Lessons from Clark Griswold: Give Experiences, Not Cash

by: Kip Lambert

Clark Griswold had big plans for that Christmas bonus! You remember that scene from the classic movie, Christmas Vacation. Clark envisions his beautiful backyard pool in the summertime as he gazes out his window on a very wintery Chicago night. The BBQ, the family time, and even his annoying cousin followed by a swimsuit-clad supermodel jumping off the diving board.

His big dreams of using his Christmas bonus to put in the family pool come crashing down when he receives his “Jelly of the Month Club” Gift from the office. Cousin Eddy even kidnaps Clark’s boss in retaliation!

But here’s the problem with cash-based incentives and bonuses: Unlike Clark Griswold, not too many people use them for memorable or life-changing items or events. According to research completed by Professor Adam Presslee of the University of Waterloo, people “may prefer tangible non-cash rewards because they know they will spend cash on something pedestrian, for example paying the utilities, buying groceries and making car and mortgage payments.” In a similar study conducted by Dunn, Aknin & Norton, it was found that because people used their cash rewards towards the very everyday things they needed, there was very little emotional connection between the cash they received and what was purchased. When asked to recall what bonuses they received in previous years, respondents clearly had a hard time remembering the amounts they received and what they used the money for.

According to the Incentive Research Foundation, experts state that one of the advantages of using tangible non-cash rewards stems from “mental accounting,” the process of classifying cash rewards as part of salary since they are used for the mundane. On the other hand, non-cash rewards can linger in a reward earner’s memory for years. And experiential travel rewards, for example, create not only lasting memories but also positive associations with the organization that provided the reward. As Professor Khim Kelly states, the tangible non-cash reward “… is not economically more valuable but the value comes from it being more meaningful, they remember it a lot more and so they enjoy it a lot more. Fun, enjoyable experiences stimulate a part of the brain that cash doesn’t.” Group incentive travel adds a rocket booster to any non-cash based rewards system when it is used in a way to boost social connections. These social connections can vary but the impact can be seen with boosts in the personal social connections as well as shared experiences with employees and staff. Let’s take each in turn:

Personal Connections

As employees are invited to bring a guest of their choice along on their incentive trip, their personal connections are strengthened. Marriages benefit from a romantic location. Friendships are strengthened with unforgettable experiences in a bucket-list location. We’ve even had recipients take along an aging parent to share a meaningful experience before “time runs out.”

Team Connections

Teams and employees are strengthened with fun, meaningful, and service-oriented activities. On a recent trip to Fiji, one company took a full day of their otherwise relaxing incentive trip to paint a local school, put together bunk beds, and perform other manual labor together. Upon returning home, this activity was the highest rated in the post-trip survey and was the activity that received the most attention in the participant’s social media activity. So, whatever you do, use the Clark Griswold approach to awarding your top performers. Wait! Not the hold-your-boss-hostage version of his approach! Look for non-cash, experience-based incentives to motivate and reward your team. It’s what will drive the behavior you’re seeking and be remembered for years to come.