It wasn't the rain so much as the wind

Sandwiched between two picture-perfect days last fall, a storm whipped through rural Georgia, pelting the team from Marriott Individual Incentives as it refurbished a tiny town's rundown park. The wind stole paint from brushes and pressed ponchos against damp faces and freshly painted surfaces.

“The weather really threw down the gauntlet,” recalls MaryJean Spencer, a sales manager for the group. “It was amazing to see the whole team say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can lick this.’”

The event, part of the 2006 Marriott Individual Incentives Customer Forum at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., was a far cry from years past. Every year, after the customers head home, the Marriott team — including employees from retail and B-to-B sales, as well as customer service and fulfillment — extends its stay for a day of bonding. In 2005, the group played at rounding up cattle City Slickers-style in Tucson, and in 2004, made its own custom-blended wine in Sonoma.

So what were they doing in the Deep South, digging holes in the driving rain?

“We needed something different,” recalls Peggy Whitman, CITE, senior manager, western U.S. regional sales office, with Marriott Individual Incentives. “I really wanted something new, cutting-edge, and meaningful.”

Meaningful was particularly important. The team needed something to draw them together after a difficult year. David Riddell, vice president of incentive and gift card marketing for Marriott International and the literal as well as psychic center of the group, had died just two months earlier, in August 2006, after a long, public battle with cancer.

“There are almost no words. It was devastating to lose him,” says Traci Samalis, Midwest regional sales manager. “Working with David was the happiest time in my career. He was the epitome of what I thought a good leader should be.”

Riddell is often credited with developing the individual incentives industry, spearheading Marriott's entry into individual certificate sales, and growing the division into one of the company's most successful businesses. “David was a visionary,” Whitman says. “He was our leader, our mentor, and our friend.”

Riddell was very sick for a year before he died, during which time the team was forced to keep up the pace despite the loss of his leadership. “Although we felt we were doing well, staying focused on the business without him and dealing with our grief independently, we also were experiencing dysfunctions as a team,” says Sharon Waters, director of sales and marketing. Adds Whitman, “As David couldn't be in touch with the business, people started working in silos … Suddenly, the center of our universe was gone.”

Enter Integrity

The group turned to Lucy Eisele. Since launching Integrity Incentives, Big Lake, Minn., in 2005, Eisele has put a special focus on creating unique, heartfelt community service projects. Her meticulous planning starts in an unorthodox way. Rather than contacting local community development or service organizations, she starts by renting a car and driving around the target area, often finding communities that aren't expecting any assistance and perhaps aren't even aware of how much they need it.

To track down a suitable project for the Marriott group, she had to travel a ways from the Ritz-Carlton's upscale lakefront community. She eventually came across a park that had fallen into terrible disrepair in tiny Buckhead, Ga. (population 200 and not to be confused with the tony Atlanta suburb 75 miles west), about 45 minutes from the resort. Combining that with the availability of talented local artist Eugene Swain, she knew she had hit upon the magic combination of culture and need for the event, dubbed “Community Giving for Community Gathering.”

“I always want to have twists and turns that all tie back together,” Eisele says, explaining that all of her projects — she has done dozens — must include local color and local culture as well as a community need.

Eisele also insists on including members of the local community wherever possible. The 23-member Marriott team was joined by a dozen Buckhead natives, including Mayor Gail Wade and members of the city council. “Working with the community tugged at our heartstrings,” Whitman says. “Now there's someone you want to please.”

Together, the group painted barbecue pits and built park benches. Eisele divided everyone into teams, putting together people who don't often see each other. The “Rock & Rollers” were responsible for painting and staining, the “Preppies” did prep work, and the “Indestructables” built park benches and picnic tables. Everyone agreed that the toughest job was on the “Wacky-Yard Crew,” who had to leave the picnic shelter, where everyone else worked, to plant shrubs, trees, and plants. Meanwhile, artist Swain was painting a commissioned mural.

For all of Eisele's planning, one area was left out, intentionally. While teams each knew what they had to accomplish, there were no instructions on exactly how to complete the tasks. That created some confusion at first, but Spencer says she was amazed at how quickly people organized themselves. “It wasn't like there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We were all Indians.”

Despite the driving rain and wind, spirits were bolstered by a local disc jockey, who kept the group engaged with banter and dedications. “Everybody was singing, and we just got kinda goofy,” Samalis says. “You would have thought we were a bunch of 5-year-olds.”

When the exhausted, muddy team trooped back to the Ritz-Carlton that evening, one last surprise was waiting for them — an original painting by Eugene Swain. “Most of us were moved to tears by the paintings,” Spencer says. “They were so indicative of the area.”

The one thing they couldn't accomplish, with the weather worsening, was the placement of a plaque dedicated to Riddell. The city council members promised they would take care of it, and so they did. When the Marriott group returned this past April, holding a sales meeting in the area specifically so they could see the results of their handiwork, the bushes and flowers they planted were in bloom, and Riddell's plaque held a place of honor in the park.

“It was a little bit of closure for us,” Samalis says. “Everything we do every day is with David in our hearts and minds, in how we handle things and how we move forward. He would have been so proud of us.”

First David Riddell Scholarship

The International SITE Foundation has chosen the first recipient of the David Riddell Memorial Scholarship: Aniko Takacs from Budapest, Hungary. Takacs is an incentive coordinator for Aktiv Tours Budapest. She will receive complimentary transportation, accommodations, and registration for the SITE International Conference in Monterey, Calif., December 6-9.

Award Winner

In April, Lucy Eisele, Integrity Incentives, was recognized with the 2007 IMEX Commitment to the Community Award for designing Marriott's teambuilding event. Projects are evaluated on several criteria, including suitability, creativity, and sustainability. At the awards dinner, IMEX Operations and Marketing Director Carina Bauer said, “The clear sense of satisfaction and warmth gained through working closely with the local community made this project stand out. The team appreciated making new friends while also being generous with their time and energy.”