A 25-Year Seattle Tradition: Building a Gingerbread Village

By John Armstrong Executive Chef, Sheraton Seattle | December 10, 2017

Over the past 25 years, the Sheraton Seattle's Gingerbread Village has become one of the most anticipated holiday attractions in Seattle, drawing more than 200,000 visitors each year while raising funds to help researchers end Type 1 diabetes. Since 1992, the Sheraton Seattle's expert culinary team has partnered with acclaimed local architecture firms and a master builders association to design, bake and delight crowds with intricate, larger-than-life gingerbread designs. The event is free to the public, but donations to the Northwest Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation are encouraged. As a tribute to the city, this year's theme embraces Seattle's past and future, prompting us to look back at how Gingerbread Village grew from a modest event to a beloved Seattle tradition as well as a highly effective sales, marketing and public relations tool.    

Throughout the years, Gingerbread Village has raised nearly $1 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In its first year, Gingerbread Village raised $5,650 towards finding a cure. In comparison, last year's enchanting Gingerbread Village inspired by the magical wizarding world raised a record-breaking $105,000 for the Northwest chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. This season, Sheraton Seattle Executive Chef John W. Armstrong IV and his team aim to keep up the fundraising momentum with awe-inspiring designs. Chef Armstrong is proud to have led the 21st through 25th years of the Sheraton Seattle Gingerbread Village. 

In addition to raising funds that support finding a cure for the autoimmune disease, the Gingerbread Village also dispels stereotypes, such as that those with Type 1 diabetes cannot eat sugar. Each year, about six children with Type 1 diabetes partner with a chef and architect firm and attend the village's unveiling event as Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation "elves." At the Gingerbread Village unveiling event, the elves share their stories about living with Type 1 diabetes and demonstrate the importance of finding a cure. The children and their families also dedicate time and effort to help the architects build the incredible gingerbread houses. 

After its modest beginnings in 1992, Gingerbread Village continued to grow each year until it became Sheraton Seattle's single largest annual marketing and public relations event, a destination for not only Seattleites but for national and international visitors as well. The houses at Gingerbread Village are known for their elaborate nature with LED lights, sound effects, moving parts and more. Chefs and architects design the buildings with a children's perspective in mind so that little ones can enjoy the candy creations.  

After a busy morning of putting the finishing touches on the gingerbread houses, the JDRF elves, local architect firms and Sheraton Seattle culinarians are celebrated during the annual unveiling and ribbon-cutting ceremony, which is one day before the village officially opens to the public. This special day includes photo opportunities, a choir performance from a local school, a visit from Santa and a reading of the City of Seattle's Mayoral proclamation that the day is officially Gingerbread Village Day. In addition, the Sheraton Seattle Hotel's general manager Keri Robinson and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's executive director Deniz Satir speak to the crowd about the importance of the event and the foundation's research, advocacy and community engagement.   

The festive annual event consistently earns media coverage each year with local, regional, national and trade publications. Locals news outlets including all major Seattle-area broadcast news stations, New Day Northwest, King 5 Evening magazine, The Seattle Times and Seattle magazine have covered it. The village has also appeared in trade publications like Smart Meetings and USAE as well as national news sources such as USA Today, Food and Wine, Travel + Leisure and Fox News. 

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Social Media: Getting Personal

There Social media platforms have revolutionized the hotel industry. Popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Tumblr now account for 2.3 billion active users, and this phenomenon has forever transformed how businesses interact with consumers. Given that social media allows for two-way communication between businesses and consumers, the emphasis of any marketing strategy must be to positively and personally engage the customer, and there are innumerable ways to accomplish that goal. One popular strategy is to encourage hotel guests to create their own personal content - typically videos and photos -which can be shared via their personal social media networks, reaching a sizeable audience. In addition, geo-locational tags and brand hashtags can be embedded in such posts which allow them to be found via metadata searches, substantially enlarging their scope. Influencer marketing is another prevalent social media strategy. Some hotels are paying popular social media stars and bloggers to endorse their brand on social media platforms. These kinds of endorsements generally elicit a strong response because the influencers are perceived as being trustworthy by their followers, and because an influencer's followers are likely to share similar psychographic and demographic traits. Travel review sites have also become vitally important in reputation management. Travelers consistently use social media to express pleasure or frustration about their guest experiences, so it is essential that every review be attended to personally. Assuming the responsibility to address and correct customer service concerns quickly is a way to mitigate complaints and to build brand loyalty. Plus, whether reviews are favorable or unfavorable, they are a vital source of information to managers about a hotel's operational performance.  The February Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to effectively incorporate social media strategies into their businesses.