“Wanna go with me to Alaska tomorrow?”
It’s not every day you get a phone call like the one Terri made to her long-time friend Sarah. By the next day, they were both on a flight from the Midwest to Anchorage to embark on a week-long adventure that included seeing the grandeur of North America’s tallest peak, off-roading in ATVs, and whale-watching in a glacier-lined bay.
This wasn’t your average vacation or weekend get-together. This was a 15-year service award Terri redeemed from a work anniversary rewards program Guidewire set up through Blueboard.
Work anniversaries are the perfect time to show your appreciation for your most loyal employees, but doing so in a fresh, novel way can be a challenge. While gift cards, engraved pens, and plaques are the norm when it comes to work anniversary gifts, rewarding employees with experiences has unique benefits worthy of exploring.
Terri’s 15-year work anniversary gift: An Alaskan adventure with a long-time friend.
Winding through the Alaskan terrain on a train to Denali, Terri soaked in the 360-view of the river, forests, and mountains through the glass-domed ceiling of the Wilderness Express. By her side sat Sarah, a former Guidewire coworker whom Terri has known for more than two decades.
This was Terri’s first time ever on a train, and it was an item on Sarah’s bucket list—two major milestones these friends got to share together.
“I just think it's good to experience life with people,” said Terri. “That's what life's about.”
Upon arriving in Denali National Park, the pair wasted no time. On the first morning there, they strapped on helmets and Terri took the wheel of an ATV, squealing with delight as her tires cut through the low water of a rocky trail.
An aerial sightseeing tour (and other first-time experiences you’ll never forget).
That evening, Terri and Sarah took flight on a sightseeing tour of Denali and celebrated another milestone: Terri’s first time in a small plane. As the green of trees gave way to the white of snow-lined mountains, Terri looked out from the window of the eight-seater plane, the peaks rising up to meet them through the clouds, seemingly close enough to touch.
“I can't even believe I did it, to be honest with you,” Terri said. “But it was so incredible, and I'm so grateful that we decided to do this.”
That was just the beginning of a week-long adventure that sent Terri and Sarah whooshing past treetops on a zipline, coasting down dirt roads in a Jeep, and cruising through indigo waters as they watched Orcas breach in the bay. Ziplining was another, “I’m actually shocked I did that!” moment for Terri—yet another opportunity to experience something new, spend quality time with a friend, and push her comfort zone.
On their last day in Alaska, Terri reflected on all of the memories she made on this trip with Sarah, tying it back to how she’s always valued sharing experiences with her grandchildren—whether that was spending a weekend in Chicago to see a musical, exploring the magical world of Disney, or attending hockey, basketball, and soccer games with them.
"I elected to get an experience for my 15-year work anniversary because to me experiences last a lifetime,” Terri shares. “I just think it's really important to have those experiences together. You can’t replace the experience of going out and doing things.”
The benefits of rewarding employees with experiences as work anniversary gifts.
As it turns out, the science supports Terri’s statement about the importance of experiences. What we do, and the people we do those things with, shape our identities much more than the things we own. Here are three key reasons experiences and cultivating the unexpected elevate employee recognition:
1. Experiences make people feel happier than material goods.
A recent University of Texas study by Dr. Amit Kumar and colleagues highlights the value of spending money on experiences rather than things. Researchers recruited more than 2,600 adults and randomly assigned them to an experiential or material group. They then sent texts to monitor participants' purchases and emotions. Members of the material group bought things like jewelry or clothing, while those in the experiential group did things like going to sports games or eating at restaurants.
And while yes, both an experience and a material possession "expire" at some point, researchers found that participants were happier with experiential purchases over material ones—whether that happiness was measured before, during, or after consumption.
That finding was true even when controlling for possible bias in a second study by Kumar and colleagues. 5,200 adults were asked to rate their happiness, and then asked whether they’d used a material or experiential purchase in the past hour. If yes, the researchers asked for more details.
Guess what? The results were the same: People were happier with experiences, even after those experiences ended.
So the memories and good feelings associated with experiential rewards, such as a week immersed in the Alaskan wilderness, will last far beyond the moment your employee unpacks their bags back home. And when your organization is the root cause of these beautiful memories, those positive feelings stay associated with your company and culture.