The games advisors play: Using fun and competition in training

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Screenshots from the short-burst training platform 1Huddle developed for Loews Hotels.
Screenshots from the short-burst training platform 1Huddle developed for Loews Hotels.

Several years ago, Gabe Rizzi came home from work to find his school-age son sitting at the kitchen table, apparently playing a video game. Rizzi, today the president and chief sales officer of Travel Leaders Corporate, could see a leaderboard over his shoulder, evidence of a game. But it wasn't the kind of game Rizzi had assumed it was.

"'I thought that we agreed that you do your homework before you start gaming,'" Rizzi recalled telling his son. "And he goes, 'I am doing my homework.' He goes, 'I'm No. 3 in the class, and I'm almost at No. 1.'"

Rizzi's son was participating in a program that gave students credits for completing extra history assignments and ranked them against other members of their class, other classes in the school and even up to the state level. The more homework they did, the higher the ranking they were assigned. At the end of the month, high rankings were rewarded with prizes like pizza.

Rizzi thought to himself, "My gosh, if they can get my son to do homework through a gaming environment, can I get my salespeople to do their prospecting in a similar way?"

It's called gamification: using elements typically found in games, such as competition and point-scoring, and applying them to something else. In the case of Rizzi's son, it was homework. Rizzi himself began using gamification as a training and team-member recognition tool in 2012, and he brought the practice to Travel Leaders Corporate when he joined the company in 2016.

Gamification has been making inroads in the agency community in recent years as a training tool, both online and off. At Travel Leaders Corporate, Rizzi created a leaderboard that tracks points that employees earn when they do things like client outreach and prospecting.

"All of a sudden, I started seeing our prospecting numbers going through the roof, and I started seeing our client touch points going through the roof, and I started seeing customers not churn at the rates they were because our team members were doing what they were supposed to do," he said. "When you told them to do it, they didn't. But when they got rewarded to do it against their peers, they did."

A year ago, Ensemble Travel Group rolled out its University of Ensemble learning platform. Kim Specht, national manager of training for the U.S., said part of the platform encourages advisors to compete on a leaderboard, earning "genius points" from activities such as participating in a webinar. Top point-earners are rewarded monthly and annually.

Specht has also created in-person gamification techniques for Ensemble members. At its conference last year, it took the form of a checklist with clues about hotel and in-destination partners. Advisors had to match the clues with the right supplier and have them sign off on their checklist. At the end of the conference, those with completed checklists were entered into a drawing for prizes such as gift cards.

"I do think that the more interactive you can make training for people, the more interested people are to do it," Specht said.

Virtuoso has begun awarding advisors badges when they complete certain trainings within the Virtuoso Travel Academy. They compete against each other on a leaderboard. Jennifer Campbell, Virtuoso's managing director of professional development and agency services, said gamification is "an intriguing possibility."

"Although the travel industry is just beginning to consider its potential, companies in other industries have had success with gamification in terms of motivating participants, building communities and ultimately enhancing the brand experience," Campbell said.

Steve Phillips, senior director of education and training at Travelsavers, is developing that consortium's new training program, known as Kore, which will roll out later this year.

For some time, Phillips and Travelsavers executives have discussed integrating gamification into the program. While nothing is set in stone, Kore will include elements of gamification.

"We want this to be a fun way to learn," he said. "But we feel as a company that it's imperative that it be a serious learning process."

While the gamification elements will add a spark of fun, Travelsavers will hold agents accountable for completing each module at a proficient level. Along the way, milestones will be rewarded.

"We want to keep them engaged, and we also want to reward the people who are really doing well," Phillips said.

Sam Caucci, CEO and founder of 1Huddle, has built his entire company around gamification. 1Huddle, which creates short-burst mobile games for training, has started working with players in hotels and other parts of the hospitality industry.

1Huddle's games are meant to provide quick bursts of training whenever employees have time. Trainees are pitted against one another via a leaderboard, and many of 1Huddle's clients reward top performers with gift cards or experiences.

"Brand is about people," Caucci said, "and we need to learn how to lean into technology to empower people just as much as we think about innovating when it comes to our product." 

Gamification isn't for everyone. Specht said it appeals most to those who are competitive by nature. Like any kind of training, she said, one style won't appeal to everyone.

Rizzi, on the other hand, asserted that the reward and recognition cycle that gamification offers holds universal appeal.

"While some team members are inherently more competitive and are fueled by the stack-ranking components of gamification," he said, "I've yet to meet an employee of any company who doesn't want to feel valued and recognized for their contributions. That's at the heart of gamification."

The Travel Institute also includes elements of gamification in its training, including interactive components and prizes in the form of specialist designations or certifications. Director of training Guida Botelho said it's one tool in the arsenal the institute employs.

"Gamification is one approach among many effective learning methods today," Botelho said. "What's most important is blending learning methods to get the best results for students."

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