Skip navigation

A Modern Take on Recognition: 7 Ideas for Better Awards Ceremonies

Traditional awards dinners often don’t hit the mark with today’s top performers. Here are some fresh ideas for recognizing your best people—without the formalwear and endless speeches.

Recent studies by the Incentive Research Foundation show a notable trend: Attendees are losing interest in formal, often lengthy award ceremonies.

Instead, they’d rather experience the local culture or participate in less formal group dinners. They don’t want to use space in their suitcase packing a tuxedo or gown along with the shoes to match. They don’t want to spend precious time sitting through an awards dinner’s lineup of speeches when they could be exploring the destination with their guest. Plus, more often than not, qualifiers have already been recognized during their sales kickoff.

The conundrum? Great leaders understand that recognition is crucial for employee retention, satisfaction, and motivation, so, lacking alternatives, most still turn to the traditional award ceremony believing it’s the best way to recognize qualifiers in front of their plus-ones. But I don’t agree.

It’s time to shake things up. As people and preferences evolve, so must traditions. Attendees are looking for more personal, experiential moments, and event leaders need to listen and deliver. Here are seven modern ideas for recognizing top performers:

Ditch the Dinner: Move away from formal awards dinners and opt for a shorter reception, or even a brunch instead. Have the event on the beach and make it casual. This gives attendees and their plus-ones more room in their suitcases and more time to explore their surroundings. It also takes some pressure off the executives who would typically need to prepare speeches and toasts. Bonus: It saves on AV costs as well!

Red Carpets and Walks of Fame: Roll out the red carpet and bring in the paparazzi. Attendees will enjoy the VIP treatment and pose for professional photos to make their entrance a memorable part of the event. For extra flair, consider creating a “Walk of Fame” where each qualifier has his or her own star, which can be taken home as a memento.

Lawn Flags and Instagramable Moments: If you buy-out a property, your options increase. Incorporate lawn flags with winners' names throughout the venue to create a public-recognition experience. Attendees will enjoy finding their names while capturing Instagram-worthy moments, adding excitement to the event.

Custom Bobbleheads: You’ve seen the living champagne wall. What about a wall made entirely of personalized bobbleheads of each winner? Attendees will have a laugh, check out each other’s miniatures, and take the custom bobbleheads home as unique and cherished gifts.

Custom Playlist: Curate a custom playlist for the program, inviting each attendee to submit a song. Then, distribute portable speakers or devices pre-loaded with the playlist. (You could go vintage with CD players or mix tapes to take advantage of recent nostalgia trends.) Attendees will engage with one another around musical preferences and song selection.

Regional Cocktail Hours: Instead of one big formal dinner, consider hosting more intimate regional or team cocktail hours. This will give attendees more time to bond while celebrating their colleagues’ achievements. Executives can circulate through each region to give that personal “thanks for all the hard work” recognition. Added bonus: You can tailor receptions to specific regions. We all know EMEA teams like to start late!

Recognize the Plus-Ones: For a spin on a traditional recognition event, consider spotlighting the attendees’ plus-ones. Whether it’s a champagne toast in their honor, or a room gift specifically for them, this not only rewards the employee but also recognizes the vital role of their personal support system.

Creative approaches like these elevate and modernize traditional award ceremonies so they are casual, personalized experiences that cater to attendee preferences. As the landscape of recognition evolves, fresh ideas become crucial to maintaining engagement and making each recognition truly memorable.

Tiffany Cohen, CMP, CITP, senior vice president of incentives and global sourcing at Opus Agency, has more than 20 years of expertise in hospitality, operations, and events. Tiffany serves on the 2024 Events Committee for the Incentive Research Foundation.


Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.