In the voluntary benefits business for more than a decade, Nashville's Karen Quigley knows a tidal change when she sees one. With carriers increasingly entering the core voluntary market and health care reform looming large over the whole industry, Quigley knew it was time to adapt.

That's when she found vacation benefit company Rovia and its DreamTrips Vacation Membership product. Rovia recently began partnering with benefit brokers. Quigley sells the vacation benefit through her company, Wellness Vacations. "In comparison to the other products that I sell on a voluntary basis, this one is extremely easy and as far as servicing, once that employee is signed up for the vacation benefit they simply go into the Web site and [Rovia] takes it from there," she says.

For an annual membership and monthly service fee (either employee-paid, employer-paid or employer-subsidized) Rovia puts together a wide variety of discounted vacation packages ranging from weekend getaways to luxury vacations hosted by a Rovia employee who coordinates activities on the trip.

An insurance license is not required to sell the vacation benefit product, and Quigley finds the commissions to be comparable to most other voluntary benefits. "I'm so excited about it," she says. "It's by far one of the best voluntary benefits that I've seen and I just think right now is the perfect time" to sell it.


A differentiator

Rovia's business model has traditionally consisted of their own direct sales force, but Fritz Wolchik, director of the corporate sales division, is "delighted" that brokers are showing an interest in the program. "We're eager to work with brokers and help them enhance their revenue stream from their existing book of business," he says.

Many brokers have learned about the benefit after one of their employer clients enrolls in the DreamTrips Corporate Benefits Program, says Wolchik. "That gets the broker's attention: 'Wait a minute, there's somebody selling something to my customer that I might be able to sell to my other customers? Let me look into that,'" he says.

Like most voluntary products, Wolchik says the vacation benefit is one that has to actively be sold to clients. "You really need to get out, meet the customers, help the business owner understand the value to the business and then help the employees understand that their boss really does value them, really does appreciate their work and dedication and wants them to have a quality back in their life away from work," he says.

Quigley markets the vacation benefit as a complement to her clients' core benefit packages that can be used strategically by employers. "If they have wellness programs that they're trying to get people to participate in, maybe the company pays for the vacation benefit for the employee if they participate in so many" wellness activities, she says.

Dr. Timothy Gordon is an ophthalmologist and has been the practice owner of Columbia Eye Associates in Columbia, Tenn., for 20 years. Gordon signed his 14 employees up for DreamTrips about three months ago after meeting with a Rovia representative. Not knowing what to expect, he's paying for the benefit himself, around $20 a month per employee. "It's been well received by the employees," says Gordon.

A few of the Columbia Eye Associates employees have already checked out the DreamTrips Web site, but none have signed up for a trip yet. Gordon expects them to take advantage of the program for spring break and summer vacations.

The only downside to DreamTrips, says Gordon, is that the trips are at a specific time and place, so he's encouraging his employees to check the Web site every few weeks to find a trip that works for their needs. Rovia's Wolchik says the company is always adding new vacation packages and taking recommendations for future trips. Vacations range from getaways near home to international travel, cruises and family adventures across the country.

In the future, Gordon hopes to use DreamTrips to create a quarterly incentive program for his employees to pitch in money for an employee of the month or other reward and have the recipient apply the money toward their vacation.

There's no shortage of discount programs in the voluntary benefits world, but not many that will provide a real return on investment for the employer, says Wolchik.

"What's the value to the business other than the potential for the employees to feel good because they get some discounts because they work there? With this program, if we can actually help the employer and employee understand the value of having real balance in their life, pursuing wellness, then it can make a real difference in the employee's engagement with the employer - and that affects the bottom line," he says.

Quigley has seen the difference. "Companies that I'm calling on have already gone through the whole gamut of voluntary benefits but they have a distinct interest in this because it is different," she says. "And I can't tell you the positive message that it sends to employees when a company offers this benefit."


Combating cutbacks

Besides the fact that he likes to travel himself, Gordon was drawn to the vacation benefit idea for its potential to be an ongoing morale boost, not just a one-time bonus. "With health benefits being kind of up in the air as far as what employers can give employees, I felt like it may be a good opportunity for them to access less expensive vacations," he says.

Although he hasn't cut back on employee benefits, Gordon hasn't increased them either. Since his books are heavy with Medicare patients, there hasn't been a raise in ophthalmology fees in years. "In years past we were able to give people more of an increase in salary," he says. The vacation benefit "was very well received because they had no idea that was even available."

As his sales force gains more market experience, Rovia's Wolchik is seeing an increasing number of employers, like Gordon, opt to pay for the benefit entirely or at least subsidize it. One of his sales people recently met with the owner of business who figured out the cost to be 12 cents an hour per employee. "It's so little money that if you gave it to them as a raise it would make them angry," says Wolchik. "But when he gave [the vacation benefit] to them he said it was shocking to see them so ecstatic. Not that it was at his expense so much but what he saw from them was that it gave them hope that they could really take a vacation. He said what he got back in goodwill from his employees was more than he could ever have hoped for."


Stress reliever

Whether it's intentional or not, many employees feel their employer doesn't want them to take a vacation or are nervous to ask for the time off. Quigley points out that when an employer offers the vacation benefit they're sending the message that they want their employees to actually take a vacation. With stress being the driver of so many other conditions that are often targeted by traditional wellness programs - diabetes, weight, smoking - taking a vacation is a way to lessen that load, she says.

Take the following stats from one DreamTrips brochure: Because Americans don't use an average of four days of their vacation time, according to WebMD, it would appear that employers gain an estimated $76 billion. However, Dr. Mel Borins points out in Go Away, Just for the Health of It, that worker burnout leads employers to lose as much as $7 for every dollar they get when an employee doesn't take a vacation.

"It's counter-intuitive. You would just automatically think if my employees continue to work I'm getting basically free labor because they're not using their vacation," says Wolchik. "How could that be a bad thing? But the statistics are there. You lose productivity because people get burned out."

Quigley calls the vacation benefit "the original wellness program" that a lot of employers have simply forgotten about. "My mission is to educate them on the value of getting their employees to really take vacations," she says.

What Quigley likes about DreamTrips is how it makes the planning process of a vacation virtually stress-free since the trips are already put together and the pricing has already been shopped. At first she thought, 'Why wouldn't someone just go to a Web site like Travelocity or Orbitz to save on a vacation?' But when she went to make the comparison, "I was the one having to go back and forth between Travelocity and all the other sites and by the time I'd get back to the better price on one it was already gone," says Quigley.

The benefit is an "immediate morale booster," she says. "Let's face it, when you come back from a vacation you've let off some of that stress and you're more productive. Even when you're getting ready and thinking about a vacation you're in a better mood."

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