Palm trees and sand-covered briefcases

Incentive travel is evolving into something more than a simple method to reward high-performing salespeople.

Companies are using trips for everything from reinforcing a team-oriented work ethic to in-depth training sessions.

Work-and-play travel can provide the employer with a tax deduction as well as a captive audience in a relaxing environment. According to a recent travel industry survey, the No. 1 goal of incentive-based travel is to increase sales; about half of the respondents said travel was used to improve morale and introduce new products.

Staples Inc., based in Framingham, Mass., plans an annual trip to an exotic location for about 500 of its employees nationwide. Staples’ Ohio Regional Sales Manager Brent Fickle and members of his sales force and administrative staff based in Northeast Ohio, will embark on one such trip this month when they fly to Miami, board a cruise ship to Key West, then extend the cruise to Cozumel, Mexico.

Training is one of Staples’ goals on its employee trips. A cruise offers insulation from day-to-day distractions, as well as opportunities for idea sharing and team building. The company utilizes the trips to accomplish multiple goals, according to Fickle.

“One of the main things we do is share best practices,” Fickle says. “There might be 10 meetings going on at the same time, with each group discussing their main activity.”

Staples’ vendors travel with the group, introducing products and providing seminars on the use of the products. Aside from training and learning about new office wares, trip goals include team building and an awards ceremony for employees.

TraveLeaders Vice President Patty Klein has arranged trips for Staples employees for five years. Based in Coral Gables, Fla., Klein advises clients of all sizes on business and group travel issues.

“First, companies should decide their objectives for this working vacation,” Klein says. “Will it be primarily for business purposes (such as setting sales goals for the year or providing sales training), or will it be primarily for reward purposes, with a few business functions added?”

Once the objectives are defined, Klein helps the company make other decisions, such as inclusion of spouses and/or children, a budget, length of the trip, what level of employee should attend and the location.

If the trip will serve as an incentive, it is important to share the goals of the program and how to achieve the reward. Keeping employees up-to-date on their progress and announcing the winners can be an exciting, competitive event.

Many airlines, hotels and Internet-based travel companies offer business discounts, group rates and ancillary services. Klein suggests that to save money, companies should hire a professional to arrange travel.

“These meetings are often significant expenses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and require significant negotiating skill and power with hotel chains, cruise lines and airlines,” Klein says. “Often, the CEO’s assistant is charged with the task of selecting a location or hotel without negotiating skills. The company will end up paying more for a hotel or cruise line than they should and may end up signing contracts that are disadvantageous.”

According to Klein, one of the best and most economical ways to integrate business and pleasure is through a cruise. Most cruise lines offer free meeting rooms during the day and complimentary entertainment in the evening.

“A cruise allows you to put people together at dinner so they can meet others from their company, allowing for networking and best practices sharing,” Klein says. “Plus, it is self contained so everyone can see each other and have free time in the same environment.”

With a virtual work environment, a cruise (or an international trip) often insulates the group from cellular phone calls, e-mail or other distractions from the office.

A trip’s exotic appeal makes training or other goals easier to promote. The social nature of group travel may also create camaraderie and enhance loyalty to the company. How to reach: TraveLeaders, (800) 327-0180; Staples Inc., (800) 636-0547