from Atlanta Business Chronicle
By Ann Wead Kimbrough
Andjela Kessler's clients have been to the highest mountains and lowest valleys, all in the name of enhancing the corporate bottom line. The founder and president of 13 year old Incentive Travel, Sports & Motivation (ITM) has built a $2 million company by offering unusual incentive programs to an impressive list of corporate clients.
With elephant rides in Thailand, elegant dinners in castles in French wine country and journeys to the edge of volcanoes in Hawaii, the 11-person company competes for clients against giants like $17 billion American Express Co. Both offer business travel services as a way for companies to reward, motivate and recognize their employees and distributors. ITM has become a viable entity in the business-incentives and travel industry by winning clients such as The Coca-Cola Co., Nestle, Dial Corp., Mobil Oil and Phillips Lighting. The business-incentives and travel industry gained momentum in the 1980s as companies sought creative ways to reward employees and customers for helping to increase sales, obtain greater profits and improve product rollouts for soft drink and fast-food products.
Although there are many successful reward systems within companies, travel getaways with targeted programs are popular offerings. However, as more individuals become well-traveled, companies are looking for innovative proposals to appeal to their employees and customers. To realize some economies of scale in the incentives industry, many companies offer a number of related services, such as meeting planning. "Nothing succeeds for companies like incentives to motivate their employees to work together, or to reward them for doing a good job, like being the top sellers in their organizations," said Kessler.
Kessler competes for blue-chip clients with larger companies by emphasizing her firm's flexibility. Although small, Kessler said the size of her firm is an advantage in an industry in which clients typically request last-minute rescheduling of activities to accommodate unexpected corporate adjustments. "When you're small, you can move faster. I can make decisions faster in the interest of my clients," said Kessler.
Being small is advantageous because she has recruited a team of logistics and creative personnel who handle everything from meeting arrangements to the design of trophies. Kessler developed her firm conservatively - primarily through outsourcing - until she felt financially comfortable to add full-time staff. Because she did not finance the company with a bank loan, she said, she used limited personal funds to pay her expenses until she built consistent business from clients. During the firm's start-up, Kessler rented office space from her former employer, Adweek, until she was able to move to her own location.
But there are some disadvantages to her firm's size. Kessler said one of her biggest business challenges is timely payment of bills by some clients whose finance departments regard marketing incentives as a low payment priority. "We do a number of projects that also require that we pay up front. I have to come up with the money," said Kessler.
For a small business, that adds a strain on cash flow. But that is where Kessler's frustration begins and ends. She said she delights in breaking the traditional incentives mold, especially in the area of travel destinations. Usually, travel incentive companies offer clients domestic destinations that include a lot of sales, training and other corporate group activities within a hotel or convention center. These companies provide dinners, golf and shopping outings for their employees and spouses. Kessler prides herself in achieving the desired results for clients, but from exotic settings. The native Yugoslavian believes her ideas for adventures suit employees in today's high-tech and global economy.
Kessler's operation is an interesting business practices study, according to Deborah Lester, a marketing and advertising professor in the Coles School of Business at Kennesaw State University. Lester, who has been teaching college students for 20 years, said ITM's incentive programs answer basic human needs.
"In the business world, it is so cutthroat. Everybody is trying to get ahead," began Lester. "But people are stressed-out. They need special motivation to continue to do a good job. With everything being so unemotional, it's good to have something to offer that is emotional."
For the past six years, Kennesaw business students have been challenged to emulate Kessler and other business people. Lester said students are working more in teams and are forced to interact on all "real-life" promotion projects, such as an internal motivational program her students just completed for General Motors.
When Kessler started her business, she didn't have the benefit of classroom training such as that offered by Lester. Instead, the former Adweek marketing writer got the idea to open an incentives business after interviewing several sources who were seeking creative ways to motivate and reward employees.
She took a chance and asked an interview subject if he would let her bid on a project at Coca-Cola. "I just wanted an opportunity,"
In addition to the elephant rides and dinners in castles, ITM once opened a general session for a major meeting with a reception at a Buddhist temple and a lunch in a rice field, all in Thailand.
Depending on the travel and meeting logistics and other related costs, ITM charges anywhere from $250 to $4,000 per employee for its services. Kessler said ITM is careful not to exploit the native residents whom clients encounter on their trips. ITM intends to serve as an "ambassador from Atlanta" to bridge cultures around the world, she said.
Kessler wrote "The International Friendship Book" as a practical guide for businesses and people relating to world communities. 'Me self-published book came out in May 1996 and sold 50,000 copies by the time the Olympic Games ended in August.
She dedicated the book to her father, Milan Loncaric, who was an international lawyer who moved his family around the world as assignments dictated. Because of her early exposure to living in foreign countries, Kessler said her work is in part a tribute to her family. Also in 1996, Kessler was a finalist for the Atlanta Convention and Visitor's Bureau award for individuals who have best sought meaningful relationships with other cities, countries and cultures.
ITM's clients are not exclusively large U.S. corporations. Kessler works with small domestic companies as well, because she wants to "meet every budget." ITM has been expanding its services to international firms that want to reward employees and customers with travel and entertainment to Caribbean and U.S. destinations.
"When I bring the Dutch to an African-American church in Atlanta, it's no different than taking Americans to a rice field in Thailand. Everyone needs to really experience a new culture," said Kessler.
Kessler said. She got the assignment and took the risky leap to becoming an entrepreneur. Kessler, however, never viewed her move as a risk. "Our company is known for its creativity," she said.
She said that travel is always emphasized because informal market research shows employees and customers remember exotic trips more than how they spent a monetary bonus, especially if it was a meager amount.