Digging ditches and pouring concrete in a remote village in Guatemala's Cloud Forest region wasn't exactly the kind of reward Charly Bates and Ian Essary expected for being among their company's top-performing loan officers.
Typically, Essary, 33 and Bates, 41, of the Yuba City branch of Academy Mortgage enjoy all-expense paid trips with their spouses to the Caribbean or Cabo San Lucas when they've had a good year of sales with the Salt Lake City-based company.
But Academy Mortgage and a growing number of other companies across the country is eschewing the gold watches and Hawaiian vacations that once were standard fare for employee rewards. Many companies are looking for more meaningful trips and experiences where employees bond and recharge their spirits through service, not leisure.
"If you go back 20 or 30 years, (employees' incentives) would have been a plaque, crystal or logo jewelry," said Bob Nelson, a management consultant and author of "1501 Ways to Reward Employees." "Those are off the table now. The idea is that an experience, as opposed to a thing, has more value."
According to Essary and Bates, their service trip to Secanquin, Guatemala, was just that an experience. Grueling, both emotionally and physically, the service trip changed them for the better, they said.
"We thought they were kind of crazy at first," Bates said of his company's plan to reward employees and their spouses with a service trip this past spring. "It's not your typical reward."
The trip turned out to help them redefine what is rewarding in life. The people in the village that is an 11-hour bus ride from Guatemala City had no running water, doctor or school. But the familial bonds among the villagers were strong and they worked side-by-side with their foreign guests, building a water treatment system and foundation for a school, Bates and Essary said.
"It taught me you don't need a whole lot of stuff to be happy," Bates said.
"It made me grateful for all we have," added Essary.
Academy's service trip was organized by its chief marketing officer, Mike Jensen. Jensen, who previously worked as a consultant organizing similar trips for other companies, said the trips, in addition to helping employees bond, allows them to serve a "noble purpose."
"A lot of people are looking for meaning beyond their paychecks," said Jensen, who works in the company's headquarters in Salt Lake City. "I know it sounds weird in the corporate environment, but we are doing it because it is the right thing to do."
Jensen said the trips are not easy to organize. He typically works with a humanitarian relief organization in finding a suitable location. The cost per participant is about $2,500 to $2,800. About 45 people went on the Guatemala trip in the spring. The group included the top 25 mortgage generators in branch offices around the country, plus their family members.
Another trip to the same village is planned for the fall, but the criteria for who gets to go has been changed. The 35 Academy employees who raise the most funds to pay for the trip itself will be invited to go. Jensen said the response from company employees has been enthusiastic. They have been holding raffles, bake sales, car washes and taco feeds to raise money for the trip.
In recent years, mortgage companies have come under fire for incentive and payment programs to loan officers that some say may have led to officers making too many risky loans. In fact, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is looking to develop new rules about loan officer compensation.
Jensen said the controversy over loan officer payment has nothing to do with Academy's venture into service trips for its employees.
"We didn't do it because it helps us with the regulatory compliance issues," said Jensen. "It is a trend. There are a lot of organizations looking to change the world through their companies."
Nelson, the management consultant, agreed. He said he knows of many companies that add a service element to their company conferences or retreats. At a recent conference he attended in South Africa, participants spent a day doing community service in Cape Town. Bank of America, at a recent conference, invited its employees to fill wagons with items for the needy. Ben and Jerry's ice cream company regularly includes a service component in its management retreats, sometimes building a community playground or other amenity.
"It's very enticing to the millennial generation," Nelson said. "They are into creating stories and experiences."
Bates and Essary already do a fair bit of community service in their local communities in the Yuba City area. Bates, who lives in Sutter, is active in his community's 4-H program. He raises cows and steers on his property. Essary has collected money and clothes for needy children in the Yuba City area.
They both said they would likely do a similar trip in the future because, while they gave to the villagers, they received something priceless in return.
"Our eyes were opened to how much we have here in the U.S.," said Essary.