Long on key chains and short on fun, the event at Chicago's McCormick Place this week drew meeting planners, office managers, HR professionals and salespeople. They perused 2,000 exhibitors, determined to spend their company's money on everything from pig-shaped cutting boards to trips to Mexico, all in the name of thanks to hard-working employees.
Attendance is down
The show, which was once 2,500 exhibitors, has never fully recovered from the toll exacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. "We're growing little by little, but we're still not back to the halcyon days of the 1990s," said spokesman Wayne Dunham. As international travel has gotten more difficult, the incentive travel business has been similarly affected, he said.
Another problem with the show was the all-around apathy, and sometimes discourteousness of exhibitors and show employees. Even a concession vendor admitted that the program lacked excitement.
"It just wasn't a very motivating show," concurred a travel consultant who's attended since 2001, a year in which exhibitors and attendees seemed bursting to get to the show floor. "This year I asked exhibitors on the incentive side how the show was going and they seemed pretty disappointed, and they'd been coming for years."
Yet the market that the show serves is still big business. The total market for incentive travel, motivational meetings and special events was $77 billion in 2006, according to the Incentive Research Foundation. Incentive merchandise is worth another $32 billion, according to the Incentive Federation.
There were some bright spots. Australia, Mexico and Las Vegas had vibrant booths with a variety of ethnic animals, dancing, music or food. Bath & Body Works handed out samples of the soon-to-be-released holiday scent, "velvet tuberose," and Enterprising Kitchens, a nonprofit organization that teaches abused women to make spa products, offered a cheerful presence.
Still, Chester Elton, author of "The Carrot Principle: How the Best Mangers Use Recognition to Engage Their People, Retain Talent and Accelerate Performance," made a fair point in his keynote. If you want to thank employees for doing a good job, you should get them something that is meaningful to them, not to you. Many people are offended by gifts of alcohol or gifts of exotic trips on which they can't bring their families.
"If you want to know what they would like, then you've got to ask them," Mr. Elton said. And if that's the case, then why bother shopping at the Motivation Show?