Three weeks after returning from his fourth deployment in Afghanistan this summer, Army Sergeant First Class Russell Zink of Clarksville, Tenn., traveled to Atlanta for what he thought was a weekend getaway with his wife, Amy, and their two kids.
When he arrived at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Atlanta Midtown, he had no idea that 25 of his family members were hiding in a nearby seating area, ready to surprise him with hugs, balloons and handmade welcome-back signs.
Homewood Suites by Hilton had arranged for Zink’s extended family members to fly in from across the country – including his 87-year-old grandfather and family he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade – for an all-expense paid family reunion on Aug. 23.
“Everyone was yelling and screaming. I was absolutely shocked,” Russell Zink says. “We are definitely customers for life now.”
The Zink family reunion is the first in a series of military reunions that Homewood Suites is arranging as part of the hotel’s ongoing campaign to honor veterans, according to Christian Kuhn, vice president of marketing. Kuhn, a Navy brat whose father spent months at sea, says he’s happy the brand is able to provide a memorable experience for military families.
“We wanted to help these heroes who are leaving their families and missing memories create new memories and reconnect with their families,” he says. “My dad went on five different cruises. The very best part is the day they come back. We, as a brand, were looking at if there was a way to be involved in that.”
In addition to the reunions, Homewood Suite’s Military Support Campaign includes: an evergreen 15 percent discount off the best available rate for all active and retired military; partnerships with the Folds of Honor Foundation and Military Spouse of the Year program; a dedicated Facebook community page, Homewood Suites’ Welcome Home Headquarters, which captures recent military family reunions from across the country; and Operation: Opportunity, a pledge to hire 10,000 veterans during the next five years and to donate millions of Hilton Honors points to assist job-seeking veterans.
The reunions will not require a large investment, Kuhn says, yet he expects them to result in great returns – both in boosting staff morale and generating brand loyalty from military members. Including advance reservations, the military promotions have generated $6 million in booked revenue since April 2013.
“It’s worth every penny for us to be able to do this,” he says. “It’s working for us from a brand perspective. I don’t think anyone on our team has ever felt as good as when we got to see this reunion.”
For the reunions, Homewood Suites connected with the Zink family through the National Military Family Association and Joining Forces, a national initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to mobilize all sectors of society to give service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned. The Homewood Suites team planned every aspect of the three-day weekend, including the hotel stay, car service to and from the airport, gift certificates to area businesses and visits to local attractions, Kuhn says.
“This reunion is something that probably wouldn’t have happened without Hilton and Homewood Suites,” Zink says. “The recognition and the service they provided was absolutely incredible.”
Homewood Suites plans to coordinate at least two reunions each year. Ideally, hotel executives would like the reunions to become a catalyst for a larger national military family travel program that brings in sponsors from across the travel industry, Kuhn says.
“Home is in our name, and one of our slogans is ‘Be at home.’ And we can’t be at home and have a safe home without these people [military members] protecting us,” he says. “ It’s a heavy burden, but seeing the joy on their faces, we hope that inspires others [in the industry] to join the initiative.”