Unsure of how to motivate staff and beat sales targets? Promising high performers an all-expenses paid trip to Switzerland seems to be the answer for many Asian companies.
The aroma of spicy Indian food and the thumping beats of bhangra music permeate the first floor of a chain hotel near the Zurich airport. The exotic smells and sounds are thanks to a group of Indian tourists who’ve booked a banquet room for dinner and light entertainment. But they’re no ordinary tourist group on a package holiday.
They are Toshiba India’s top sales people who’ve earned the right to a five-day Swiss sojourn by smashing sales targets. The prospect of an alpine holiday was meant to serve as an incentive to aim high.
“It is a big motivating factor for our partners and allows us to interact with people in our network,” Polad Garda, senior marketing manager of Toshiba India, told swissinfo.ch. “It is a good investment and does help our business achieve results over a specific period.”
Garda was in charge of planning and organising the incentive trip on behalf of his company. Previous destinations included Macau and Dubai and he wanted to take things up a notch by choosing Switzerland, a country that has featured as a backdrop in many Indian movies.
“I wanted the destination to excite our dealers and motivate them to aim for those sales numbers,” he says. “Thanks to the Indian film industry, Switzerland has always been on everyone’s wish list.”
Vardhaman Kankariya from Bangalore is one of 80 dealers who qualified on the basis of his sales performance.
“The Swiss trip motivated me and I doubled the sales target set for us in order to get two tickets,” he says.
Boon for Swiss tourism
Today, incentive trips, meetings and congresses account for almost one in five overnight stays in Switzerland. While figures for incentive tourism alone are hard to come by, destinations close to the US – like the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico – are world leaders because the country is the leading source of incentive groups worldwide. However, a survey of almost 200 incentive travel providers conducted by the Incentive Research Foundation in 2015 revealed that 38% had plans to organise trips to Europe.
“Our biggest competitors are France, Spain, Germany and the UK but Switzerland is definitely one of top European countries for incentive travel,” says Giancarlo Carrera, managing director of Geneva-based travel agency Swiss Motivation Travel.
The concept of incentive trips began in the US more than 50 years ago in industries like automotive, food and multilevel companies like Tupperware. The better the sales performance, the more glamourous the holiday on offer. Switzerland quickly became a premium destination for the American business elite.
“Switzerland is often reserved for the top performers or management,” says Barbra Albrecht, business tourism head at Switzerland Tourism. “People know that Switzerland is not a cheap destination and the employees who qualify for the trips appreciate this.”
The main markets for incentive tourism to Switzerland are the US and Asian countries like India, China and Southeast Asia. Incentive tourists are helping mitigate some of the damage to the beleaguered tourism sector caused by a strong Swiss franc.
“While demand from the US remains stable, from Asia it is increasing,” says Albrecht. “A decline in business tourism from Europe has been compensated by incentive tourism from Asia.”
Switzerland Tourism is focusing on ensuring that Switzerland is a preferred destination for incentive groups from Asia. For example, since 2014 they have a dedicated person in India who is in close contact with travel agencies that organise incentive trips to help with itineraries and logistics.
The average group size for an incentive trip is between 25 to 80 people, although in 2011 Switzerland hosted 3,500 dealers from Amway India. Incentive groups also spend more than the average tourist, according to Albrecht. For example, the five day trip for 80-strong Toshiba India group adds up to around $2,000 per person.
A standard feature of incentive trips is a gala dinner with entertainment where some companies even have award ceremonies. Many want this to be an exclusive experience and demand special venues for this like farms, castles or boats that they reserve entirely for themselves.
“Switzerland works and when you organise a group event it is important that you can rely on the infrastructure,” says Albrecht. “Switzerland is also a secure country in Europe, especially in the context of recent terror attacks.”
She believes that Switzerland has no real competition from other countries as it is an exclusive destination. According to her, only cruise trips can be regarded as a potential threat.
But Switzerland cannot afford to be complacent. Other destinations in contention for the Toshiba group’s annual incentive trip were London, New Zealand and Australia.
Cost is a major factor that works against Switzerland.
“We have lost business to other countries as cost is often the determining factor,” says Carrera of Swiss Motivation Travel. “But Indian companies have started coming to us with ready-made itineraries that they’ve copied from somewhere, including the name of hotels, in order to manage costs.”
Another important consideration for the incentive groups is the ease and cost of obtaining a travel visa. Switzerland does have a special visa process for incentive groups but it is not always smooth sailing.
“Those who qualified for the trip had to travel to the Swiss embassies for the in-person visa interview,” says Garda. “This resulted in additional costs which we had to bear.”
Group members also found it difficult to get a visa for their friends or employees, as they are required to prove their relationship with the sponsoring company and themselves.
“Around five such requests for visas were denied and the dealers were unhappy that they couldn't share the tickets they had earned,” says Garda.
But he admits that everything has worked like clockwork since the group landed in the country barely 24 hours ago. It is not the Swiss trip that is making him anxious.
“By the end of June, we'll be thinking of announcing our next incentive trip. After Switzerland, the expectations are going to be high.”