Rewards and recognition programs in the insurance industry are undergoing a seismic shift. Many insurance carriers and dedicated sales agencies are considering the elimination or reduction of their sales-based travel incentive conferences. On the other hand, managing general agencies (MGAs) see an opportunity to bolster their rewards programs.

This significant change stems from a report released this past February by the Toronto-based Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association Inc. (CHLIA). That report made several recommendations regarding the tradition of sales-based travel incentive programs. Specifically, the CHLIA report suggests, travel incentives could contribute to a “perception of a conflict of interest”; thus, advisors should be required to pay their own travel and accommodation costs associated with such conferences.

In response to these recommendations, some dedicated sales agencies have either taken or are considering taking steps to reduce their sales-based travel incentive conferences. However, these agencies are still adamant that they’ll maintain some way to educate and/or recognize their top-producing advisors.

For example, Mike Cunneen, senior vice president of London, Ont.-based Freedom 55 Financial’s wealth and estate planning group, says his firm is considering what to do with its sales-based incentive conferences, but wants to ensure that advisors receive the same level of training and development.

“We’re continuing to look at what’s happening in the industry and, certainly, we want to ensure that we’re doing the right thing for our advisors and for our clients,” Cunneen says. “Advisors want to make sure the organization they have aligned themselves with is providing training, advice and development. And if that isn’t through incentive conferences, then we would find another way to meet that expectation.”

Freedom 55 advisors, for their part, said they would respond to the elimination of sales-based incentive conferences with a shrug of the shoulder because those conferences are not what drives advisors to do a good job.

“I’m not motivated by that sort of stuff. I find it very unprofessional,” says a Freedom 55 advisor in Ontario. “It’s a business relationship. It should be based on compensation.”

Adds a colleague in the same province: “They’re cutting back on [sales-based incentive conferences], and that’s happening industrywide. [This trend] doesn’t bother me because it’s only the top 5% [of advisors] who get [to go] anyway.”

Meanwhile, Mississauga, Ont.-based RBC Life Insurance Co. made the decision to eliminate its sales-based travel incentive conference earlier this year and replace it with a local sales summit.

“[Advisors] understand why [we stopped having a conference] because it’s where the industry is going,” says Mike Hamilton, senior vice president, sales and distribution, with RBC Life.

In addition to the sales summit, the firm also is focusing on other ways to reward its advisors, says Gopal Bansal, RBC Life’s communications director: “We have performance rewards that happen annually from a recognition perspective. We also recognize advisors who have gone above and beyond. We profile them in stories internally that are shared across the organization.”

These approaches strike a chord with some RBC Life advisors. Says an advisor in Ontario: “They’re really good at doing things like that, offering weekly [and] monthly incentives.”

Adds a colleague in Quebec: “I’m very fortunate. I do get recognized by my director. [The firm] sends out an email.”

Although dedicated sales agencies shy away from sales-based incentive conferences, some MGAs see an opportunity to bolster their sales conferences to attract new advisors.

“We’re not deleting [conferences as incentives] or getting rid of them like the insurance carriers are,” says Ron Madzia, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based IDC Worldsource Insurance Network Inc. (IDC WIN). “In fact, we may promote [conferences] even more because the carriers have stopped doing theirs. Our advisors feel [the conferences are] important to them. Any time you can recognize advisors for doing things right or helping their clients in some way, you want to be able to do that.”

“We offer a thorough rewards and recognition program, and we believe that’s one of the reasons many advisors are with us today,” adds Patricia Ziegler, chief operating officer with Kitchener, Ont.-based Financial Horizons Inc. “We see that [incentive] getting even stronger now that insurance carriers are changing their rewards programs. We are a completely unbiased firm that supports 24 [carriers] across the country. We can offer recognition programs that reward advisors for all the business they place through [our] MGA, not just through one single carrier.”

Meanwhile, Jim Virtue, president and CEO of Calgary-based PPI Solutions Inc., says his MGA supports the decision many insurance carriers have taken to discontinue their volume-based sales incentive conferences. However, PPI Solutions’ executives still believe these conferences are important to advisors and that it’s possible to hold conferences yet remain unbiased.

“I don’t believe that this practice has really created a significant conflict of interest. There’s no question [conferences have] created the perception of one, which is something we as an industry don’t want,” Virtue says. “We believe that MGAs do have a role to play in this area, as advisors can choose from many [carriers] if they’re dealing with an MGA. But [the issue] is something we want to look at a little further and make sure that if a sales incentive conference is done at the MGA level, that there’s no perception [of bias] and that it’s always in clients’ best interest.”

Although advisors with both these MGAs rated their firms highly in the “firm’s/MGA’s rewards/recognition program” category, many advisors offered mixed opinions regarding the conferences – and whether they should continue.

On the one hand, some advisors said, the conferences are great and rewarding for advisors who do a good job.

“[The MGA] is always thinking about you and doing things for you without even being asked,” says a PPI Solutions advisor on the Prairies.

“It’s important to recognize people who work hard,” says a Financial Horizons advisor in Ontario.

“We work hard, so it’s nice to be recognized,” adds an IDC WIN advisor in Alberta.

Yet, there are other advisors working with these MGAs who said the exact opposite.

“With communication being the way it is, clients may get the wrong impression about things such as conferences,” says a Financial Horizons advisor in Ontario.

“As a professional advisor, I think [incentive conferences] cheapen the industry,” adds an IDC WIN advisor in Alberta.

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