August 26, 2014

Surprise! Creating guest surprises is harder than it looks…

Last Christmas, the Canadian airline WestJet surprised a plane full of arriving passengers at baggage claim by delivering fully wrapped gifts they had just specifically requested from “Santa” only hours before at their departure gate.  (If you haven’t seen that video, grab some tissues and watch it here.)

To date, the WestJet Christmas Miracle video has received nearly 40 million views on YouTube, making it the envy of hospitality marketers around the world.  Marketers – and their CEO bosses – watched longingly as the media attention spotlight on WestJet grew brighter and the video view count grew higher, and they all had the same thought:  I want a “WestJet video” for MY brand.

Alas, most of them are likely to retire with “I wish I had a WestJet video” still on their career bucket list, and here’s why:  surprises – especially of that magnitude – are bloody hard work.

Pulling off a surprise like that requires precision timing, which requires a recipe of planning, staffing, money, creativity, and problem solving.  You cannot fumble at the goal line.  You cannot plan a “partial surprise.”  You can’t get the timing “almost right.”  You get ONE SHOT.  So you have to make it count, or every bit of investment you put into it is a big ol’ waste.

This leaves no wiggle room for indecision, executive in-fighting, budget paralysis, miscommunication, or distraction from the focus.  And that’s a lot to ask of ANY brand, at ANY size.  That “little” five minute video required four months of singular planning attention, 150 WestJet employees, an extraordinary budget, and extensive marketing resources in two cities.  Such a level of orchestration deserves every bit of brand-envy it receives, because marketers worth their salt know it’s a rare phenomenon.

To determine if your brand has what it takes to successfully leverage the magic of surprise – at any level – ask yourself…

  • Do we embrace fun?
  • Do all our in-house departments work together harmoniously, and if not…can they?
  • Are we comfortable taking risks?
  • Are we willing to spend unanticipated money if needed to protect the surprise all the way to the finish line?
  • Do we complete our regular, non-surprise-oriented projects on time, and with precision?

If the answer to any of those questions was “no,” then you should think twice before investing a ton of resources into planning a one-shot-deal surprise for your guests.  You will save yourself a lot of misery (and money) by using other tools in your marketing toolbox instead.

Parting tip:  If you ARE planning to create a big surprise, keep this in mind…the bigger and cooler the surprise, the higher the bar is set for next time.  Case in point:  for my keynote address at the Vermont Travel Industry Conference in April, Redpoint surprised the audience of 250 people with beer, pretzels, costume accessories, and a New Orleans style jazz band (watch the trailer).  Two months later, the Vermont Ski Areas Association wanted a similar surprise for their annual conference…but what fun would it be to orchestrate the same surprise?  So Redpoint cajoled the kind folks at Ben & Jerry’s to create an exclusive ice cream flavor – Vermont Powder – just for that conference, and we delivered it to the audience in a surprise moment punctuated by a song we “wrote.” (Watch the Hot Sardines perform that song here.)

It was all great fun, and we had a blast doing it.  But now people start to salivate the moment they hear that I’m the keynote speaker, and (sorry, mom) it ain’t because they think I’m pretty.  Lesson learned:  human nature = “oooh, what’s next?”

Ah, well.  Redpoint is up to the challenge.  Save your pity for WestJet…they have to top way more than beer and ice cream.