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Incentive travel in North America: situation report

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Cécile Bellissard and Patricia Oca co-manage the Think Incentive brand, which spearheads the Toundrigo Group's MICE activities.

Today, they look at incentive travel in North America and give us their analysis.

Hello Cécile and Patricia, thank you so much for accepting this interview!

Firstly, could you tell us how the MICE sector in North America is faring in 2023?

Cécile - There is clearly a return and strong interest for incentive travel. 2022 was a year of post-pandemic recovery with encouraging figures, and the trend continues for 2023/2024.

Digital technology is far from having eradicated this type of travel, and we see a real desire among companies to renew authentic links with their employees. This includes incentive trips like the ones we offer.

The lifting of Covid-19 restrictions has facilitated the return of groups to Canada. The United States has just lifted their last restrictions. Today, these two destinations are reassuring for travellers, particularly as they are safe, from a health point of view, whereas Asia and South America may give rise to a few concerns

Patricia - Yes, and as we've seen on our recent sales tours, Canada and the United States are still dream destinations for which customers are very enthusiastic. Both safe and synonymous with the great outdoors, these destinations offer the promise of strong, unifying programs with a range of immersive activities, whatever the season. We definitely have a card to play.

Everything seems to be going well, but can you identify any areas of turbulence?

Patricia - Yes, of course! Not everything is rosy for incentive travel. Several macro-economic trends are already shaking up our business.

Cécile - Yes, the first is, of course, high inflation at all levels. Air travel, for example, is experiencing worldwide inflation, affecting all destinations. Ground services are also experiencing inflation. We have the advantage of the exchange rate in Canada, but it's sometimes hard to compensate for the high fares.

Patricia - This is also linked to the preference for short- and medium-haul routes expressed by some European customers. This is a fact. North American destinations are very much in vogue, but the trend towards short- and medium-haul flights is driven by a clear budgetary reality. This is helping to curb the volume of demand.

We observe a difference by destination on this point. The United States has always been perceived as more expensive than Canada. That's why, with inflation, the proportion of applications for the United States is falling, while that for Canada is rising this year.

The way requests are processed is also changing. Last-minute requests are the new norm for incentive travel. This is a major challenge in terms of availability; in the most popular seasons, such as the Indian summer in Canada, for example, it is sometimes necessary to plan almost a year in advance to guarantee services.

Cécile - There's also the CSR aspect, which has a definite impact on the entire travel industry, not just on MICE travel. Companies are committing to being more respectful of their footprint and may prefer to reduce the number of trips, restrict flight times, or orient the program with social activities. At the Toundrigo Group, we're very committed to CSR, aware that we have our part to play in making tourism more sustainable and responsible. We are undertaking several initiatives in response and are in the process of obtaining Travelife certification.

Interesting, and in this observation, is the typology of usual customers changing?

Patricia - Yes, we've seen a reduction in the number of large groups, giving way to more small groups of around ten people with very high-end experiences. It was always exceptional to deal with this type of customer in the past.

Cécile - That's true. I also think there's great potential among our local customers. We really have a card to play in this market.

Patricia - In fact, it's a potential that we don't yet know well enough. On the European market, we've been present for many years, so we know our customers well; their expectations, desires and how to give them a change of scenery. We won't offer the same trip to a European customer as to a Canadian, so there's a lot of product work to be done. At the same time, we're working to make ourselves known locally, but that takes time, and that's perfectly normal.

Cécile - The profiles of local customers are quite different from those of international customers. Local customers are willing to travel for one or two nights, unlike international customers who never travel for less than three nights. Local customers' budgets are significantly higher. We're interested in the local market while keeping to our core business, i.e., travel, we're not moving into events planning.

So, markets behave very differently. Do you also observe disparities between the Latin European market and the French-speaking market?

Patricia - Yes, the Latin market has three notable characteristics.

1- It confirms much more easily, even if these are often last-minute trips.

2- Departures tend to be in the summer and fall seasons.

3- Recurring destinations include Ontario and British Columbia in the West.

Cécile - French travellers go away more in winter, and mainly to Quebec. Budget-wise, there's no noticeable difference.

And, in light of these new issues, which challenges will you be facing this year?

Patricia - The big challenge we face now is transportation. It can be difficult to find available guides and buses for our groups. Fortunately, we have an efficient network and benefit from the strength of the Toundrigo group, in terms of purchasing and renewing our suppliers.

Cécile - All of this is due to the side effects of the pandemic. Some carriers have ceased operations; in some cases, they have sold their fleets. Many drivers have taken advantage of the pandemic to retire. Of course, there's also the cost of petrol and rising wages. For all these reasons, fares are soaring.

So, from what we understand, you can say that in 2023, the pandemic will still have an impact on your business?

Cécile - Indeed! There's a shortage of manpower throughout the industry (hotels, restaurants, transport...), which means longer response times. Some of our guides have reinvented themselves, and finding guides in high season can be a challenge. Inflation is once again the black spot; our customers' budgets have remained the same as before the pandemic, or even decreased, and our rates have risen sharply.

Patricia - It's reassuring in the sense that we know the problem doesn't come from us, and that the reality is the same with our competitors. We hear from our customers who question our competitors, and everyone agrees.

In this context, could you give 3 reasons for choosing your proposals over those of your competitors?

Patricia - The first reason is the quality of our services. At Think, we take care of travel from A to Z, down to the last detail. The service, quality, and response time we provide our customers is our greatest strength.

Cécile - The second reason is that our trips are totally tailor-made. As a result, we can adapt to any budget as far as possible. When a company comes to us with a specific request and budget, we'll always do our utmost to offer products that match the budget.

Recently, we've had requests from very small budgets, and we've still managed to come up with some very attractive proposals. Of course, North America comes at a price, but it's also the guarantee of an exceptional trip, where a medium-haul route will give travelers a different experience.

Patricia - The final reason for choosing us, I think, is our creative side. We are talking about the post-pandemic era, and there's a lot of innovation going on, in terms of both hotels and restaurants. Our team is always on the lookout for the latest news, and we try to renew ourselves every day to remain attractive.

You said earlier that the trend was towards CSR. What responsible initiatives are you putting in place to meet this growing demand?

Cécile - The Toundrigo group is very committed to CSR and has set up a Green Committee for which I am the Think brand representative, with the aim of obtaining the Travelife label.

The first initiative we undertook at Think Incentive was to ban bottled water on our trips. It may not sound like much, but when we host a group of 100 people over 5 days, that's a lot of bottled water. To compensate, we offer re-usable water bottles that can be personalized with the company's colors.

We also work exclusively with local companies, whether for the gifts we give to customers or for our personalized clothing.

Patricia - When it comes to transporting our groups, we always give preference to environmentally friendly means, such as rail. We also favor suppliers who go in this direction, as it's important for us to be in phase with our values. The restaurants we have contracts with do not offer printed menus, as we wish to reduce the volume of unnecessary printing.

Our most recent initiative was to have our customers offset the carbon footprint of their trip. It's this accumulation of small gestures that we feel is important and that takes us one step closer to our CSR approach.

Do you have any predictions for the future of the MICE sector over the next two years?

Cécile - It's hard to say, but it remains a sector with great potential. Every destination has its hour of glory, and I think we're lucky to be in a safe destination that will always attract. Even with this budget issue, we need to develop new markets, such as the local Canadian market or America in general.

Incentive travel is the best way for a company to thank and build loyalty among its employees. I think it's in keeping with the times to want to make employees happy at work! It's a powerful vehicle for conveying these messages, and I have no doubt that the future of MICE will be positive for all these reasons.

Patricia - I was already working at Think Incentive at the time of the 2008 crisis, and things eventually returned to normal. I'm very confident that things will soon be back to normal, and we're not worried about that.

Last year, more than twenty groups went out with us, and this year is promising, with even more planned! Our predictions for this year at Think Incentive are therefore very good.

To conclude this interview, would you have any news to share with us?

Patricia - I'll be at RDV Canada in Quebec City from May 30 to June 2, 2023 to represent Think Incentive and meet with partners!

Cécile - We're also in the process of redesigning our website to make it easier to post our news!

Thank you very much for this interview! Do you have any final words?

Cécile - The final word is "come" (laughs)! On a more serious note, I think North America is a winning destination because we really do have 100% Incentive programs that we can offer in multi-seasons that can adapt to your budget. We have a strong, creative, local team ready to meet any request.

Patricia - It's a winning destination, with a winning team. So choosing our team means making a winning bet!

To contact the Think Incentive team :

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