Uncertainty will continue to be a challenge for the incentives industry in 2021. The Incentive Research Foundation’s (IRF) 2021 Trends Report highlights several trends that will influence the sector’s products, services and workforce this year. Industries hobbled by the economic downturn, the vaccine rollout, a pent-up demand for travel and other changes are all factors driving these trends.

Major drops in air travel and hotel occupancy in 2020 cost the hospitality industry about $500 billion and four million jobs, and its incentive travel, meetings and events sector was even more deeply affected. The IRF’s report highlighted how very few business leaders allowed incentive-related travel in their organizations over the past year. In their place, the development of alternative means of rewarding, recognizing and meeting picked up during the pandemic.

Merchandise and gift cards grew significantly more popular in 2020. The IRF reports that merchandise was used by 68 percent of incentive programs and that the pandemic pushed gift card use up 26 percent. The IRF says that looking ahead, this trend will continue as it predicts gift card usage will climb 33 percent in 2021 while merchandise grows by 24 percent.

The IRF also reports that in 2020, most large group travel activities were postponed rather than cancelled. While many planners had indicated second quarter 2021 as a return for incentive travel, those events may be pushed back depending on the course of the pandemic and vaccine rollout.

See the full IRF report here.