sales reps who are actively growing their sales business.

"Instead of taking everyone and their brother, our Grand Club trip focuses on the movers and shakers - those active ProSellers who are helping to grow our business," Lacina explains. "It gives them new motivation to go out and sell more the following year."

Even relative newcomers to the field of incentive trips are realizing the payoffs of travel reward programs. "They're a great way to recognize top performers, get face-to-face with them, and learn more about their business and expectations," points out Angela Larson, corporate communications manager for Rockford, Ill.-based Woods Equipment Co., a full-line manufacturer of agricultural attachments and implements.

Incentive travel programs reward people with an experience, not an object. "You're giving them something they might not be able to do on their own," says Fred Capelle, director of international ag travel for Value Holidays/Educational Travel Centre in Mequon, Wis. "The positive feelings participants have will last a lifetime."


Although overall incentive travel in agriculture is down, it could be the ideal time for companies to invest in such programs, according to experts in travel planning.

"While companies use incentive travel rewards when the economy is good, they should consider it as a means to drive sales during tough times," says Shawn Runkle, owner of ExecuTravel, Kansas City, Mo. "It's a good way to pump up salespeople to reach sales goals."

That's just what Woods Equipment experienced after its first two dealer incentive trips. "We're still seeing benefits from the trip to San Francisco in 2000 and to Ireland in 2001," says Kim Jones, account supervisor for Hartland, Wis.-based Charleston|Orwig Inc., marketing communications agency for Woods. "The trips have elevated the perception of Woods in the minds of dealers."

As for an actual return on investment, Larson notes that it's difficult to determine how much the trips have influenced sales. "We're tracking it closely," she says. "Because of the cyclical nature of the industry, we have to look at sales for several years. But at this point, we are very committed to the incentive travel program."


Concerns about the world situation in light of the tragedies of Sept. 11 are having an effect on incentive travel programs. "People want to stay closer to home," Capelle points out. "Many prefer trips within the United States, Canada, the Caribbean or Mexico rather than going to international destinations."

Not all companies are married to incentive trips. For instance, Bill Wagner, director of incentives for Outdoor World Incentives/Bass Pro Shops, Springfield, Mo., points out that some of his clients who had been doing travel incentives recently switched to rewards such as gift certificates and gift cards. "A lot of companies are taking into account that people may be somewhat skeptical about travel and are moving in other directions," Wagner says.

Below, three ag companies provide overviews of recent trips and reveal how they've dealt with travel-related concerns.

Garst Seed Co.: Even though Garst's Grand Club trip in February 2002 took place in a domestic location, Tampa, Fla., Marketing Manager Lori Thomas says she was concerned that quite a few sales reps would not want to travel.

"Fortunately, a high percentage of our ProSellers turned in their travel claim form," Thomas says. "They didn't seem to be too worried about traveling." She notes, though, that some participants asked for alternative travel options, such as driving themselves to Tampa and rail or bus service.

More than 500 couples, including ProSellers and Garst employees, went on the four-day, all-expense-paid trip. The ProSellers earned the trip based on sales volume, level and increase from the previous year. The trip featured tours, training and an awards banquet. What's more, the top 10 ProSellers ate breakfast one morning with Garst's president, David Witherspoon, as part of the company's goal to foster an open dialogue between its high-volume ProSellers and company management. "We really want to reward these people and show how much they mean to our business," Lacina says.

Kent Feeds Inc.: Six hundred dealers, salespeople and spouses headed to Maui, Hawaii, in January for a trip offered by the family-owned company based in Muscatine, Iowa. "I had expected a lot of cancellations after the Sept. 11 tragedy, but not many people dropped out," says Art Lurndal, vice president of advertising, promotions and public relations.

"It would have taken a lot for them to decide not to go because they've worked for the last two years to earn their way," he continues. "The situation might have been different if the trip had been to a foreign country."

Kent offers the program, called the Nutrition/Business Conference, in the winter every other year. Lurndal says participating dealers earn Performance Bucks with every purchase from Kent. They draw on these to pay for the trip.

The event features tours, activities, free time and informational meetings. Kent has offered these types of programs for more than 30 years. Why? "These trips help build relationships and provide opportunities for our top performers to interact and exchange ideas," Lurndal explains.

The six-day, five-night Maui excursion celebrated Kent Feeds' 75th anniversary. Participants had the option of going early or extending their stay to visit other Hawaiian islands, Lurndal says.

Woods Equipment Co.: After Sept. 11, international travel no longer was a motivator in incentive-based programs, Larson says. So Woods switched the destination of its spring 2002 trip from Monte Carlo to a domestic location. "Within a week, we made a decision to move within the 48 contiguous states, selected Santa Barbara, Calif., produced a four-color piece and got it to dealers to let them know the destination had changed."

Response from dealers has been positive. Sixty-two dealers and spouses are set to go on the all-expense-paid, five-day trip in March. "Dealers were pleased with the concern and care that Woods showed through the destination change," Larson notes. "We expect a high level of participation from dealers again this year."

Jones notes that the programs are structured so even dealers who don't do the highest volume have an opportunity to win the trip. "We want mid-level and new dealers to have the chance to win as well," she says.


Travel experts interviewed for this article offer the following tips for hosting a successful incentive trip in light of the uncertainty worldwide and tough economic times:

Be flexible. For instance, keep in mind that participants are apprehensive about going to international destinations. For domestic programs, some participants may prefer to drive rather than fly.

Work with a destination management company. An expert at the location, especially if the trip is international, will help things go smoothly.

On the registration forms, make sure participants identify their preferences for sightseeing during the trip, medical conditions, food allergies and any other special needs they have that could impact their trip.

Have participants sign off on the itinerary to confirm airport and travel times. This will alleviate last-minute changes, which could increase costs.

Keep in mind that some people are not seasoned travelers. Be sure to give them detailed instructions about what time to arrive at the airport, identification needed, things not to bring with them, as well as a travel assistance contact person and phone number in case any problems arise.

Realize that dealers and salespeople might not be able to afford to take off an entire week for a trip. Shorter programs may work better.

Conduct a post-travel survey to find out what participants enjoyed about the trip and how you can improve the next one. AM

Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.

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