Casino magnate Steve Wynn is known in Las Vegas for a lot of things, but thinking small is definitely not one of them.
Wynn was at a February 2006 auction in support of Keep Memory Alive, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the fight against Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, ALS, and memory disorders, when the opportunity to bid on an exclusive, five-night Caribbean cruise aboard the 110-passenger super-yacht Sea Dream materialized.
Figuring it would make an irresistible reward for the highest of high rollers at his newest casino, Wynn Las Vegas, Wynn bid a whopping $750,000 and scooped it up.
But how he would ultimately use the trip was turned inside out when his wife, Elaine, and some friends took a cruise on the Sea Dream in December 2006.
“They decided that this was so incredible and such an amazing experience that the only thing that rivaled that type of experience is the service that our employees give our guests on a daily basis,” says Dawn Hume, executive director of special events at 2-year-old Wynn Las Vegas. “So they wanted the stars of our company — we call them our Stars of the Month — to be treated the way they treat guests every day. And they thought, ‘What better way to do it?’”
A gala dinner — which most Las Vegas casinos do to honor their top employees — no longer seemed special enough. What if, the Wynns thought, we use the trip to reward them instead? And so, the “Sea Dream Yacht Club” incentive trip, held April 1-7, was rolled out a month after Elaine returned.
Figuring it wouldn't be much fun for the 12 stars to go alone, it was decided they could invite a guest along. But that wasn't the end of Wynn's largesse: Realizing that some employees couldn't afford the appropriate wardrobe and accoutrements for such a luxurious journey, he set up a clothes shopping budget for each winner and arranged for a personal shopper to guide them through the process.
Even better, the winners — who included a villa butler, a guest room attendant, a retail sales associate, an assistant to a vice president, a performer in the La Rev show, an engineer, and a casino dealer — only knew that they had been named a “Star of the Month” and thought they would be rewarded with a traditional banquet.
The Sea Dream's guest capacity is 110 (the crew numbers 95), so planners, led by Hume, had the tough job of deciding who — in addition to the 12 monthly winners and their 12 guests — would be invited to cruise.
“We started looking at ways to reward the nominators, because they had to put a lot of time and energy and effort into nominating the person, not to mention that you hope that birds of a feather flock together — that if it's a good supervisor, they have good employees, and vice versa,” Hume says.
Nominating supervisors would be invited, each with a guest. Then Hume decided to add a key person from that department, so that the winner's “big boss” was included and could help celebrate if his or her finalist was named Employee of the Year.
That brought the tally to 72 people.
The rest would come from the ranks of the same people who provide services in the hotel, including a travel expert, a corporate lawyer, and the personal shopper who assisted the winners in assembling their cruising wardrobes. The casino also sent a photographer, a videographer, and a video editor, who worked through the entire cruise so that the company could make a video presentation each night. Wynn even sent the head of golf operations to take the winners to play golf when they were on the islands.
“We brought along our staff travel expert to ensure that nothing went wrong,” Hume says, “and when I tell you nothing went wrong, not a bag was lost, not a person missed a flight, not a passport was overlooked. Nothing went wrong.”
In Wynn Las Vegas' Star of the Month program, each department nominates someone whom it believes is an exemplary employee. A committee listens to the department head's pitch and ultimately decides who will be the monthly winner; each is announced and feted at a luncheon. Winners receive cash prizes and dinners or show tickets. Their pictures are plastered all over the back of house and the company's intranet. And then, of course, there was the usual banquet.
Not this year. “The finalists and their supervisors were invited to a reception on a Friday afternoon. Nobody knew what our plan was,” Hume says. “The supervisors didn't know why they were being invited to this meeting. They just figured they had some role to play. We had Caribbean music playing in the background, and we had appetizers that were sort of in theme with food from that region, including a virgin daiquiri bar. But they really didn't understand why that was all in place.”
The president of the hotel, Andrew Pascal, stood up and made a deliberately boring PowerPoint presentation about the Star of the Month program. Then the room suddenly went dark, and the organizers pretended that there was a technical glitch. Abruptly, a video with the theme song from “The Love Boat” began playing, but instead of the faces of Capt. Merrill Stubing and cruise director Julie McCoy, Pascal and Hume were on the screen. A photograph of each nominee with the month that they had won appeared, concluding with a picture of the Sea Dream and a single line of text: “Setting Sail April 1-7, 2007.”
The room was completely silent.
“That's right,” Pascal said. “We're sending all of our Star of the Month finalists on this trip!”
A short video sales pitch about the yacht followed, and Pascal said, “You may have noticed that they said, ‘There are 55 staterooms’ and there are only 12 of you. We tried to figure out who was going to fill those other rooms. Well, look around you. Everybody in this room is going on the trip!”
Almost as exciting as the trip was the shopping spree. “We gave the personal shopper credit cards and had her take every nominee and their guest on a shopping trip to get them fully equipped,” Hume says. “We had a limit that they were allowed to spend, and she never went over on any person, and these people were dressed from head to toe: new hats, new swimsuits, new shorts, new tennis shoes — whatever it was. We knew that to make these purchases themselves [would be a hardship], and we didn't want them to be uncomfortable about being on the ship for a week and the places they were going to go and the things they were going to do. We wanted them to be able to take pictures and be comfortable and have fresh jammies and tennis shoes and water shoes and all the things that you and I would go out and secure if we were going on a major vacation.”
One man who works in the public area department pushing a vacuum and picking up trash was completely overwhelmed just by the shopping experience. He took the clothes that his personal shopper selected for him into the dressing room, and he didn't come out for a long time. The shopper waited and waited, finally knocking on the door.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
He finally came out in a linen shirt, pants, hat, and shoes, and stood in front of the mirror, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“What's the matter?”
“I've never looked this good. Ever,” he said. “I've never felt this important. I've never looked this good.”
Only the winners received the shopping trip. They also received limo trips from home to the airport and back again when it was over.
Planners also tried to think of anything and everything that would prohibit the winners from having a good time — and were empowered to take care of it.
“If they said to us, ‘I have a cat or a dog and I don't know who's going to take care of it,’ we paid for pet boarding,” Hume says. “Anything within reason, anything that would give them an excuse that they couldn't attend, we took care of it, including passports and luggage and everything. If they said, ‘I have a child; I need a grandparent to come from Nebraska to watch my kid so I can go,’ we paid for the airplane ticket. If they said, ‘I'm not comfortable with my body if I'm going to be wearing a swimsuit — I want to work out for the next two months,’ we paid for their gym membership.”
The philosophy behind it all, says Hume: “All year long, you give our guests world-class service. You deserve a taste of it yourself.”
Starting with the group's first proper day on the ship, every night a big cocktail party was held in the salon. Two finalists were recognized the first night, and three every night thereafter. The hotel president spoke about each individual, and then a video was shown with comments about each nominee from co-workers or family members. Whoever was featured that evening was seated at the president's table, so he had an opportunity to have dinner with them one-on-one. He also attempted to share in an activity with that winner during the day, whether it was riding a catamaran or flying on a zipline through the jungle.
Retention is one measure of a successful corporate incentive, and no one who won the Wynn Las Vegas super yacht cruise has yet left the company.
But a more significant measure of the incentive's success is how it affects performance every day. “It's doing what it was meant to do: forcing supervisors to really look at what their people are doing right instead of what they're doing wrong and acknowledging them for that,” says Hume. “We are hearing incredible stories. One chef made a special recipe for a man whose wife had just died; it was something she used to make for him, and he hadn't had it since his wife died. Another woman saved the life of someone who was having a heart attack.”
She can't say for sure what the next event will be, but employees are expecting something special. “We didn't say, ‘This is the annual program,’ but people anticipate that we will do something amazing, something to rival what we did last year.”
And every day, the trip continues to work its magic on the Stars of the Month, such as executive secretary Lynn Newby.
“It was perfect,” she says. “I felt so spoiled. The islands were beautiful. And the last day was extraordinary. The crew set up a beautiful beach lunch and the captain and his crew — from the waist up, they were in uniform [with bathing suits underneath] — served us champagne and caviar in the water. You couldn't believe anyone could dream this up. It makes you want to strive even harder to make the company successful, to help Mr. Wynn in his dream. Mr. Wynn takes care of you. You work hard, do your best, and something like this can happen? What an incentive.”