Virtual Gifting

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virtual giftingA recent Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) survey revealed some startling statistics about this year’s incentive rewards, recognition programs, and virtual gifting, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While 34% of those surveyed operated their programs with minimal or no change, 27% were placed on hold, 19% had been restructured, and another 19% were flat out canceled, prompting the question, if incentives are a part of compensation, or at least are meant to drive additional production for an organization, how do you incent someone when their incentive has been taken away? Is virtual gifting an option?

Adding to the changes and cancellations, as most US organizations, and to a great extent, most global ones as well, have felt the effects of COVID-19 on their wallets, not only have budgets been reduced, but travel sensitivity, border closures and the general reluctance to be in a car/plane/building with others have largely impacted incentive programs in 2020. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the use of gifting.

As most everyone that earns a coveted spot in an incentive program are typically very driven and, as a result, highly compensated people, adding a few thousand dollars or a few additional PTO days doesn’t drive additional performance. If you make $150,000 – $350,000, receiving an additional $3,000-$5,000 is the equivalent to about 1.5-2% of your total income and hardly a motivator to work those long hours, spending nights and weekends away from your family trying to close a deal or simply the stress of outperforming your peers. If you can’t offer that trip to the sunny and warm exclusive resort and highlight your team’s performance amongst their peers, how do you incent people? Enter gifting in the virtual environment.

virtual gifting
Adam Tillotson, director, regional sales, Prestige Global Meeting Source

I recently surveyed three organizations that have shared creative ways to help organizations recognize their top performers, welcome their new or returning employees, or make their audience feel connected and valued.

Robyn Bass – Maple Ridge Events, Nashville

As CEO of Maple Ridge Events based Nashville, Robyn Bass shared some interesting insight about recreating the moments made from an in-person event in a virtual setting.

“Meetings and events are meant to evoke and instill emotion but also to create memories. Receiving cash and PTO doesn’t foot the bill for high performers and doesn’t incent additional production, which is the entire premise for providing an incentive trip.”

She and her team at Maple Ridge Events realized that many organizations fall flat with their gifting experiences, leaning on things like gift baskets that may or may not be valued by the recipient. What good is caramel popcorn to a diabetic or a bottle of wine to someone who doesn’t drink alcohol?

They created what Bass calls “shipped & shared experiences,” providing customizable gifts that re-create the feeling you get from an in-person event.

“You feel something when it becomes personalized to you; you remember who gave it to you, why you got it.”

Imagine signing up for an upcoming virtual meeting or conference, and a few days before your meeting/conference, you receive a customized gift box of the preferences you selected while registering for your event. While consumables like food or beverage items are typically valued, there could also be a variety of other non-perishable items as well.

As their tagline is “on the ground and in the clouds,” Maple Ridge has also created white-label gifting websites, allowing audiences to personalize gifts that would be most meaningful to the recipient.

Tom Romine – Cultivate Premium Corporate Gifts, Colorado Springs

It can be challenging for an online gifting experience to hit the mark. However, Tom Romine of Cultivate Premium Corporate Gifts has spent his career helping organizations create meaningful and impactful gifting experiences, both in-person and virtually.

Cultivate’s approach is unique as they don’t offer any company logo items and certainly don’t offer a “one size fits all” approach. “Boxes tend to be more promotional products and less ‘gifting,’” says Romine. “They don’t include choice, and that’s a losing strategy out the gate.”

According to Cultivate, to be an incentive, gifting needs to include three key aspects:

  • Aspirational brands
  • Choice
  • Frequency of use

Typically, Cultivate would be on-site, around the globe, providing a full gifting experience, including a boutique shopping set-up where gift recipients would be able to browse and peruse items, touch, feel, try-on and choose which gift speaks loudest to them. With the virtual shift, the Cultivate team has created beautiful and thoughtful gift experiences, incorporating almost a full sensorial experience with their gifting platform. Companies set a per-recipient budget (as low as $25, however most land around the $100-150 mark) and Cultivate creates a virtual package and shopping experience, incorporating these three pillars of gifting.

From tea infusers and Himalayan sea salt shot glasses to the crowd favorite OluKai sandals and Corkcicle drinkware to beautiful bar carts and standup paddleboards, their custom-curated gifting sets appeal to every audience and make the gifting experience turn-key for the purchaser.

Your organization sets a budget, provides the information on the recipients, and Cultivate’s team goes to work curating options for the specific demographic. Everyone receives an email with a personalized code and a welcome greeting, presenting them with their gift options.

Your recipients then choose from around 30-35 aspirational and premium items, all listed without price tags or points, so people choose what they want most.

“This approach forces you to choose something you want and maybe not need. You treat yourself to something you wouldn’t normally buy for yourself, but you aspire to have it. This experience and these gifts will be remembered well beyond the Amazon gift card or the logo sweater.”

To Romine’s point, my most recent gift of an Amazon gift card went to buying toilet paper during the great COVID shortage of 2020.

Delaney Costello – Ultimate Ventures, Dallas/Ft. Worth

Delaney Costello and Ultimate Ventures have taken gifting in another direction. Like Mapleridge, the team at Ultimate Ventures got their start as a destination management company, helping organizations create special moments in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. As the meetings and events market shifted, the UV owners saw a huge demand for creative virtual gifts and gift experiences and created an entirely new entity called “Ultimate Kits,” specializing in the experience of a customized gift.

“Plenty of companies will provide gift baskets, but you can only hope that what they offer is within your price point and has the included items that are relevant to your audience,” shares Costello. “The packaging and the ‘wow factor’ are key when receiving a gift.”

It’s reminiscent of opening up an Apple iPhone or MacBook, where opening the package is as much of the experience as receiving the item inside. “A lot of thought goes into how these gifts are packaged, how they’re secured for transport, how well they ship.” If you live in Phoenix and get a box of chocolates in August, it is really going to spoil the experience trying to sift through a melted glob of chocolate, greatly diminishing the intent of the gift in the first place.

“Alcohol is its own beast with many states having very specific restrictions around who can and can’t receive alcohol.” Leaning into their relationship with the DMC Network, they’ve been able to find creative ways by engaging their sister companies in various other destinations to help be their “feet on the street” securing that final piece of the puzzle in their gift and some cases, even hand delivering the final gift. How’s that for service?

Ultimate Ventures & Ultimate Kits aren’t just for 2020, however, as they’ve blazed a path forward for planners uncertain about what 2021’s incentive program or gift may look like.

As an example, say your 2021 incentive trip is going to Hawaii, but your uncertain as to whether or not the program will take place. You start by promoting the destination and the trip to draw inspiration and motivation.  Perhaps you even provide your entire eligible audience with a small trinket like a pack of drink umbrellas or even a hula doll. Every quarter you provide another small gift, like a tiki mug or a kukui nut lei as a great reminder about the trip. Then as it gets closer to “do or die” time with whether or not to have the trip, if you’re able to meet in-person, these great organizations can set-up an on-site experience.  If you aren’t able to meet in person, you can provide a travel voucher or credit for future use in concert with one of these great, higher-end, higher-dollar gift experiences.

Looking forward

These three great organizations all offer a unique vision and approach for gifting, as we have learned that a “one size fits all” approach is far from the most impactful way to spend your gifting or incentive funds. Create something customized, providing promotional opportunities where appropriate, offer choice and a beautiful gifting experience, whether virtually through a web-based shopping approach, or simply the magic of opening a curated gift, chosen by you.

Adam Tillotson is a Director of Regional Sales for Prestige Global Meeting Source, a 34-year-old site selection and events consulting firm. When Tillotson isn’t providing consultation to his clients on in-person and virtual meetings and events, he can be found hiking around the mountains of his home area of Palm Springs, CA.

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