Corporate social responsibility and incentive travel can be viewed as mutually exclusive so can it be the case that it is possible to deliver knockout delegate experiences and do more than pay just lip service to CSR?
CSR and Incentive Travel
Often CSR is treated as a political expedient, tucked away in a proposal or itinerary, and amounts to little more than a carbon offset option for assuaging some form of corporate guilt about travelling to far flung destinations. It may even extend to making a donation, of money or goods, to a local cause. At least here the action does confer a warm glow of ‘doing good’ and ‘giving something back’.
But what if the actual notion of social responsibility sits at the heart of a client’s culture and extends into their incentive travel and conference activity? I caught up with Kat, one of our project directors, who has a client where this is the case, and discovered just how much of a trick many clients miss when they want a ‘wow’ factor that lasts beyond a few moments of awe inspiring wonder or indulgent luxury. If the acid test of effective incentive travel is delivering lifelong memories to all, well perhaps having a true CSR element at the centre takes these onto another level.
First some facts. The client in question has organised an annual long-haul sales conference for many years, an event that rewards and recognises as well as delivering key messages and priorities for the coming year. The client also has a clearly defined and very active CSR culture that extends through and across the whole organisation. The annual sales conference is no exception.
How is CSR planned into the event?
Kat summarises - “the client is adamant this is something that everyone on the event should be involved in. It is not optional and is the focus for much of what happens when on-site. The guiding principle is that the event follows the CSR strategy of the business – so it is a strategy of projects that make a difference, so more than allowing a difference to be made, they leave something behind, make things happen that would maybe not have.”
“This is the key part of the event. We have to seek out things that would not have been done if we hadn’t been there, not just donating or providing the means for someone else to help. Delegates have to feel they have made a real and immediate difference to the lives of those whose hospitality they are enjoying.”
Easier said than done no doubt? “Once a destination is decided then the operation of finding a suitable project starts and has equal billing with other ground elements. An open mind is essential, as it is not until you are on the ground during inspection trips that the reality of what can be achieved can be appreciated, it is here that ideas gather momentum and often from unexpected directions. So, in St Petersburg someone related to a friend of one of the DMC staff helped at a clinic for children with serious illnesses, often ones found on the street abandoned. In existence since 1889, the post-Soviet world has seen funding plummet and an enormous increase in demand for its services. Critically the children need more than medical care, they need warmth, comfort and a brighter outlook. Word got around and that’s how renowned local artists and people got involved and the project was formed. We brought some colour and light to these children, and this can’t happen when sat behind a desk.”
Surely no different to other well-meaning projects? “No, this is where the client’s culture kicks in – participation is not optional and it is more than a token hour or two spent feeling good about yourself, it is hard work and total commitment from all there, even the CEO. And, because this is a sales event, there is an element of competition so the project takes on a different magnitude. Everyone is involved together, in teams – hospital, client and ground agent staff, local helpers, the artists and many of the kids. Individuals are all focused on their team goal; they go beyond just ‘doing’ something and create something special together. Delegates and their partners experience first-hand the human aspect of leaving something behind and the value it has. Needless to say at the end there are as many tears as there are smiles”.
Is this the elusive incentive ‘wow’ factor?
“Totally, it is central to the event. The experience is very levelling, and it is incredible how involved everyone gets and it defines the delegate experience. On another event the ‘gloss’ of the gala dinner became irrelevant because the main event was singing and dancing with the children and staff from the home for orphaned kids who came to the dinner! This is spontaneous and cannot be planned in advance”.
And how is event success judged?
“For the business it is accepted that the positive effect on performance of being part of your community, however defined, is huge. And for the event? The feedback is of a type I never normally experience on, let’s say more “normal” incentive travel events, and is all centred on the CSR experience. It is fair to say this is one event more eagerly anticipated than any other and has resulted in some lifelong friendships being made”.
some of the projects the client has initiated have included:
- St Petersburg children’s hospital - a playground was created from a bare outdoor space, incorporating colourful murals, flower beds and landscaping, not only benefitting those able to play outside but those unable to by enhancing their view from the clinic.
- Barbados children’s home – those who have had limited opportunity to “participate in childhood fun” helped the client staff compete for bike parts and then built some for all the children.
- Hong Kong and Borneo – orphaned children who had never seen the beach or experienced the joy of play were treated to a sports day on the beach and many improvements to their home.
- San Francisco – plans are underway to help out with a homelessness project