Paid Vacations: The Next Corporate Benefit?

Some companies are going outside the box to encourage employees to get (far) out of town.

Delta Cockins just got back from an all expenses paid trip to Paris, care of her employer Betabrand. Her company covered the cost of a "wonderful" hotel next to the Louvre and an"amazing direct flight," says Cockins, an inventory planner at the San Francisco-based online retailer. Her coworkers pitched in $500 for spending money, and Cockins used the cash to buy her first pair of Christian Louboutin heels. "I’m always going to say Betabrand owns one of those shoes," she said. 

Cockins's journey was part of Betabrand's FlyAway program. Every six to eight weeks, a lucky someone from the office gets sent abroad and the company covers airfare and lodging. To qualify for the deal, the employee can't have traveled outside the country—ever. Cockins, 41, never had a passport. Betabrand also expects the globetrotting employee to stay connected through social media and deliver a company-wide trip report afterwards. 

A handful of companies have pushed the boundaries of fringe benefits by offering subsidized travel on top of the more familiar policies promising paid time-off and the avant garde employers promising unlimited vacation time. Airbnb, Evernote, AFAR, G Adventures, and Think Parallax are among the new wave of employers putting up between $1,000 and $4,000 for some or all of their workers to get out of town. Dreamy, right? 

Betabrand Chief Executive Chris Leland thought up the idea when, at a happy hour last fall, he learned how few of his employees had traveled abroad. He immediately acquired a miles rewards credit card and used the points collected doing business as usual to fund the first trip in January. He thinks his relatively modest investment—only a few of his 60 employees qualify for free trips—has paid off: "It adds to the workplace life here of celebration and shared adventure," said Leland. "I know that sounds a bit inflated but it’s really true. It’s not that we’re sending people off on these luxurious vacations, we’re sending them off on four- to five-day quests." 

At most workplaces experimenting with subsidized leisure travel, all employees are eligible to nab a free or almost-free trip. But reimbursement usually comes with stipulations. Travel is often limited to certain dates when it makes most sense for people to miss work, and sometimes employees have to dip into vacation days to cover the time off. The employer-sponsored trips also aren't a total vacation from work. AFAR, a San Francisco-based travel magazine, offers a yearly $2,000 stipend for employees to travel to any international destination they haven't visited before. Participants are expected to post their experiences on AFAR's website.

Think Parallax, a creative agency in the Bay Area, has turned its $1,500 travel program into a game. Participants have to pick somewhere new to visit and keep it a secret from their coworkers. The travelers leave a trail of digital clues on Instagram and Facebook for people to guess their whereabouts. Once they return, the destination is described in a presentation.

From an employer perspective, the perk falls under professional development. Yes, it's about retention and a way to incentivize workers to take time off. Americans don't take vacations. Nearly half of U.S. workers didn't take a day off in 2014, according to a Skift survey, and federal statistics show that a quarter of the civilian workforce receives no paid vacation time.  "This is a way of reemphasizing how important work-life balance is," said Guusje Bendeler, the creative director at Think Parallax who lives in Holland, land of work- life balance. Employers also expect a return on their investment: "We see it more as these experience trips that will make them more well rounded human beings," added Bendeler. "That in return that will produce better work or better people."

The general thinking goes like this: Worldly workers have better ideas and broader perspectives, which leads to better creative thinking. Studies have linked creativity with travel, particularly the type of immersive experiences that these programs mandate. "The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation," Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, told the Atlantic. "Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment." Many of these companies require employees to engage. Loafing on a beach isn't an option. "We all love beach vacations," said AFAR Chief Executive Joe Diaz. "If that’s all we do on our trips, we come back and feel like there’s something we left on the table."

At companies with travel baked into the mission, the benefits of sending people abroad have an even more tangible effect on business. Diaz credits his program for bringing authenticity to AFAR's content, which has won a James Beard award and other accolades. At G Adventures, a travel company, employees can go on one of the company's tours free of charge, giving them a deeper understanding of the product.

To hear employees describe their trips, these sound like dream vacations. Aislyn Green, an associate editor at AFAR, used her $2,000 stipend for 10 days in Bali that included "epic food experiences," a home stay, and luxurious hotels. Maddie Lochte, a graphic designer, spent 10 days in New Zealand on Think Parallax's dime. She climbed mountains and rappelled into caves. Cockins did what she calls a girl's version of Paris. Instead of spending her days scrambling in and out of museums, she made perfume, shopped, and indulged in Paris's culinary offerings.

Employees, as expected, come back convinced the travel subsidy was worth it. The art and architecture in Auckland gave Lochte ideas for projects, she said, and she also returned touting more nebulous benefits such as feeling refreshed as a designer. Others described changed perspectives on the world that in turn has influenced their work. After her trip to Bali, for example, Green says she looks at stories she edits in a different way. 

That these trips come with strings attached didn't bother any of the employees who spoke with Bloomberg. Even those who had to use up their paid vacation time didn't see it as an imposition, and free money tends to push the vacations in a more adventurous direction. "The world is completely available to you with this," said Green. She wouldn't have gone to Bali using her own money. This year, she's thinking of using her allotted stipend on a foodie bike tour through Basque Country. "Knowing that every year you get to take one big trip, that’s pretty awesome," she said. Yes, yes it is. 

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