This article was originally published in Incentive Magazine. You can find it in its’ original format here.

By Jacquelin Carnegie

Everyone loves a nice tote bag and a cute T-shirt, but in-room gifts deserve as much consideration as any other important element of an incentive travel program. They are not something to add on to a program willy-nilly at the last minute. “In-room and pillow gifts provide an opportunity to communicate a corporate message about the brand,” says Fay Beauchine, executive vice president of engagement and events for Carlson Marketing in Minneapolis.

It’s important that planners work with corporate clients to help them capitalize on this opportunity. Gifts should not simply appear in guest- rooms as if the Tooth Fairy dropped them off.

“Gifts should be selected as a symbol of the corporate message and should always be accompanied by a written note from the company CEO or appropriate division head,” Beauchine emphasizes. “If four gifts are given during the program, each one should be used to communicate another corporate message of thanks.

“Participants on travel incentive programs have contributed significantly to a company’s bottom line or have excelled in some way,” says Beauchine. “Each gift presents a different opportunity to thank the person.”

What’s important is that the gifts communicate appreciation to the qualifying participants. They can be silly or practical, inexpensive or extravagant, immediately edible or a lifetime keepsake. But, they need to be well thought out. It’s nice if they tie in to the program location as well as to the activities.

Getting Started

“Consider your audience,” advises Candy Vanderheyden, director of client communications for BCD Meetings & Incentives in Chicago, Ill. Is this their first trip or have many of these participants been qualifiers for years? How many are women and how many are men? Are they young or more mature?

Consider the location. “If your group is in Napa Valley, Calif., on a winery tour, a leather wine carrier and a wine opener makes a nice in-room gift,” says Vanderheyden. “If the group is in Costa Rica on a nature hike, give a daypack and a pair of binoculars the evening before that activity.”

Consider the long-term goal. You’d like participants to remember the trip for a long time. “Select gifts that will last and serve as a reminder of the trip,” says Vanderheyden. “Coffee-table books, art pieces, collectibles are gifts people keep and display in their homes and offices. They also serve as conversation starters, allowing your attendee to tell others, ‘I got that as a gift on the incentive trip I won last year!’”

Practical Is Perfect

Pillow gifts don’t have to be big or expensive to be appreciated, especially if they are useful during the trip. “People enjoy items they can use immediately,” says a human resources executive from a large chemical company that is a BCD client. “We endeavor to tie in-room gifts to the location where we are hosting the program, so that the items are relevant and thematic. For a program in Mexico, we provided our winners with a Mexican beach bag loaded with sunscreen, lip balm, sun hats, etc. Participants carried them around all week.”

Monica Thein, senior account manager for USMotivation in Atlanta, Ga., says that participants value the little things. “For each destination, we put together little in-room packets of pre-stamped postcards and prepaid phone cards so that participants can easily contact family and friends.”

Top Tier Incentives (formerly Corporate Concepts), a BCD vendor, used passport covers as an in-room gift on an incentive cruise for a major airline.

Marian Thompson, multicultural marketing specialist for the airline, says, “The cruise was awesome and the guests loved the passport covers. On disembarking, we had to show our passports, and the best part for me was seeing all our participants already using their new passport covers!”

Artistic Endeavors: Locally Sourced Gifts

Authentic, local items— especially those created by artisans—are unique and specific to the destination. Giving them as in-room gifts also helps the local economy, another positive result of the incentive. This holds true whether the trip is to South Africa or Colorado.

“To find the best items, you need to work with [U.S.-based] vendors…and DMCs in the locale,” says Dayle Russell, senior manager special events for West Caldwell, N.J.–based Ricoh Americas Corp., as well as a USMotivation client. “These pieces, usually handmade, are beautiful, and each time the participant looks at the gift, they are reminded of their great incentive trip!”

For an incentive to Puerto Rico for a major bank, a local artist did an original painting, La Coca Falls, El Yunque Rain Forest, Puerto Rico, a place the participants had visited. The canvas was on display in the hospitality suite. Prints of the painting were drop-shipped to the homes of all 810 participants. For a Caribbean incentive program, a specially designed Ocean Flower vase was on display in the hospitality suite. All 310 program winners had vases drop-shipped to their homes. In both cases, the in-room gift was a photo card of the item, letting the guests know that the gift would arrive at their homes shortly after the incentive trip’s conclusion.

What’s New: Boutiques & Gift Marts

An extremely popular new trend is for in-room gifts to turn into shopping events in the hospitality suite. The in-room part is either a coupon or certificate for one item, with a letter from the CEO inviting the participant to come on down and select a gift from a fashion boutique or “gift mart” set up in the suite.

According to Norbert McGettigan Jr., president of Impact Dimensions, headquartered in Pennsauken, N.J., these “fashion boutiques” are stocked with top-of-the-line resort items, such as Maui Jim sunglasses, Tommy Bahama shirts, fancy beach sandals and quality sports watches. Thein, of USMotivation, says she likes to do a hospitality suite “Aloha Shack” gift boutique with sunglasses and shirts when the destination is Hawaii. She does something similar in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Vanderheyden, of BCD, adds that many of her clients are also now doing hospitality suite “gift marts.” The gift selection includes brand-name electronics, iPods, Mont Blanc pens, cashmere robes and leather duffel bags. (Large items are drop-shipped to the participants’ homes.) “When guests can try on and select what they like, there’s a high level of satisfaction,” says Chuck Lane, director of incentive travel for Humana, a nationwide health care provider. “When they find out Maui Jim sunglasses are part of the gift, they’re ecstatic. They make a great gift, and we’ve used the boutique concept with virtually every business segment that we do incentive travel programs for.”

Thanks for the Memories

Another hot in-room gift trend is the digital photo frame. An executive search firm out of New York used these frames, sourced by Impact Dimensions, for its incentive program in Sarasota, Fla. There were 95 couples, according to the company spokesperson. “Photos were taken at the final night, black- tie dinner, and by the time the guests went up to their rooms that evening, the pictures from the dinner as well as pictures from the rest of the trip—specific to each couple—had been loaded into the frames. Talk about a ‘wow’ gift!”

BCD’s chemical company client likes to use them as well: “Everyone likes new high-tech items. Digital photo frames serve a dual purpose. They’re an in-room gift and can display photos of our winners taken during the award program.” (Several planners say the tried-and-true photo album still works as well.)

Oh No, Logos!

Corporations are crazy about branding and want to place the corporate logo on everything. Help them resist the urge. “Don’t logo,” advises Russell of Ricoh Americas. “If the gift is nice enough, participants will remember who gave it to them.” With regard to logos on apparel, the chemical company executive says: “Branding is one of our objectives, so that our participants are recognized back in the field as incentive program winners. However, when logos are too large and obtrusive, no one wears the clothing, especially the women, and it defeats the purpose. Subtly branded jackets and T-shirts work much better.”

Dawn Lincoln, president of Top Tier Incentives, in Bolingbrook, Ill., says, “Don’t take away from the overall look and elegance of a gift by putting a splashy, inappropriate logo on it. If the gift is a photo or painting, have the logo placed on the back of the frame. If it’s a crystal piece, consider having the corporate or program logo etched on the bottom. The logo imprint should complement the gift, not take away from it.”

Some corporate clients and planners like to give an in-room gift each night; others prefer three gifts—first and final night, and one in the middle. There’s really no wrong or right method. The only thing that’s important is that the gifts communicate an overall corporate message of thanks.