How do we BUILD a GREAT INCENTIVE PROGRAM?

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

THE MAIN REASON WHY WE CREATE AN INCENTIVE PLAN, IS TO PUSH OUR GOALS.

Empire Terrace Suite, Andaz 5th Avenue, New York (room with a view!)


Part of my research for MHIH content was to navigate through hospitality groups on social media and professional networks, as I was curious to see what fellow hoteliers are interested in knowing and what topics are worth sharing some expertise on.


A few weeks ago, I have noticed quite a few posts from colleagues asking for suggestions on how to structure a good incentive program. When someone asked about advice for an incentive meant to push online reviews, I remembered my most recent team and I developed a very effective and motivating one for Tripadvisor, so I right away responded and told her I would send her some info on a private message. What followed was more colleagues asking me to share with them as well, so the original message became a group email and it got very positive responses.


This gave me a nice kick of motivation and a good inspiration for my next post. After all I am here to do exactly this: share knowledge and hopefully help others in the business!

The fact is that there are a lot of incentives out there, but let’s say it, most of them are not motivating or effective. The main reason why we build incentive programs is to push a certain goal: would that be increasing revenue, boost online visibility and rating, or improve the quality of your product, the goal is to push the team to help you achieve that goal.


If you want to push the team to reach your goal, you have to give them a reason for it. It’s great to think that all of us care about the success of our operations the same way, and therefore put the same effort into it with nothing in return. The truth is, however, that some people are not invested in the same way as we are, and if there is nothing in it for them, they probably won’t help.


This is however a good starting point: when you are presenting a new objective to the team, it is important to carry out the message in a way that everybody can understand, and hopefully care about. Keep it simple and make it catchy. This is not just your target, it is the department’s target, it is the hotel’s target, and everyone is expected to contribute to the best of their ability.

Most people will get on board, they will get excited about it, and will take it upon themselves to help you reach that objective. Some people will not, and that’s just the way it is, which is why presenting some sort of compensation, will push everybody to contribute.


And this is really a key factor to any good incentive: push everyone to contribute. Why is it important to motivate everyone in the team?

I've seen a lot of programs that are well structured and provide a nice benefit for the individuals, but they are indeed based on individual reward, which means they promote the single person’s effort and not the team’s effort. As good as they can be, one or two people alone will not be able to reach what we have set for a whole department, so you need everyone to get on board.

This is why I always recommend to divide an incentive program in two parts: one that rewards the individual, and one that rewards the group as a whole.

Perhaps some examples will help clarify how this could work.


An incentive that we are all familiar with is the upsell program. Having managed the front office team in a few properties, I have quite some experience with good upsell plans that proved to be very effective. The secret was indeed not only to reward the individuals with some extra cash for each upsell they would do, but also to reward the group as a whole when the goal was reached. What that does, it gives everyone a reason to participate, and it creates a common responsibility. It is not only for the people who are into it and good at it to contribute, it is everybody’s job to pitch in, and everyone gets rewarded when the team does its job as a group.


Here is another obstacle: you will have one or two, maybe three people in your department, who are extremely good at upselling (or whatever other target you have in mind) and who will be motivated by that substantial bonus they get on their paycheck each month. They will certainly bring in some good figures, but again, those two or three alone won’t make the big numbers happen. And if the rest of the team is not participating - or not as much as you need them to, how are you ever going to make your numbers?


Here is my next tip: select a champion and get them to help you push the rest of the team.

In every group there is always that one person who just excels at a certain task. I had a front desk agent at Hotel Granduca Austin named Mona, and a reservation agent at Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam named Gideon, who - as I used to say - could sell water to a fish. They were so good at upselling and so charming in the way they did it, that I just had to ask for their help. When I offered them the upsell champion role, which they accepted enthusiastically, I gave them the responsibility not only to drive higher results, but also to encourage other team members to follow their lead, and great results came out of that. People who were typically shy and would avoid getting into the upsell conversation, became more comfortable with it. They started bringing home some numbers, first small, then big, and all of a sudden most of the team was at least attempting upselling as part of their check-in process, and many of them became more successful at it.

What was in it for Mona and Gideon, other than the pride and the glory? If the goal was reached at the end of the month, everybody - and therefore the two of them as well - would get an extra bonus on top of their individual commission.


The same goes for a great Tripadvisor incentive we created at Hotel Riggs DC, which can be applied to other platforms as well, with the intention of pushing positive reviews and building online visibility.

We created an individual incentive based on name mention, very simple, very common: for each name mention the team member who got recognized would get a reward.

But again, we needed a group incentive as well. We were a new hotel just about to open, we needed as much visibility as possible, and as we know on Tripadvisor more quality reviews mean improved ranking. We needed a lot of reviews in a short amount of time, and we wanted only 5 star surveys. Hard to achieve? Not when you have a brand new great product and a fantastic fresh team ready to provide excellent experiences. Not when you have an exciting motivating incentive that drives everyone in the same direction: the team understood the reviews were going to get us better positioning and positive perception in a tough competitive market, and therefore more business. The group incentive would reward the whole team only if and when consecutive 5 star reviews would be posted in a row. The 5th consecutive 5 star review would “open the gate” - as our GM (the initiator of this great program) would say - and after that each 5 star review - again as long as posted consecutively - would compensate the team. If we got a 4 star or lower review, the gate would close again and the process would start from scratch. When the gate was open the team would get excited and would do their best to keep it open.

The champions - those who were comfortable asking guests to post a review, and who could easily achieve a name mention or secure a 5 star review - were motivated to keep the gate open and would encourage others to do the same.

The incentive generated more than 40 consecutive excellent reviews in a row and improved our ranking by more than 60 spots, in the 6 weeks that we were open.


Another important aspect to keep in mind is: if you want people to achieve a goal, you need to teach them how to perform efficiently towards it.

The upsell is again a good example, as some people find that conversation a bit uncomfortable to have and therefore they shy away from it. When we ask our team to upsell, we count on them to be able to convince the guest to pay extra for an upgraded service or product. A good question I heard at some point from one of my front desk agents was “How do I tell them that the room I am trying to upsell is better than the one they already paid for?”. Great point! Upselling is not about discounting the choice the guest has already made and offering something better. Upselling means identifying the right experience for the right guest and offering what they did not think about at the time of booking, because they did not know it was an option, or because they did not think it could be within their reach. It’s much more appropriate to say “You have booked a fantastic room, since it’s your first time in the city, I would love to make it special for you and offer you a good rate for the same type of room but with a beautiful view!”.


Asking to post a review is also an awkward conversation point for some people. How do you ask a guest for a good review without sounding pushy? You could say “We are really glad to hear you enjoyed your time with us, we’d really appreciate it if you could share it with other people on our page”. How do you ask for a name mention without sounding self-absorbed? You go around the question. You simply say “My name is Silvia, and I really hope to be able to assist you again soon!”. You remind them your name and that you are at their service, without having to ask for a mention at all.

How do you secure great reviews? You ask for feedback first, and when that feedback is not only good, not only very good, but excellent, you kindly ask to share it online.

Another useful trick our Tripadvisor enthusiast GM would use was handing notes signed by himself to very satisfied guests, with a QR code linked to our Tripadvisor page.


It is crucial for the staff to know how to accomplish these points effectively and appropriately, if they don’t know that showing the product they want to upsell is an essential part of the sales pitch, how can they accomplish it? If they don’t know what room has what features how can they tailor the upgrade to the specific guest or situation? If they don’t know what wording is best to use when asking for feedback, how can they identify the opportunity for a good review?


You have to teach your team to use the right verbiage, to touch the right emotions, to identify the right target and selling points.

And once again, you can ask your champions to help you! People who are good at it and have the right charm, will be excited to teach other people how to bring on the conversation in the right way. Gideon put together a fantastic powerpoint on upsells that he presented to the entire front office and reservations team and which was very well received, a great help to me!

We should not forget that the front of the house is not the only team that can and should receive an incentive, too often the back of the house is forgotten and left out of these programs, when we can really benefit from creating a plan for them as well.


Your housekeeping and maintenance team can help you tremendously in ensuring product quality is always at its best. It should be part of their duties anyway - you would say - but once again the reality is that some people every now and then will leave some details for someone else to fix - or much worse - for the guest to find.

So why not create a program for room attendants and public area attendants that incentivizes them to leave their areas always in perfect conditions, in terms of cleanliness and standards? It is quite common and we did so at three properties where I’ve worked. The program was always purposely simple and based on daily random spot checks of public areas and guest rooms. The goal was for housekeeping supervisors and managers to conduct inspections and score the areas on cleanliness, maintenance, presentation, and company standards. Points would have a bigger or smaller weight depending on their importance. We called some of them “deadly sins”, such as hair in the bathroom, or caulk in the shower, or spots on the linen, to make it more impactful for the staff. The scores would be recorded and shared with the team at the end of each month, and the staff member with the highest average score would be rewarded. At the end of the year we would also recognize the workers who were consistently high performers, and we would of course reward the whole team when the goal was reached. Once again, individual incentive but also and most importantly team effort to reach a common goal.

If we look at the technicalities of an incentive program, there are at last a couple of additional things to take into consideration.


When you set your goal, it is beneficial to break it down and to make it achievable.

Breaking it down makes it easier for the team to understand it, people acknowledge and comprehend smaller figures better, so create your target for the year and break it down month by month. Keep your team updated on how they are doing. When you are half way through the month, let them know what they have achieved and what is left to reach. Break this down even more, for example: if you have still $ 2,000 to go and 10 team members, encourage them by saying: “It’s just as little as $ 200 per person!”, or if you have 5 days to go: “It’s just as little as $ 400 a day!”.


When you look at your historical and you create a new yearly goal, be ambitious, but don’t be ridiculous. We should be able to push targets up year after year, but if the goal is not achievable people will get discouraged and will lose interest. If you really want to reach for the stars, what you can do is set an official goal, and a stretched goal. The stretched goal is your most ambitious target, which yourself and some high performers will try and push for, and which will give you some buffer in achieving your basic one.


When you propose and present your incentive program, keep it open ended. Mention it will be valid until the end of the quarter or of the year and after that it will be subject to review, that allows you to make some changes later if needed, and it avoids getting stuck if it's not working.


Last but not least, when you decide on a reward, be sure to remember that different people are motivated by different things. Monetary compensation or tangible things are not always the answer, some people are driven by recognition versus money. My suggestion is to always include some sort of acknowledgement and public appreciation to share with everyone when you are rewarding the winner. Take a picture of the winner with yourself and maybe with the GM, send out a shout out email to the whole hotel, make a big deal! This can push a person more than any other prize you have decided to offer, and can incentivize the other team members more than you think!


So these are what I consider the key points to an effective and exciting incentive program. There are more things to talk about, if anyone wants to hear more; and as usual there are more things to share, if anyone has a good story to contribute with!

Start incentivizing, and let me know if the tips worked!

My wonderful Housekeeping team, Pulitzer Amsterdam


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