The public backlash reached a boiling point in October 2008 when executives at insurance giant AIG spent more than $400,000 for a trip to the luxurious St. Regis in Monarch Beach, Calif., a week after the firm received an $85 billion bailout from taxpayers.
"The reality is, [travel incentives are] back because these programs work, especially in decentralized organizations," says Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation.
At Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, group sales are about 20% higher than a year ago, and incentive meetings comprise about 65% of all group sales at the resort. Sales will increase again in 2012, says Mark Benson, the resort's vice president of group sales. "Incentive travel is showing the fastest rate of growth in all group business," Benson says, adding that the resort sold about 200,000 group room nights this year vs. 146,000 a year ago.
The Incentive Research Foundation has found that spending now averages about $2,500 a person, and 67% of trips include some type of meeting or business aspect.
The backlash has eased, and industries have started to take the clamps off incentive travel. "If we had to put a score on it, it's probably 85% to 90% back," says David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel, a meeting management company.