Recipe for a Killer User-Generated Content Contest in Hospitality Marketing

UGC campaigns in destination and hospitality marketing are a no-brainer. But while they work well for some, they flame out for others. What characteristics do the successful ones share?


Every hospitality marketing professional craves the sort of engagement that the best UGC contests stir up. In Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends Report, she shared that “effective UGC can generate 6.9x higher engagement than brand-generated content on Facebook.” The key word here is “effective.” These contests seem straightforward: A company announces a campaign to encourage people to share content under a certain hashtag around some sort of idea, and because there’s sometimes a prize involved – and even if there’s not, people love sharing on social media anyway, right? – the company expects people to enthusiastically participate.

Unfortunately for those marketers, that’s not always how it goes. People have too many demands on their attention, and their social capital is too precious to spend on most corporate UGC contests. That said, it does happen successfully, and there are lessons to be taken from those that do it well. Here, we show some examples across industries but with takeaways tailored to those in destination and hospitality marketing.

Starbucks’ #RedCupContest

Each holiday season since 2014, Starbucks has promoted the #RedCupContest and seen a massive response from its loyal customers. The campaign pushes people to post creative photos with the company’s custom-designed red Starbucks coffee cups (they change each year) and offers $500 gift cards to a handful of winners.

Starbucks nails a few things here: The cups are cool, thanks to the investment in custom artwork; the hashtag is simple and memorable; and a significant prize always goes a long way. But for us, the big takeaway here is that they’re tapping into existing behavior: people taking photos of their Starbucks coffees. So, they’re not asking people to do anything too intense or out of their day-to-day. That’s one lesson we’ve learned the hard way with UGC contests we’ve done for one of our clients, Opal Collection. This Pinterest contest, built around Valentine’s Day and tasking people to build a tribute Pin board to their significant other asked a lot, and we didn’t see amazing traction. We’ve pivoted, instead, to a simpler UGC contest each peak season, built around the #H2OpalContest hashtag, that tasks guests at Opal hotels to post a photo having something to do with water (a point of differentiation since all Opal Collection hotels are right on a lake or ocean and also not hard to execute with their great pools, too). Much better results! If the point of the contest is mass participation and the viral reach that can create, you have to make it easy to execute and enter.

Loews Hotels’ #TravelForReal

Loews Hotels’ UGC campaign bubbled up naturally: They saw the photos that guests were taking, having a ball at different Loews properties, and gave the movement a name – #TravelForReal. Where Loews separated themselves is how they used the photos. As this Instagram user shared, her #TravelForReal photo and username ended up (with her permission) on a Loews keycard a guest noticed and shared with her.

In this case, the Instagram image on the keycard adds a dash of authenticity in a place where people expect dull professionalism. Plus, by using UGC in print collateral, you feed the cycle necessary to keep a campaign like this going organically. Guests who don’t know about the hashtag see something like the keycard, and then decide to join in themselves.

National Geographic’s #WanderlustContest

Starting in June 2015, National Geographic executed its #WanderlustContest campaign to perfection. The idea was for participants to “capture glimpses of the unforgettable people, places, and experiences that have impacted their lives from their travels around the world.” In other words, they wanted people to share their own National Geographic–style photos. The prize? A National Geographic photo expedition in Yosemite National Park. The result: 61,072 photos shared on Instagram to date.

National Geographic understands that their readers love travel photography, and with #WanderlustContest, introduced a way for them to easily participate. Truly successful UGC contests are inspired by – and perhaps require – a deep understanding of your customers and what they value from you already. Start there (rather than from a business objective) and good UGC contest ideas will come more naturally.

Allison Inn’s #MyWillametteWineTime

Hawthorn client The Allison Inn & Spa tapped us to develop a cross-medium campaign built around the hashtag #MyWillametteWineTime for the 2016 issue of their magazine, Roots. We created print collateral to be used on-property to encourage guests to share photos of a tasting with friends, a favorite bottle of wine, or a vineyard – really any relished moment with wine. It has been used beyond the hotel, and has reinforced The Allison Inn’s vision to be part of the fabric of the Willamette wine region. To bring things full circle, we pulled the best UGC photos and created a spread in the 2017 issue of the magazine.

As we discussed in this previous post on Allison Inn’s custom magazine, this property is very focused on being the “living room of the Willamette Valley,” where this burgeoning wine region comes together. So here, the hashtag and concept for the contest was not as much about sparking more followers or capturing e-mail subscribers for future communications, but rather to reinforce the hotel’s brand message. Doing it authentically and engagingly through UGC rather than through its own messaging makes it that much more impactful.

If you’re wondering how to get started, let’s have a conversation to help kick off your user generated content campaign.


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