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15 Minutes With...Sandra Daniel, President & CEO, FIRE Light Group

Sandra Daniel of FIRE Light Group, an incentive marketing firm based in Madison, WI, describes herself as an “eternal optimist,” but that doesn’t stop her from having a careful and considered approach to the issues and trends facing her company and the engagement industry as a whole.

Recently named Vice Chair of the Incentive Research Foundation board and a member of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance advisory board, Daniel spent a number of years in the corporate world – primarily in banking and insurance – before getting into the incentive industry. But even as a corporate marketing executive, she says she understood the importance of motivating the sales force and keeping people engaged – “especially when you have satellite offices all over the country and you are trying to maintain the feeling of a common culture throughout the organization.” 

“It was very logical to me that you would want to find ways to engage and incent people,” Daniel says. “And I’ve always felt very strongly about letting your employees know they’re valued and demonstrating that, both from a leadership perspective and by putting your money where you mouth is. So I guess that’s how I wound up working in the incentive industry – I found a love for it, and it was sort of a natural progression for me.”

That was over a decade ago. In 2006 Daniel started her own company, FIRE Incentives, merging it a year later with the Light Group, an incentive company based in New York – result: the FIRE Light Group. 

It’s All About ROI

One of the things Daniel says she brought with her from the corporate world is more of a business discipline – specifically, an attention to return on investment (ROI). “Having done a lot of corporate project management, I knew that you couldn’t go before an executive committee without a complete analysis of how you were going to turn a 15% ROI on a project,” she says. “They would just tell you to start over.”

Daniel explains that FIRE Light Group isn’t really in the business of mounting and managing simple incentive trips. “We’re not looking for the call from a company that says, ‘Hey, we’re doing an incentive to Italy and we want you to bid on it.’ We want to look at it from square one,” she says. “Why are we doing this incentive? What’s our strategic goal? What’s the behavior we want to change? What’s the best solution for this group that we’re trying to motivate or engage? And finally, are we meeting our goals?”

She notes that in today’s economy you need to talk about incentives from a consultative standpoint – “you need to look at the business case for doing it. The better you do that, the more measurable and more accurate the results. And I think the industry is going to be doing a lot more of that, with customers saying, ‘Show me how and why this is going to work.’”

What Your Time Is Worth

Daniel also feels the industry has to do a better job of telling corporate customers about the value-added that incentive marketing companies bring to the table. “When I was in corporate America and you did consulting for any organization, there was a charge for that,” she says. “The incentive industry never really charged for its consulting efforts, for the experience that goes behind putting a big meeting together or knowing all of these destinations or knowing what works and what doesn’t for different types of groups. That’s all just been thrown into the soup, so to speak, so no one would say, ‘We’re getting this $5,000 worth of consulting as part of this deal.’ So one of the biggest challenges for the industry going forward is figuring out how to get paid for the time and energy we spend in developing proposals and ideas and incentive plans – and really getting paid for that time.”

She says the rise in the importance of engagement in the industry offers an opportunity for incentive companies to become “engagement consultants” and charge a fee for that expertise, in addition to planning and fulfilling incentive plans. “And we’re seeing a lot of small and mid-sized companies recognizing that now is the time to incorporate some kind of engagement strategy,” Daniel notes, adding that this approach will only work for those companies that can draw the line between engagement and incentives and can provide a solid business case for specific proposals and programs.

“The whole idea of engagement is catching on, and that makes me very optimistic about the incentive industry in the months and years ahead,” Daniel says. She’s also enthused by international incentive opportunities and the “buy-local” movement – which from her perspective means “looking for more customers in our own backyard.” She feels that companies are going to be more disciplined about their spending, even as the economy improves, noting that “if we do our jobs as industry professionals and demonstrate the value of what we bring to customers, then I think we’ll see an increase in spending in the industry.”

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