Engaging employees with experiences

Enlightened companies know the importance of rewarding their good performers. An employee who feels appreciated and whose hard work is recognised is far more likely to be loyal and continue to be a valuable member of the organisation.

So rewarding — and hence motivating — staff by giving corporate gifts or premiums has become relatively standard practice globally. But what form those premiums take is changing. While a neatly wrapped trinket might be appreciated by some, getting the right item can be fraught with difficulties.

Uninspiring gifts that are not cherished and quickly forgotten fail to deliver the desired impact. Instead, they can end up being counter-productive. Balancing the desires of male and female staff, 
finding something suitably premium on a budget and avoiding the clichés of unwanted paperweights are all pitfalls of corporate gifts.

So, it isn’t surprising that offering experiences instead of physical gifts is a growing trend in corporate premiums. In Europe and the US, it’s long been standard practice to offer experiences and it is starting to gain ground in Asia-Pacific.

Storing memories

Red Balloon is Australia’s leading experiences company and is part of the Global Experience, an alliance of experience providers across the world. The corporate experiences market is more mature in Australia, and Red Balloon’s publicist Philippa Lowe explains the psychology behind the trend.

“Self-storage is a fast growing industry in Australia as people are hoarding so much ‘stuff’. But if we think about it, we can’t take it with us. It’s the memories, the stories and our shared moments that we hold close. When we reflect on our lives, experiences form the bulk of what we remember. So for corporate gifts, acknowledging your team with an experience that they will then talk about round the water cooler has great advantages. Other team members hear about it and want to experience something similar, which is great for team building. The team member feels rewarded and recognised in an appropriate, meaningful way. It means more, knowing that your employer has taken the time to discover you’ve always wanted to swim with whale sharks rather than give you a branded cap, umbrella or bottle of wine.”

In Hong Kong, two operators entering this world are Live It and Spoilt. Live It 
Hong Kong set up in 2010 as a joint venture between Swedish-based Live It Group and Tioba and is run by partner and managing director, Louise Westerlind. It offers a range of experiences from adventure sailing and parachuting to perfumery and magic lessons.

“Experiences are unique and enable companies to stand out from those who give gifts such as hampers, wine and chocolate. They offer something for everyone from lifestyle experiences to adventurous ones. And because we offer an option to add a sleeve with a company logo and/or message, as well as a written message in the gift voucher, they are useful for brand building,” says Westerlind.

Spoilt was set up in February 2010 and its managing director, Michelle Lam, points to how experiences are being used for top-performing employees and the most loyal clients. “Particularly for very high-end gift recipients, giving experiences leaves a greater impression than physical gifts because they are such a new concept. They can have a much more personal touch and you are giving someone a great day out which will leave a great memory.”


Choosing the experience

Care is needed when selecting experiences. Cultural and religious sensibilities need to be taken into consideration. Westerlind says: “While companies in Hong Kong spend lots of money on corporate gifts and branding, companies in China might still be at a phase where staff, key customers and clients might be rewarded and recognised with fancy meals. In Hong Kong, it’s all about doing things fast and it’s quicker to outsource the gift-giving rather than taking time to sit down for meals.”

So if companies are tempted by the idea of offering experiences, how do they go about choosing the right one? Experiences typically range from those geared toward adrenaline junkies like motor-racing, parachuting and flying lessons to those who prefer to be pampered and spoilt with the likes of spa days, treatments and exotic dinners. But wine tasting, cookery lessons and horse riding also offer the recipient a learning experience.

Westerlind says that when Live It is helping companies select rewards they try to find out as much as they can about the client before making any suggestions. Factors that then influence the choice of experience include: budget, gender, seniority and the company’s message.

And if selecting a specific gift is problematic, then instead of a gift certificate for a specific experience you can always opt for vouchers so the recipient can exchange them for the experience of their choice. Live It vouchers, for example, start at HK$250 (US$32).

Red Balloon recommends getting each employee to create a “wish list” of the experiences they like. “Then, it becomes easier to pick a meaningful gift,” says Lowe. It too offers vouchers but also runs a more sophisticated reward and recognition programme where reward points can be accrued and then redeemed against Red Balloon experiences. For example, a manager could have a bank of points which he can use to reward their team for great work, and where AS$1 (US$1.07) = 1 point.

Lam of Spoilt Hong Kong adds: “It does depend how well the gift-giver knows the recipient. Employee incentive gifts are often prizes given out at company events or for winners in performance-based competitions, so the intended recipient is not clear. Then companies often use gift cards that can be redeemed against a number of different experiences. For client gifts, companies often want to develop a good relationship with a specific client and they like to choose gifts that appeal directly to the interests and hobbies of the recipient. For example, if your client has a young family, you might choose something the whole family can enjoy.”

The standout achieved by offering experiences, often once-in-a-lifetime events that will stay with the person forever, is unique. But as many companies have to watch their budgets some may worry that experiences will be too costly. Yet with such a variety of options now available, there should be an experience for every budget. More importantly, the wow factor that comes with an experience will go a long way to building long-standing and loyal relationships, and the benefits of this can be difficult to quantify.

“There is a certain luxury feeling about experiences. Physical gifts are generally seen as common while gift experiences are seen as something new and fresh — and therefore more valuable,” says Westerlind.

Infancy stage

Fiona Yuen, marketing manager at TaDa! – a Hong Kong-based experience operator – says that in Asia it is more important to consider the packaging as first impressions are more important than in Europe. “Asians like the gift box to be customised as they feel it’s more sincere,” she adds.

TaDa! is offering corporate experiences alongside consumer ones. It has a portfolio of more than 300 activities, venues and options classified in six themes: Zen, Delicious, Excite, Escape, Life and Occasion.

Westerlind of Live It Hong Kong describes the take-up of experience corporate premiums in Asia as still being in the “educational phase”. “Corporate clients might start with just a couple of gift experience orders but quickly become repeat customers (both as corporate customers and as individuals). Hopefully, we will also have the same customers coming back for the big gift-giving periods of Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas and Lunar New Year,” she adds.

Yuen believes offering experiences with prestigious names attached is helping to grow the business. With top-of-the-class partners including the InterContinental, Grand Hyatt Macau, Peninsula, Elemis Spa and Michelin restaurant Ming Court, the level of high-end service guaranteed is proving a draw for many.

Meanwhile in Australia, which is further down the experiences path than most parts of Asia, Red Balloon now has 1,800 corporate clients. These cover both global and locally owned businesses. And this gives a taste of just how big this market could become if Asian companies see the full potential of experience corporate premiums.



Renowned hospitality provider IHG knows that without the efforts of its 330,000 employees, customers would not keep returning to fill the guestrooms or restaurants day after day, year in and 
year out.

So, to show appreciation for the long hours and steadfast commitment rendered by hotel-based staff and corporate executives, the company conducted the global initiative dubbed “Celebrate Service Week”.

This year, the programme ran from June 20 to 26, kicking off with an International Olympics Day, which saw thousands of IHG employees compete for fun in activities from egg-and-spoon races to football matches.

At IHG’s Singapore headquarters, lines between top and lower management blurred as bosses served lunch – actually preparing local delights such as kueh pati, rojak, mee siam and chendol for dessert – for their junior colleagues. That was not the end of the pampering. In the days that followed, the staff enjoyed a series of breakfast choices (again served by their managers who pushed the trolley around the office), massage therapies and manicures, high tea, karaoke sessions – all capped off 
with a “movie night”, which they attended with their family members.

In Shanghai, the Greater China management team invited some 100 Service Stars from various properties around the city for an “awards lunch”. The honoured frontliners received a specially designed crystal trophy, while 15 of them were singled out as “outstanding employees” and received a VIP package to attend the 2012 London Olympics with accommodation at the Holiday Inn.

Margie T Logarta

Dos & Don’ts

  • Ensure that your experience gift strikes the right note with the intended recipient.
  • Take the time to consider the right gift.
  • Spend a little time personalising your gift choice, whether it’s a personalised message or a themed experience.
  • When it is hard to choose which experience to pick for a recipient, choose a “gift voucher”.
  • Take care with the experiences: some may only be suitable for certain individuals so avoid insulting anyone (for example, an alcohol-related experience would be inappropriate for some religions).
  • Make sure there is flexibility in exchanging the experience, just in case.
  • Pay attention to the packaging: the experience starts from the moment it is opened.
  • Remember you can make special requests such as corporate branded packaging or special delivery arrangements.
  • Ensure there is a sufficient period of validity (up to 12 months), so there is flexibility in when the experience can be taken.





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