How embracing offbeat holidays increases guest, team engagement

Playing with rubber ducks may seem childish, but that might be why it's a hit with guests on National Rubber Duck Day. Photo credit: Getty/Juha Remes

There’s no denying it—holidays are important in the hospitality industry. It has become industry standard to celebrate the major holidays by helping to spread some cheer for guests who can’t be at home. But what about the hundreds of holidays every year that are hardly recognized? Now, that’s a gold mine of opportunity for keeping our guests and team members engaged year round.

For our hotel—the Hilton Garden Inn Cherry Creek in Denver—we started a tradition of celebrating the nontraditional holidays after seeing the effects of the post-holiday blues written on the faces of guests and team members. It’s predictable. We can see it every January as we watch guests come in and out of the hotel.

The first “holiday” we found worthy of celebration was National Rubber Ducky Day. For a full week in January, we set up a series of events for our guests. We ordered hundreds of rubber ducks. Some were dressed in costume, some of them were different colors. We loved the assortment.

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Next, we put messages on the bottom of the ducks—a free appetizer at the bar, a bottle of wine sent to the room, free Hilton Honors points—and we place the ducks around the hotel in hiding spots. This can be anything from a duck “exercising” on a treadmill to a duck wearing a robe while lounging in the spa room. Guests are encouraged to find the ducks throughout the week in order to claim their free gifts.

It’s a win-win for all involved. Our team members enjoy scouting the hiding spots and coming up with creative ways of displaying the ducks, while the guests enjoy finding them and receiving prizes. We even include baskets decked out with rubber ducks to our most loyal guests.

On Jan. 13, the actual National Rubber Ducky Day, we have a “Floating of the Ducks,” during which we invite guests to the pool area to watch as we “release” the hundreds of ducks into the pool, where they remain for the rest of the week. We’ve found that the kids really enjoy playing with the ducks... and it brings a smile to our faces, too.

The Hilton Garden Inn in Denver released hundreds of rubber ducks into its on-property pool, all for a laugh. Photo credit: Hilton

At first, the team was skeptical that the guests would engage. In fact, it has been such a hit that we’ve seen improvement in our guest survey scores around the dates of these “wacky” holidays that we celebrate. After beginning our Rubber Ducky Day celebration in 2015, we saw our overall service scores increase by more than 17 percent the following month.

What spawned from this celebration has been a series of fun events arranged by our hotel in order to keep our guests smiling and coming back. We’ve since expanded the “wacky” holidays that we celebrate.

For example, we celebrate National Gumdrop Day in February, which focuses on engaging with our team members. We came up with this event idea after celebrating a similar event around Christmas, during which we have each of the departments at the hotel (i.e., sales, housekeeping, management) make gingerbread houses, and the most creative wins a prize.

With this in mind, on National Gumdrop Day we buy hundreds of gumdrops and host a competition among the teams at our hotel. We tell them to come up with the most creative design they can think of, made entirely out of gumdrops. Once the teams are finished, we put their designs out in the lobby and ask our guests to vote for the one they find the most creative. It always gets a laugh.

Another popular holiday we’ve initiated is National Doughnut Day in June. We celebrate with a wall of doughnuts... literally. We use glazed and chocolate doughnuts, and put them on a wall. Nearby, we display a table of condiments to encourage guests to decorate their own doughnut. We put out everything we can think of—cereal toppings, sprinkles, gummy worms—you name it.

Hotels don't have to take guests cliff diving or horseback riding to tap into "experiential travel." Providing activities such as doughnut decorating and gumdrop construction qualify. Photo credit: Getty/sercansamanci

Every year, we continue to add to the roster of holidays we celebrate. Whether tied to local happenings, like “Orange Crush” day for the Denver Broncos, where we give each guest a plastic football and a can of Orange Crush soda; “Monkey Around” Day, when our housekeeping team members make monkey figures out of towels and place them around guestrooms; or a more serious community engagement like our Wounded Warrior Project bake sale, we are constantly brainstorming unique ways to involve our guests.

Stonebridge Companies, the developer, owner and operator of our hotel, chooses a charity every year for the company to support. Last year, it was Wounded Warrior Project that spawned the aforementioned bake sale. For 2018, the property leaders chose the American Cancer Society. We seek to balance the fun and lighthearted celebrations with efforts that also focus on giving back and engaging the community.

At the end of the day, if we can get a smile—from guest or team member—then I feel confident we are sustaining the distinguished hospitality that each of the Stonebridge hotels strives to provide for guests and team members.

We have fun brainstorming the events, and our guests have fun as they participate. Who knows what we will think of next? The wackier the better, our mantra stands.

Eric Hautzenrader, is a GM at ownership, management and hospitality company Stonebridge Companies. Hautzenrader is in charge of the Hilton Garden Inn Cherry Creek in Denver.

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