The ultimate incentive experience A–Z: interview with Heidi Legein, Managing Director at The MICE Guru

Back in July, I hosted a week-long Instagram Live series with Heidi Legein, Managing Director at The MICE Guru, a destination management company (DMC) based in Norway. During the past months of the lockdown, Heidi has been actively promoting her destination and inspiring and educating fellow event professionals about Norway. She has also felt encouraged to keep thinking about international travel and ensure that events are still being planned, rather than cancelling them. Heidi has become the face of Norway for the international event community and, in addition to having substantial knowledge about her product, she processes significant industry expertise. I am, therefore, highly excited to share this interview with you. 

The overall series was about ‘DMC: The new value proposition’. I interviewed Heidi about her role and work across various business areas of the DMC, beginning by defining its role, how to host virtual site inspections, how DMCs contribute to destination marketing, sustainability and incentives.

Incentives are, perhaps, the most exciting part of MICE travel and involve attendees having highly unique experiences at a destination. But what is an incentive? 

According to Heidi, ‘Incentives stimulate investments to motivate and encourage someone to do something.’ There are different types of incentives. Heidi mostly does incentives for mid- to high-level management, which are often multi-destination experiences. The most common incentive is a  5-day-4-night programme, often at two different destinations within Norway. This programme offers several exciting experiences along the way and many surprises that guests may not necessarily know about beforehand, which makes it particularly exciting. 

The duration of the incentive depends on the budget, of course. However, for mid- to high-level management, there’s a certain level of quality expectations, and there are also higher budgets. But they also have long weekend incentives that don’t have to be expensive. For example, programmes starting at 800–900 euros per person, everything included.

What are the usual objectives of an incentive?

‘It’s important for companies to boost morale within their company, motivate their employees, reward them for delivering certain targets, recognise them for special efforts that they have made over a specific period of time and also increase loyalty towards a brand. It’s about boosting team spirit, inspiring employees to feel at one with their company and that company’s values. 

It’s been demonstrated on many occasions that companies with good incentive systems have solid growth in terms of sales. They also score higher on employee retention because employees are substantially more loyal to a company if they feel seen, appreciated and rewarded for their efforts. 

Incentives deliver a different type of value, compared, for example, to cash compensation. Employees feel seen; it’s a more sentimental reward for their efforts because it’s deeper and provides access to unique experiences that are more valuable to people than receiving a salary increase. 

Incentives remain memorable long after they end, and attendees have the opportunity to experience something unique and exclusive that involves all of the senses and delivers a powerful message. People talk about incentives they’ve attended for years. 

Companies not only reward their employees, but they can also reward their clients or potential big buyers, incentivising them to increase brand loyalty by letting them join a beautiful trip.’ 

What part of your business accounts for incentive travel?

For Heidi, it’s always been approximately 70–80 percent, which is rather high. However, last year, it was only 50 percent. To explain this trend, one can look at it this way—destinations go in circles, for example, Scandinavia may be highly popular one year, but then everyone travels south, and then it comes back, ‘But we also had a lot of conferences last year, and many product launches. Because that part of our business increased substantially, the percentage of incentives was lower in total, but that doesn’t mean we organised fewer.’

Heidi continued, ‘I believe it’s going to keep going up and down like this. You cannot necessarily say that this is the fixed percentage in terms of our business. It’s also, to some extent, coincidental. For example, when a destination launches a national tourism campaign, that might also stimulate MICE interest. There’s also the power of big brands doing their incentives at a specific destination. There are automatically many other companies following that approach.’ 

Shorter lead times

For a congress, it might take 3–5 years to take place, but incentives on the other hand have shorter lead times. So, what’s the average lead time to plan an incentive, and is there a seasonality for incentives?

‘Generally speaking, for mid-scale incentives, which are designed for approximately 20–150 people, the typical lead time will be six months to one year. If we are talking bigger-scale incentives for several thousands of people, then it’s often one and a half to two years because logistically, it’s a much bigger challenge to plan such an incentive.’ 

‘But we also had some extremely short lead times, such as one weekend. It’s also been a favour, and we won’t necessarily say yes to that. But that was an agency owner that I know very well who contacted me on a Friday night and said, “Heidi, I need to confirm that project on Monday, can you do that?” So, we worked throughout the weekend to make that happen, and the guests arrived at the destination three weeks later. Hence, the project was delivered, and everything was done in a very short time. The project was for 40 people and involved highlights of the capital—Oslo—and winter team-building in the snow.’ 

Regarding seasonality, ‘Norway is an all-year-round destination. There are many destinations within Norway to choose from, and according to the specific project and time of the year, we’ll be able to recommend the best place to go.’ 

‘But generally speaking, the highest number of requests is for winter time, when the well-known northern lights appear—a major Norwegian attraction. So, the high season will be between the middle of November to the middle of March. And then for the fjord experience, although you can visit the fjords through the year, it’s very cool during winter time when you get a Viking atmosphere and some mist in the fjord. Most of the requests are for May and June. Basically, because it’s warmer, and a lot of people have the perception that it’s freezing in Norway, but it’s quite enjoyable and comparable to western Europe; however, in the summer time, it’s a little bit warmer. June is also highly popular for the midnight sun experience. This is a natural phenomenon because in Norway, we have days with no darkness in the North during summer. In contrast, in the winter it’s dark, and you have the Northern lights. These are particularly special experiences during both seasons that anybody wants to be part of.’ 

‘Doing an incentive “off season” has a price difference, but it’s not as substantial as in many other countries. It’s based on capacity availability, and that’s a key factor in a budget and depends on the style of activities. Winter activities, including snow scooter safaris under the northern lights and dog sledding, are more expensive during winter. You can do the summer version on wheels, and the price will be different.’

Have you incorporated corporate social responsibility (CSR) into any of your incentive programmes, and can you share some examples?

‘We offer it on a regular basis. As with sustainability, there are not as many active requests, but if you talk about it and suggest something, the reaction will be “that’s interesting, let’s do that”.’

“For Norway, it’s always been, especially in the initial phase of incorporating CSR, a challenge of finding what can we do. You may have heard stories about building schools in Africa, supporting poor communities. In Norway, we are blessed with not having a significant level of poverty, so it’s on a different level. If you are a welfare country, you don’t necessarily have those types that are ‘hands on ‘helping the local community activities as much as you would elsewhere. Therefore, we like to do environmentally friendly activities or support the environment, such as beach clean-ups, and combine it with a fjord or island experience in front of the coast line.’

‘Also, depending on the industry, it can be done in any direction. Another example is healthcare professionals—visiting one of the pioneering companies for medical supplies in Norway that deliver all their medical supplies to third-world countries to save lives and give them, for example, first aid courses. You can do something like that to understand the value of what an organisation is doing; they also learn something, and if they want, they can contribute to the actual organisation both financially and by sharing knowledge.’ 

‘There’s also a substantial focus on mental health in Norway. So, we did some workshops around that. People who visit the country might have heard about the low levels of mental health in Nordic countries, and we get this question a lot. You have, on one side, the idea that we are one of the happiest countries in the world, based on the happiness index every year that comes out. Norway and all the Scandinavian countries always rank the highest but, on the other side, you also have mental health, which is quite a big topic. So, we can do workshops around that with local therapists, you can visit organisations that support people with psychological issues; we’ve done things where you create a beautiful experience, an event or a concert where you go with your incentive group and mingle with people and have a party or a meal together—these experiences are all particularly valuable in terms of CSR.’ 

What are the must-haves to include in an incentive?

‘For us, everything always needs to be unique, different and exclusive. Exclusive doesn’t necessary mean luxurious. It can be exclusive access to a place. Incentive clients and companies who organise incentive travel around the world constantly see everything everywhere, and they are always seeking the next new thing that they haven’t done before. You can do a lot of the same activities and visit many different countries. However, it’s highly important to always find an angle to specific activities that is new and that someone else hasn’t necessarily considered previously. With incentive guests, it’s essential to find those angles and make the impossible happen. For example, to give access to places that are not open to the general public, set up dinner and parties that you could never imagine and have a surprise element where the guests arrive, and it’s totally WOW. Turn every experience into an immersive one. Don’t do guided tours with buses or just walks but, instead, have an additional element to it so that people experience it in a different way.’ 

‘It’s important to involve all the senses. So, you need to experience things on multiple levels during an incentive. Then, there’s an interaction with the local community. We do a lot of things where you go and meet local entrepreneurs and can hear the story of their business and become inspired by how they do things. It’s very different in Norway compared to where the guests may be from. You get inspired on another level. Another example is a “food journey” where you go and meet a farmer, go to a cheese factory or a brewery and explain and tell the story from the beginning until the final product that is being served to your guests.’ 

How often do you experience the following case: clients or agencies are asking for an authentic, typical incentive trip to Norway and, in the end, they decide to go to Mallorca (completely different!)?

Heidi shared her experience, ‘It happens frequently, particularly with agencies. We are often in competition with many destinations at the same time. We would get a request from an agency that is perhaps one of several agencies in the source market asked by the client, and each agency will suggest maybe three different destinations. So, let’s say that we (as Norway) are one of nine in the initial process in that case. That means that you need to be extremely innovative and creative, super fast, deliver from the first instance and build a strong connection with the agency so that they at least even consider going to your destination.’

However, there are so many different factors involved, ‘For example, it happened to us several times, on several occasions that we went from the first phase to the next stage and the following stage, and you are now in the final stage, and all countries are out except two—now it’s between Norway and Kazakhstan, or Mexico (completely different). There is no relation; it’s often about excitement that the DMC or a particular destination can bring, and it also happens very often that a client is highly interested in a certain destination in the beginning but gets inspired by something else along the way, and changes their opinion; we see this frequently. The agencies often tell us, “this is a done deal, this is 99 percent Norway, they are so excited, so inspired.” And then, suddenly the next day, some director comes back from holiday or saw a TV documentary about something about whatever country and suddenly, they change and go there. So, it’s a real struggle because you invest so much time, and there’s substantial competition; it’s such a long period of time to go from one step to the next, and it’s often sad that you lose those clients in the end. But a lost project in one year is a won project maybe the next. Specifically, if it’s an agency, they have a large number of clients so that if they are happy with what you delivered in your proposal and your service, they will definitely try to resell the work that you’ve done to some of their other clients, which is obviously a good thing.’ 

Is Norway an incentive/exhibition/congress destination? 

‘It’s all of them. But definitely, Norway is an amazing destination to do incentives and have people going home with tears of happiness. There’s so much to do and so many different destinations to choose from. The feedback is always out of this world. “This is one of the best incentives we’ve ever been on.” It’s not only because of the quality being delivered and what they experienced but also because you have provided amazing surroundings all the time. We are really able to move the visitors emotionally. I had people cry in the fjords saying it’s so beautiful. You have to inspire people, “feed the soul” and move them on a deeper level. 

What are the current trends in incentive travel?

According to Heidi, there are five major trends.

‘Sustainable and green incentives are becoming more popular. It’s a trend to try to make activities and experiences more green.’ 

‘The young generation—people who are in their 20s and 30s—want to feel that they are making an impact somehow or they are part of a community or contributing to a goal. So, that’s where the topic of CSR comes in. They can also be part of another style goal—innovation—which is a topic that we use very often in our programmes because there are many exciting pioneers and innovators in Norway in different industries who can also be contributing toward a goal, such as a more sustainable future. If you visit those green start-ups, you get inspired and take all that knowledge and education with you back home.’ 

‘Storytelling is still a big thing, as well. It was substantially hyped about 2–3 years ago, where everything had to be a storytelling from beginning to end; now, it’s a bit less. Of course, we still do that and present programmes in such a way that it makes sense in terms of flow. Just as in any meeting, you need to create a flow that balances the speed, variety of activities and engagement levels at all times throughout the programme. It is essential to go from a fast pace to a slightly slower pace to build a specific flow that also contributes to a story. I see that agencies still work with a lot of storytelling; even if you don’t necessarily have a 100 percent focus on it as a DMC, they will often turn it into a story before delivering to their end client.’  

‘Then, I also note an increase in more adrenaline-filled activities and more towards extreme sports and adventures. People who were never into activities on a higher fitness level because they were always excessively demanding, or companies would say, “I’m not sure that is going to work for the entire group” but now, I get more requests asking for “ok we want to climb that mountain.” We attempt of course to handle different fitness levels with various guides to accommodate the different paces but now, people are more open to adventures. An example is a famous ski jump station approximately 20 minutes outside Oslo city centre—Holmenkollen—where you are in the middle of nature at the ski jump, with forests and ski slopes. So, we use abseiling; you drop down with a cord in the open without touching a wall or mountain, from the top of the ski jump down. It’s quite a challenging experience—just the first moments of getting over that railing is the most challenging part, but it’s also amazing as a team-building and motivational activity. It’s always about motivation from someone else, and if you are a group, you have peer motivation, so people are really encouraging each other and, in the end, most of them do it, and they feel so excited and happy because they actually did it.’ 

Lastly, ‘It also depends on the markets. I also get more requests to go back to the style of pampering incentives, luxury and high-level service. It really depends on the source market.’

Are companies increasing budgets for these incentives?

Initially not yet, but there’s a very strong tendency towards maintaining budgets. People were scared that budgets would decrease, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can see that there’s more interest to focus on clients of industries that have been doing well in the corona period. You can also observe networking events and fairs and digital fairs that are targeting specific industries at the moment because they know there’s a buying power there. The companies that suffered a lot are still looking at their yearly results, what they can cut and how they can restructure; hence, incentives are not their top priority.

Can you share some examples of incentives that you’ve organised and had that WOW moment?

The goal of an incentive is to have a WOW moment, ‘I even have those moments myself and am surprised all the time at the places where I end up. I also go on research trips, inspections and discovery tours. There’s so much variety in the country and so many hidden gems all around that it’s always surprising. That access to unique locations is particularly strong here.’ 

‘Imagine flying by helicopter over the Lyngen Alps, and imagine these snowy peaks. We also have Alps here up in northern Scandinavia. You land in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a hidden distillery in a world-war-two bunker where you are just completely alone, and you enter there and have one of the world’s best gins or whiskies that you get to taste and hear its story.’

Further, ‘We also have a particularly exciting destination that is becoming highly popular. It is not currently as accessible because it’s not open to mass tourism, making it even more special—Svalbard. It’s Norwegian territory, but it’s actually the northern most inhabited location and, literally, the “end of the world.” There are approximately 1,000 inhabitants there, 2,000 dogs and 3,000 snow scooters—the entire experience is so special. From the moment you arrive, everything is a story. You become explorers; with the northern lights, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are even many Norwegians who dream of going there once in their lifetime.’

‘These northern lights programmes with snow scooters and dog sledding remain popular and are in high demand. In the arctic up north, we frequently go to Bodø and the Lofoten islands. Bodø has now been named as the European Capital of Culture for 2024; there are many things happening at this destination that nobody knows about and are now increasingly becoming aware of.’ 

‘There is also the Saltstraumen in that location—the world’s strongest tidal current, which can be explored by rigid inflatable boat (RIB) boat. You can go on eagle safari, visit this incredible scenery, which is highly popular among photography enthusiasts—it is, in fact, one of the top places in the world to go to take pictures.’

‘You can go kayaking in the midnight sun and view scenery that may be reminiscent of everything at once; the mountains in the Alps, for example. However, you also have Caribbean colours in the sea and beaches. Think of glamping (glamorous camping) on a private island; you are provided with a comfortable bed, a private chef, hiking, kayaking—it’s truly exceptional experience. We always try to do a mix of experiences. Culinary experiences are a big thing in Norway because Norway also ranks high in the world in terms of gastronomy, and Nordic cuisine is incredibly exciting to discover. We have many fjord incentives on the west coast—Bergen, Stavanger—where there are different styles of fjord experiences, and you can get close to mountains or waterfalls or have a DJ on a yacht playing by the waterfalls. Furthermore, you can combine the fjord with a culinary experience.’ 

‘Another example is a sea bird island—Runde—with 500,000 puffins. You can see them all around you, highly similar to what would appear in TV documentaries. It’s as if you are in a National Geographic documentary.’

‘One of the most important aspects in Norway is that you are never surrounded by masses of other people but, rather, are always almost completely on your own, in many cases entirely. It feels that much more exclusive as well because you are the only one in that experience. I love everything that is remote; private islands, private caves, for example.’

What’s Norway’s USP in comparison to Norway/Sweden/Ireland, for example?

Norway is considered to have the most variety in dramatic landscapes. It’s a long-stretched country that wraps around other Scandinavian countries and even borders with Russia all the way up North. Even much higher North in the arctic, you find Svalbard—also Norwegian territory—the northern most inhabited place in the world. This makes Norway ideal to experience natural wonders, including the northern lights, arctic experience and fjords. There is a significant degree of variety within the country. There is tremendous variety on offer within the country’s many destinations.

Does it happen that people want to do multi-destination incentives; for example, Norway and Sweden?

‘Sometimes, but now less than before. People realise that there’s so much to experience in each country, they respect that, and they want to see as much as they can of that country. The requests that want to combine multiple destinations mostly come from the Asian market because they still have the need to have as many stops and see as many places as possible during their trip because, perhaps, it will be only once in a lifetime that they travel that far if it’s from a long haul source market. But most European clients definitely stay within the country.’ 

Now with the pandemic and the budgets being frozen, do you think this business area will suffer?

It has already, ‘I should be on the move right now from incentive to incentive throughout Norway; it’s normally our high season for the incentives. But there’s no activity right now, and we’ve lost a lot of revenue because of that. If we think after corona, I don’t think it will suffer as much because as we’ll get over these hurdles and struggles, I think incentives will become even more valuable.’

‘People are craving experiences, and they want to go somewhere, do things, see people and meet again. It will definitely grow in value. I can also see that many companies who had to cancel their incentives for 2020 are combining their incentive winner from 2019 and 2020 now for 2021. Hence, they are increasing the size of their incentives, which is great if you already had ongoing projects. However, there are also many companies that are reinvestigating and choosing different destinations, particularly if they had plans to do long-haul incentives. I believe that long haul is going to take much longer. I think incentives on the continent will be more popular in the first year than travelling afar because it still feels a little bit risky if anything happened, and you are halfway across the world. It will still take time, but we can see already now that requests are coming back slowly and now that we are talking about reopening borders, people are starting to talk about it. We are still highly concerned about second waves everywhere around the world.’ 

‘In Norway, we have a particularly low rate of infection compared to most countries. Therefore, we see an increased demand because Norway is perceived as being a safe destination. It has an excellent social system, amazing healthcare support if required and is accessible and close to many European countries; so, we have “social distancing by nature.” At the same time, we have an additional advantage right now because our current currency is at a 30-year low. Hence, in terms of budgets, it becomes an option for many more people than ever before to come here.’

‘I’m not too worried about picking up a bit later, but we still have some months to go. It’s important to keep encouraging our clients to plan now for later, to not abandon their ideas because everything is going to pick up and fill very quickly. We also need to survive, and to stay alive, we all need to be supporting each other. Thus, agencies and DMCs should be trying a little harder to sell even if you are in a very difficult situation. Everyone is in the same boat, and we are all struggling with the day to day, the financials and the additional demand that this period has, but we need to keep thinking ahead and try moving forward rather than stopping.’

You can catch up on our episodes here:

  1. DMC: The new value proposition – Episode 1: What is the role of the DMC?
  2. DMC: The new value proposition – Episode 2: How to do a virtual venue showcase.
  3. DMC: The new value proposition – Episode 3: How to incorporate sustainability in a destination experience.
  4. DMC: The new value proposition – Episode 4: How DMCs contribute to destination marketing.
  5. DMC: The new value proposition – Episode 5: The ultimate incentive experience.

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