A century of stories: How Hilton highlighted staff for its centennial

In his Ragan conference keynote at Disneyland, Lou Dubois details how the global hotelier put the focus on employees and guests, offering takeaways for enthusiastic attendees.

Storytelling tips from Hilton

A century makes for plenty of stories—especially when you have global name recognition.

Having invented the piña colada helps, too.

“Stories make you relatable,” said Lou Dubois, global director of content for Hilton Worldwide, in opening his keynote address on Day Two of Ragan’s Brand Storytelling and Content Marketing Conference. “Tell a good brand story, and people will see you as an extension of who they are—but only if you put people at the forefront of that story, not the brand.”

Before he even took the stage, Dubois tapped into the notion of a strong brand—not Hilton’s, but that of the conference host, Disney. Opening chants from “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King” inspired the gathering crowd at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

In his address, Dubois offered these key takeaways:

1. Lean into your past. Hilton recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and launched a content campaign to spotlight and promote the milestone.

Dubois thinks more companies could embrace their legacies for storytelling opportunities. “Understand where you come from—it will help you get where you’re going,” he said.

Your corporate archives are a great place to start.

“In our case, we have an archivist who maintains 800,000 records on the hotel industry. I met with him and we went through everything about Hilton,” he said.

In the process, you’ll discover surprising story nuggets. For example, Dubois said, Hilton invented room service, air conditioning and piña coladas.

2. Find skeptical outsiders. Brand stories are stronger when they’re validated by third-party research, said Dubois.

His team, for example, tasked journalists Chip Heath and Karla Starr with researching Hilton’s history. “They came back with a 63-page white paper they called, ‘The Hilton Effect,’” he said.

That study became a cornerstone of Hilton’s centennial program and continues to build buzz through other campaigns, including a video documentary series shot worldwide.

“We also created a landing page tied to the white paper,” he said. “We expected 200,000 views in one month but got 800,000.”

3. Put people first. Like the other keynoters, Dubois said stories are about people, not places or brands.

“Without people, our hotels are just buildings,” he said. “When we turned 100, we didn’t want to just throw our execs on the NYSE stage. We wanted to spotlight our employees.”

The team focused on Hilton property front desk manager Khalif Hill, who befriended a young guest with autism and spent time practicing card tricks with him during his stay.

The story received over 137,000 “likes” on Facebook before being features on “Good Morning America” and “Today.”

“We let our guests and employees help us find and tell great stories,” said Dubois. “The lesson is that good stories are happening everywhere.”

Hearing how Hilton finds value in proof points is something attendee Sydney Hofer, a senior advisor at Kane Communications, can take back to the office.

“Our agency wants clients to take storytelling out of the executive space,” she said. “We want them to start showcasing employees instead. I can make the case more easily now that I’ve seen how companies like Hilton do it.”

Multiple conference speakers touched on the idea of empowering employees. That’s how keynoters Miri Rodriguez (Microsoft) and Tom Smith (Disney) bookended Day One of the conference.

“They both emphasized the need to get real people’s stories into your content mix,” said Jennifer Winters, assistant vice president of content strategy at the University of Oregon. “That gives your content authenticity.”

So does loosening up.

“I actually learned a lot from Dave Johnson at TSA,” said Winters. “If a government agency like the TSA can embrace fun and use humor like they do on their Instagram—then so can the rest of us!”


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