Adecco Employment Services, an international employment firm formerly based in the San Francisco Bay area, had traditionally hosted elaborate sales incentive trips to places like Hawaii, Aspen, New York City and even Switzerland to encourage and reward top achievers. This particular year, the economy had tanked, sales were keeping up (but barely) and the decision was made to select the headquarters’ base of San Francisco as the destination to save money. Over 60% of the group had been to San Francisco. Another 15% lived there. How could I make this location appear new, fresh and exciting over the twelve-month promotion period? Promote a trip that would feel like a true reward?


We started discussions with the Adecco team about what made San Francisco truly unique. What made it special? What made it different from other locations? We looked at movies based on San Francisco, songs about the city, and old postcards. We walked the neighborhoods of the city feeling the ambience and experiencing the layered history. We wanted to create a personal experience for our guests, have them delve into the myths and legends that make San Francisco so special. We wanted to illustrate how bold, brave, colorful people had created a place like no other, in a time in history like no other. My team introduced them to the hey day that was San Francisco – after the Gold Rush, before the 1906 earthquake. California here we come!

We decided to create a fictional tale complete with characters from the period. We told the sales group that as we broke ground for our new headquarters we found an old suitcase filled with letters and mementoes from 1883 that were written to family and friends. They had been postmarked but were still sealed. The letters were from a series of personas: a young opera singer from Iowa, a Chinese immigrant who yearned to escape life in the mines, a card shark who longed to open a gambling establishment and saloon, a grizzled prospector, an Italian immigrant with dreams of opening a seafood restaurant and more. Our group hired actors and singers and took their photos by buildings that had stood the test of time (retouching out any signs of modern day.) Each month, branch offices eagerly anticipated the delivery of the “saddlebag” that included copies of letters, sepia photos from, and of, each of the characters, menus, tickets, gold nuggets, etc. Over the 12 months, the “characters” got to know each other and referred to each other in the letters: gambler and singer became a couple, she sang in his saloon, immigrants met and opened a Chinese/Italian restaurant… The people in the branch offices were a rapt audience; several people asked if this was real or fictional.


At the conference, we turned a hotel ballroom into San Francisco 1893. Everyone came in period costume. The sales honorees were astounded to be introduced to all the characters who they recognized from their photographs. The actors stayed in character, as everyone shared great local food, gambled, panned for gold, danced and had an unforgettable evening. The whole cost of the promotion and logistics were half of any previous event. An amazingly memorable time that proved that budgets can’t compete with a good story, told well.