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Hilton Hotels’ Brilliant PR: How the Brand Used Humor Online to Boost Web Traffic, Facebook Fans and Headlines

By Talia Sinkinson, Editor, Media Relations, Bulldog Reporter

How can PR pros create highly sharable content that keeps their brand name front and center? If you’re looking to reach consumers online—whether they’re millennials, Baby Boomers, teens or others—you need to generate digital media that drives engagement andhooks to your brand every time. Rob Palleschi, global head, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, oversees Hilton Worldwide’s flagship brand and leads a portfolio of more than 550 hotels and resorts across six continents. He is a master of strategic content marketing and led the team that won Gold in “Best Use of the Internet – Consumer” and an Honorable Mention in “Best Travel, Hospitality & Destinations Campaign” at the 2014 Bulldog Media Relations Awards. In the case study below, he reveals how one all-star campaign leveraged humor, visuals and entertainment to build a new brand story online and in real life. Read on for the many ways Hilton moved messages across consumer and media platforms to fully capture the attention of its new target audience and build recognition for the Hilton name.

The Challenge: Turn the brand story from professional to fun. Hilton’s team knew the brand was most commonly associated with business travel among young professionals. When they looked to grow sales as a leisure travel destination, they studied a survey about how the British workforce used their annual allowance. The study of 2,000 workers in the U.K. revealed Britain’s workforce was experiencing a holiday deficit—a shift away from the traditional workweek and typical annual and seasonal vacations. This shift sparked the idea of "vacationitis," defined by Hilton Hotels & Resorts as "a fictitious disease affecting overstressed workers around the world, incapable of taking long- or short-term breaks.”

As the PR pros sought to center a campaign around “vacationitis,” they encountered two main challenges going in. Palleschi explains:

  • “We needed to convince our already loyal customer base of travelling professionals to view the brand in a new light, and increase their awareness of the brand’s leisure offerings and wider association with leisure, particularly with U.S., U.K, and Latin American consumers.” 
  • “January through March is traditionally a weaker travel period. The brand understood the challenge this posed in encouraging consumers to book travel during this timeframe, while also convincing them that taking a break or a vacation could be good for them.”

To overcome these hurdles, Hilton brainstormed relevant ways to introduce Hilton as a champion of vacations to the brand’s core demographic over the course of about six months.

The Strategy: Hinge on humor. “The target audience for ‘Vacationitis’ was young professionals,” says Palleschi. “Knowing this demographic is constantly exposed to media and oversaturated with content, we decided to take a different approach by getting their attention with an element of surprise. We worked with our internal and external partners to create a funny campaign that featured the tongue-in-cheek interactive microsite, Hilton Urgent Vacation Care Center.” The site featured a vacation diagnostic test that determined how "sick" visitors were and gave them custom prescriptions that involved stays at Hilton Hotels & Resorts properties around the globe.

Aim high with top-tier, traditional media. To further the humorous strategy, Hilton partnered with satire news organization The Onion and Onion Labs to develop 14 cartoon illustrations that depicted the symptoms of Vacationitis among ailing working professionals. These socially shareable assets were downloadable on the website and then incorporated into an e-book distributed to key media contacts following the campaign launch.

“We approached The Onion knowing our goal was to engage our target audience through humor,” Palleschi notes. “With The Onion being a respected satirical news outlet with a readership in sync with our target audience, we thought this was a perfect fit.  Also, our hope was The Onion’s own audience would share the Hilton Urgent Vacation Care Center website with peers as they are at the younger end of the Hilton demographic. We knew this was the up-and-coming sector of travelers we wanted to target with this campaign.”

The Hilton team also approached The New York Times to do an exclusive on Hilton’s partnership with The Onion. The result was a feature article in print and online. “The article was picked up by other top-tier media, giving us a great cadence of coverage to kick-off the campaign,” he adds.

Grow the brand’s fan-base with guerilla-style tactics. The campaign website was supported by guerilla-style activations that drove web traffic and injected some fun into the lives of young professionals:

  • A pop-up stunt in London helped Londoners fight back against Blue Monday—allegedly be the most depressing day of the year—and promoted the Hilton sweepstakes, “Any Weekend, Anywhere.” Models in swimsuits distributed promotional materials, computer booths allowed people to take the Vacationitis quiz. Blue Monday/Vacationitis Remedy drinks were created onsite, and a well-known psychologist served as spokesperson. In addition, Hilton used the event as a news peg to release the U.K. survey.
  • To encourage audiences to use vacation days before they expired in Q4, Hilton leveraged brand ambassadors, also known as Hilton “Doctors,” to raise awareness of Vacationitis and its symptoms, and encourage people to think about using their remaining vacation time during the brand-declared International “Use It or Lose It” Week. The Hilton Doctors handed out Vacationitis travel card-holders at five key overground London stations that highlighted “Commuteritis,” caused by excessive hours commuting to work. The Hilton Doctors and campaign website encouraged commuters to take the online quiz, thus entering a sweepstakes. The results of the site’s online test fed a real-time interactive map that showcased the "Global Vacation Alert Level" of various locales.
  • A branded Vacationitis Ambulance hit the road in the U.K. and U.S. Stateside, the ambulance roadshow kicked-off at Hilton’s global headquarters in McLean, Va. and traveled to several cities. At each stop, Hilton brand ambassadors distributed Vacationitis health warning leaflets, encouraging consumers to take the online quiz to receive their diagnosis and be entered in the sweepstakes. The branded ambulance traveled to the Capital Pride and San Francisco Pride events, among others, to tie in to the brand’s work with the LGBT community and “Stay Hilton. Go Out.” offering. Hilton brand ambassadors also distributed materials to Miami working professionals who frequently travel to and from Latin America for work and leisure.

Integrate activations with digital and social media. Before the campaign launch, the brand’s Facebook posts mostly consisted of photos of properties and landmarks in well-known tourist destinations. “Hilton shifted gears to showcase travel tips and news, such as that when the first cellphone call was made in front of a Hilton hotel in 1973,” Palleschi says. “This fresh approach and attitude meshed well with the offbeat energy of the Vacationitis campaign website, which deemed very successful for the brand. Hilton Hotels & Resorts Vacationitis posts boasted more than 20,000 shares, comments and ‘likes.’ In fact, the most popular tweet posted by the brand in January was in reference to Vacationitis.”

What components do the most engaging branded websites have? “Shareable content is key,” says Palleschi. "A successful, engaging website should have content that is easy to share across all channels, with visual content
at the forefront. For example, the illustrations Onion Labs created were shared and downloaded by thousands.”

In addition to the type and share-ability of the content, Palleschi says PR can drive traffic to branded sites by:

  • Executing targeted Facebook and Twitter promoted campaigns so a larger social audience is exposed to your information.
  • Implementing a campaign hashtag to further reach on Twitter. Ours was #Vacationitis, and was referenced in all collateral and media outreach.
  • Promoting the branded website across external company channels and social media networks.
  • Fostering a media partnership. The Vacationitis campaign leveraged media relationships to drive traffic to our branded website, as well as extended our social reach through their social channels (approximately 2.2 million likes on Facebook and 4.7 million followers on Twitter).
  • Including a call-to-action or activity on the site. Users could share quiz results and cartoons and invite friends to take the quiz.

The Results: Vacationitis campaign sets new brand story in motion. PR efforts like the Blue Monday mini-vacation and the involvement of The Onion helped the brand secure more than 100 media placements in North America, the U.K. and Latin America including feature stories in International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, reaching nearly 300 million.The brand’s online presence also increased: Vacationitis helped the brand grow its Facebook "likes," from roughly 500,000 in January, to more than one million by April, and the brand added close to 7,000 subscribers to its VIP newsletter during that time period. Other highlights included more than 50,000 visits to the site and nearly 18,000 entrants to the "Cure Vacationitis with Hilton" sweepstakes.

Secrets for Success: Palleschi offers advice and explains why Hilton won Gold in “Best Use of the Internet – Consumer” and an Honorable Mention in “Best Travel, Hospitality & Destinations Campaign” at the 2014 Bulldog Media Relations Awards.

  • Creativity is king. “Think outside the box. This campaign was very creative. Identifying our challenges and goals from the start helped guide us in how to best execute the campaign and identify the appropriate partners to make the campaign successful. Being creative also means taking risks. Working with The Onion was an out-of-the-box idea that consumers and media ended up being surprised and delighted by.”
  • Content is queen. “Reach your target audience through meaningful (and engaging) content and distribution. Understand your target audience, the type of content they want to see and what channels they frequent most. In today’s ever-changing traditional and social media landscape, it is critical to understand these fundamentals in reaching your target audience in a meaningful way.”
  • Loyalty trumps all. “Keep true to your company’s brand. From the initial concept, it’s important to reinforce your company’s consistent tone of voice. Vacationitis was successful not only because we took risks, but also because we remained true to our brand, and most importantly, our loyal customers.”

Winner’s Profile

Founded in 1919 as the flagship brand of Hilton Worldwide, Hilton Hotels & Resorts continues to build upon its legacy of innovation by developing products and services to meet the needs of savvy global travelers at more than 550 hotels, across six continents. Hilton is the stylish, forward-thinking global leader in hospitality with Team Members shaping experiences in which every guest feels cared for, valued and respected.  Access the latest news at news.hilton.com and begin your journey at www.hilton.com or official social channels at www.hilton.com/social. Hilton Hotels & Resorts is one of Hilton Worldwide’s ten market leading brands.

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