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Episode 77 / November 20, 2023

Wheels up: Crafting engaging employee events with Delta’s Marrah Thomas

Marrah Thomas from Delta Air Lines shares her expertise in designing large-scale, inclusive events and strategies for sustained employee engagement and authentic connection.

In this engaging episode, we sit with Senior Manager of Global Internal Events and Conferences at Delta Air Lines, Marrah Thomas. She shares insights into the dynamic world of corporate event planning, emphasizing the importance of creating meaningful employee engagement events.

Thomas explores the crucial role events play in building company culture and fostering employee engagement, particularly in large organizations like Delta. She also outlines the airline’s approach to large-scale events, including BLVD Bash, and underscores the company’s focus on inclusivity and diversity. The discussion also delves into the evolving landscape of events post-pandemic, the power of authentic connections, and the ever-changing demands of the events industry.

Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • Innovative event design and the importance of creating inclusive experiences for a diverse audience
  • Engagement beyond events and the need for continuous, 365-day employee engagement and interaction
  • The importance of consistent, resonant content delivery across various platforms and the value of fostering genuine connections

Mentioned in This Episode


[00:00:10] Rachel Moore: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo, the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events.

I’m Rachel Moore, your podcast host. 

Fasten your seatbelts and return your tray tables to the upright position as we share microphones with Delta Air Lines’ Senior Manager of Global Internal Events and Conferences, Marrah Thomas. Marrah’s passion for designing employee engagement events will inspire you in this discussion about content strategy, competition versus collaboration in event planning, and keeping an open mind in designing experiences. Wheels up for this episode of Event Experience!

Marrah Thomas: A Journey in Event Management

[00:01:02] Rachel Moore: We’re going to take to the skies today.

[00:01:04] I’m going to explain that by explaining where my guest has been in events and experience. I am talking to someone who was Head of Experiences for Bank of America, Head of Experiences, Loyalty, Innovations, and Platforms.

[00:01:18] And today she is the Senior Manager for Global Internal Events and Conferences for Delta Air Lines. She’s also a founding member of Chief, which I think is super cool. I am speaking with Marrah Thomas from Delta Air Lines. Marrah, thank you for joining me today.

[00:01:34] Marrah Thomas: Thank you for having me. 

[00:01:35] Rachel Moore: I just really skated through your LinkedIn profile just now.

[00:01:38] I’d love to kick this over to you. Can you describe for us your role at Delta Air Lines? What you do, just kind of what goes into your day and your week and your month and your quarter and everything, just give us a little bit of lowdown about you.

[00:01:49] Marrah Thomas: Sure. So as you said, I work at Delta Air Lines, so we’re about 95,000 employees strong. And with this 95,000 employees, obviously a big portion of them sit here in Atlanta, Georgia, where our headquarters are. We really want to engage with our employees. So I have a really great job here at Delta.

Building Employee Engagement Events at Delta

[00:02:11] We just implemented a global events team here in the last two years. So it’s been really exciting to actually build something for Delta, but we consist of three pillars. One is our strategy and planning team, which is, you know, vital in this day and age with corporate events because we really are a strategy for revenue building and employee retention.

[00:02:34] And then we have our customer side and we have our employee side. I have the great privilege of being on our employee side. Delta is a little bit different than some places that I’ve worked. The majority of what we do is 500 people and over. We just had probably our largest event we have, which is called Boulevard Bash, where we invite everybody in from the entire company to come to Atlanta and bring their family and really have a family day.

[00:02:59] We were really lucky because one of our employees is the mother of the current American Idol winner. So Iam Tongi actually played as well as Matchbox 20. And I say this all the time. It never amazes me how many songs I know by people that I forgot I knew. But in addition to that, we had something for everybody, whether you had a three year old who wanted to meet a mascot to play retro video games to having face painting to have about 90 different types of food. So really engaging. You know, you got to have something for everyone because family means different things to different people. How you show up at work is different to different folks. 

Innovating for Sustainability and Inclusivity in Events

[00:03:37] And in addition to that, having something fun for sustainability, I always want to give this a plug. We actually had Project Runway here and they created sustainable uniforms out of recycled things from the airplane. So when you think, what the heck do they do with those seats when they’re done?

[00:03:53] We do cool things with airplane parts afterwards.

[00:03:56] Rachel Moore: That’s so cool. Thank you so much for giving us that, that rundown too ’cause I think that gave us a really solid idea of what goes into your day and what’s important to you. I’ve heard you already mentioned engagement a lot. And let’s double click into that next. 

Extending Audience Engagement Beyond Physical Events

[00:04:09] How do you view that task of audience engagement around an event, like when they’re not actually at the event, but you want to keep them tied in?

[00:04:17] Marrah Thomas: I think we are seeing this, whether you are a customer or an employee, we are seeing that the life cycle is much longer now. So before, you know, if you’ve ever been to like an industry event, you talk to somebody once a year and that’s what you do. And you know, you either engage with employees on their milestone, on their anniversary, and maybe one other time a year. And it’s really important that you check in with your employees all the time. Things change, circumstances change, environment and culture to a certain extent changes. So, the life cycle is no longer one and done. It is really how do we put our company in their hands and how do we almost get them to activate every time, especially here at Delta.

[00:05:04] And I was very fortunate to work at Bank of America and have sort of the similar consequence where we have a lot of people who are our face of the company, right? They are the people, whether it’s a red coat or the bank’s instance of teller who is your point of contact. That’s the only person you’re ever going to meet from that company and really engaging with them once they understand the culture. They’re our culture keepers, right? And they love their job. They are our best brand ambassadors. You know, when I meet people before I worked for Delta, I would meet people and they would talk about how they love their job.

[00:05:38] And I’m like, you do know it’s just the job, right? But that tells you that they were doing something right, because people talked about it with that longing and that loyalty.

[00:05:50] And so I think in order to do that, it’s no longer just a one and done. You have to constantly hit people, you have to constantly remind them, and events are a great way to do that, whether that’s an educational event or purely a surprise and delight event.

[00:06:06] Rachel Moore: You’re seeing it more as like, this is part of our employee engagement strategy. You talked earlier about you have a huge employee base. And as you mentioned, you know, everybody’s definition of family is different.

[00:06:18] Are you able then to kind of make sure, Hey, I’m giving something to everybody based on where they’re inclined, kind of where their interests are.

[00:06:25] Marrah Thomas: We really do try to. I think, you know, inclusivity is, you know, one of our cornerstones. And we want to meet people where they are. We have people who have worked here for six months and people who have worked here for 65 years. So I think you’re always trying to come up with things that can engage folks.

[00:06:42] And it’s funny because a lot of times your message is the same. The container in which you provide the message is just different. 

[00:06:49] So I think we are always trying to find new ways. I love now we’re really looking at like the wellness space. And how do we do that? How do we make the experience, whether it’s an issue around sensory or if there is an accessibility concern, how are we making it so that everyone can enjoy?

The Role of Content Strategy in Event Planning

[00:07:08] Rachel Moore: How do you view content? How important is your content strategy throughout the year to keep people engaged with the events and with every touch point that you’re giving them.

[00:07:17] Marrah Thomas: I forget who told me this. But years ago, someone told me you’ve got to touch somebody five times with the same message before they actually take the message home with them. Right. But not only now do you have to touch them five times, you have to put it in a way in which it resonates with them.

[00:07:32] Right. You got to allow people time to process it and understand it and whether that’s in a visual, like doing videos, having that resonate, having it in maybe a auditory way, or just, you know, hearing it, hearing the same message from different leaders, right?

[00:07:49] Because a leader that might be a little more informal might put it in a context that’s a way in which someone likes it or in a more formal way. And I think really with content, consistency is really important. You know, it’s funny the days of, you know printing everything out, people get to take something home with them.

[00:08:08] We have to figure out a way, one, that it can live on the shelf and be evergreen, right? So really making sure your message is clear and concise and consistent. Because we want them to be able to take things away that they can, Oh, it’s on my phone, let me pull this up. And I remember seeing it, let me pull this up.

[00:08:25] Whether it’s a story or it was told a certain way that people can reiterate it to folks. Because again, these are our brand ambassadors, right? We don’t just expect it to resonate with them. We expect them to either live the Delta difference or we expect for them to be able to translate that whether that’s to a customer or another employee.

[00:08:45] So I do think consistency in content is really big and being able to tell people the story, the same story different ways.

[00:08:54] THere are times when I tell a leader something repeatedly and I get no better joy than when I hear what I’ve told them. They have branded it in their way, but they basically reiterated what I’ve said and I’m like, okay, so we got it.

[00:09:09] The wheels are on. We’re moving. We got it. And so I think it, it works both ways, right? Whenever I’m learning something new, if I can actually explain it and, and put it out there for people, then that means that I got the message. 

[00:09:24] Rachel Moore: You have a cool philosophy. I’ve heard this actually from a couple other guests we’ve had on the podcast this season. Talk to our audience about why do you think we’re starting or should prioritize connection over content?

Prioritizing Connection Over Content in Events

[00:09:37] Marrah Thomas: I actually think connection can be evergreen. Content’s going to change a little. Like while we try to keep our mission and our vision clear and consistent, I think connections, true, authentic connections really resonate with people and they stay with them for a long time. And if we saw nothing during the pandemic, that is the number one thing that we saw.

[00:09:59] Yes, people sat on Zoom calls, but if you remember the first or the second event you went to after the pandemic and you watched how people just lit up when they saw folks. I remember normally we would have a two hour reception before an event like the night before.

[00:10:18] We were putting them at three hours because people just didn’t want to leave. And I think people really enjoy that connection, right? You take it with them. If you’re somebody who works in a certain industry and you move companies. You still have those strong connections with folks, and we joke all the time, you’re like, and we’ll meet again because that’s how the world works.

[00:10:41] So I think you want to have connections so people can kind of connect the dots on why something resonates with them and being able to take your message. So I think connections also help you with the message, right?

[00:10:54] I always laugh because during COVID I finally learned the owner’s names to the dogs that we always saw, you know, anybody who’s a dog owner, you totally get that, everybody who has a dog, but you don’t actually know their name, you know their dog’s name. And so you’re finally like, I should probably learn the owner’s name. I’m going to talk to him for two or three minutes because this is my one time that I’m going to get to talk to somebody today in person, even though we’re far away.

[00:11:20] So yeah, it’s one of those connect things. You’ve always done the sup, you know, like, Hey, you have a dog. We’re friends kinda. And then you’re like, I wanted to stop and talk to him. The connections can be deeper. 

[00:11:31] Even now you see it where you’ve made deeper connections with companies that you do business with or that you use.

[00:11:38] Rachel Moore: I think too about those events where, you know, sometimes friends, colleagues, peers will go to the same events each year. Of course it’s a great event, but I’m going to go with you and stuff. 

[00:11:46] Marrah Thomas: I just had a member of my team went to one of the annual event conferences for the first time this year. And one of her takeaways was that, one, it’s a lot. It’s so overwhelming. the camaraderie, right? She was like, it wasn’t like I walked into a room and didn’t know a stranger because literally everyone spoke to you.

[00:12:08] And I was like, that’s a little bit different than before. I feel like, you know, prior to COVID, you did go see that set of people that you were used to seeing and then maybe you had some clients, but I think now you know, new people are in the environment today and the environment is just different, right?

[00:12:26] Like, we’re still trying to figure out what folks’ needs are. I say that every time, like, even in employee engagement events, what are folks’ needs? Do they want to learn something? Do they just want information? Do they want more of a knowledge sharing? Is it just to connect or to have networking experiences?

[00:12:43] So you’re really trying to figure out what the new norm is. And I know we get sick of saying that from COVID, but you’re trying to figure out what the new norm is. 

Collaboration vs. Competition in the Event Industry

[00:12:52] Rachel Moore: I’d love to hear your views, and our audience would as well, on collaborating for unified goals at events especially when the brands, you know, might be competing for things like leads, revenue, and stuff like that. How do you see that unification versus competition?

[00:13:07] Marrah Thomas: You know, it’s a funny thing. Yes, we have a very finite time for folks, and I again with COVID, I feel like this has really become very compressed, right, where people would log so many hours to be able to connect with different companies and take calls and do all of that. It’s a really different landscape today because people are a lot more guarded and they have boundaries around their time, especially outside of work, right.

[00:13:34] When I look in the employee space. We used to never care if you were outside the work hours, but really trying to gauge within your work hours because we don’t want to take away from you and your family or just, you know, what you’re doing, whether it’s pickleball or whatever it is you’re doing today, you know, making sure that you are good with that.

[00:13:54] But with competitors, it’s really interesting. If you don’t know this, I’m going to tell you another little funny airline thing. For the first time Delta did a standalone appearance at EAA, which is the Experimental Aviation Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It’s actually the largest aviation enthusiast show in the world.

[00:14:18] About 750, 000 people come to it, about 30,000 individual airplanes, not big commercial airplanes like what we do, but truly people who have a passion for Air Lines and for all kind of planes. And so it’s funny because we had never been there other than to maybe recruit pilots, right? And we’re in a footprint with United, with American, with Southwest.

[00:14:47] But it was so fun to see what they were doing because everybody kind of has a different thing that they’re going after, whether you want to show the innovation that you’re doing, you want to show the diversity in pilots, or you want to show where you are as far as growing in different areas.

[00:15:05] So everybody was doing something different, but it was really wonderful to see that there wasn’t really a competition because again, I can’t see 750,000 people in my pavilion and how you kind of competitively were like, okay, next year we need to do that because they’re doing that. But the other thing that I thought was really cool is then we have two big competitors who again, all of these people are their clients and that’s Boeing and Airbus and how they shared the space together.

[00:15:33] Because again, we’re all their clients. And, you know, giving us ideas about different things we can do around innovation and education, especially when it comes to like that K through 12 and getting people excited about aviation. And so it was really funny because while we are competitors and yes, every single one of us went to everybody’s tent, like, what do you have?

[00:15:54] What’s different? I would have done it this way. It also is really great one to meet your peers like folks that do what you do, but also see what is out there and see their unique spaces So I think that collaboration or at least that comfort level of being in each other’s space

[00:16:11] Rachel Moore: It’s funny you bring up EAA. I’m familiar with that event. I actually lived in Wisconsin for about four or five years and I went to it a couple times and it is massive. I can picture you all there right now.

Unique Event Experiences: The Case of EAA

[00:16:23] Marrah Thomas: It’s crazy. I mean, they even rent out the dorms at the University of Wisconsin. And again, it is all about people who are passionate, like they sleep under their planes, which I think is really kind of cool. And it was something new and different for us. And, you know, we were immediate to say, we want to go back cause it’s just a really fun time.

[00:16:42] And you meet people who, again, love Delta come in and they’re like, we love Delta..

[00:16:48] Rachel Moore: All right. We’re going to do a few get to know you questions. Can you name an item for us that you forgot for a work event that caused you some panic?

[00:16:56] Marrah Thomas: Every day I forget my cell phone because we have two of them and I’m like, did I charge it? Where is it at? Just call me on my personal phone because I don’t know where that work phone is. And if you have ever been traveling and you forget your own passport or your own ID, and I’m like, so my Delta ID just doesn’t work.

[00:17:19] Are you sure? Did you check? I’m very lucky. I live in Georgia and I lived in California before that. And they allow you to have the mobile driver’s license. Thank goodness. And we’re getting the mobile passport because it’s one of those things like it’s in your head and then you forget.

[00:17:35] Rachel Moore: Is there anything that you’re listening to, watching, or reading right now that you can’t put down?

[00:17:42] Marrah Thomas: So a couple of things. I’m a big reader and also a big podcast listener. So right now I am really big into orators and people who speak, you know, we hire a lot of speakers. So I always love that. There is an awesome podcast — It Was Said — It’s a little bit older, Meacham is the podcaster, but he breaks down and gives accounts of when specific speeches were made, like, he talks about Obama’s speech in South Carolina when there was the shooting.

[00:18:17] He talks about Winston Churchill’s speech, and really how they wrote them, what was sort of the context, what they needed to do, and sort of what the atmosphere was at the time. And it really does tell you that your words matter.

[00:18:33] Rachel Moore: Wow. I looked it up. Yeah. It was said, I think is the name. That’s a really great great piece for everybody else to go try. Go put a right after this podcast. Go ahead.

[00:18:44] Marrah Thomas: And then my other thing right now, I’m reading a book, The Good Enough Job, and it really talks about the history of work. One, it’s amazing to think that this is the least amount of time that we have ever worked in history because back in the day in the industrial revolution, people work six, seven days a week, 10 to 12 hour days.

[00:19:01] And then how we see work and how work has replaced our identities and how we now have an identity at work. So. A lot of times that’s like our new religion, right? Like you base everything on what you did at work. And it is a really great look at how we view work. And then I love it because he talks to different people and he kind of frames each chapter based on how somebody had a conflict or changed a job or how they felt one way at work. And as they went through the experience, it changed. I don’t know if it’s great for employers to hear me say this, but you know, on the importance of work and maybe we put too much importance.

Insights from ‘The Good Enough Job’ and Podcast Recommendations

[00:19:43] There’s a point in the book. He always does like little quotes and I forget who it was, but somebody is like, if it’s done, it’s done right. Like sometimes that perfection in us. requires that it’s done down to the T and if you are constantly that person then you’ll end up burning yourself out because you’re trying to make everything perfect where sometimes if it’s done it’s done.

[00:20:07] Rachel Moore: Love it. Is there a particular social post or a piece of media or a hot take about events that you found interesting lately?

[00:20:17] Marrah Thomas: It’s not so much about events, but like this is where you can tell things make or break. And, you know, I’m a big foodie. I love food. I love wine. I love drinks. And so, you know, I’m always looking at TikTok users and Insta users that really do it. And I, for the life of me, can’t think of the gentleman, but he just reviewed a couple of Atlanta restaurants.

[00:20:40] I think he has about 2.4 million followers and he was able to change the dial. So you think about hotspots, he did not have wonderful service. And one, I loved him because in his post, he was like, don’t go out and make up reviews about them or trash them online. This is just my experience, but really to have those restaurants respond.

[00:21:00] And I feel like that sometimes when we’re at events, we think that surveys and results don’t matter, but when you actually listen to what people are saying and it changes for the better, you’ve really done your due diligence, right? Not only on speaking your truth, but also on our side where we need to respond to criticism or feedback.

[00:21:21] I’ve been to both of those places and I cannot say that he’s not right, but. But I get it. You know, we live in a world where, you know, you want that surprise and delight. But I love that they heard him and said, we’ll do better.

[00:21:34] Rachel Moore: You’re driving all these back to events and it’s beautiful. 

Social Media Influence on Events and the Importance of Feedback

[00:21:37] Marrah Thomas: Well, and I love it because if you’re on Insta or Tiktok and you just go down the rabbit hole and now I have a reminder page on my iPhone of all the restaurants and I just got past like 50. I was like, Marrah, you cannot put another restaurant on there.

[00:21:51] You’ve got to get some of these off. I spend my time and I go down a rabbit hole and God forbid if you have a picture perfect food, I don’t care if it tastes like cardboard. I’m like, let me go have that. That looks really great.

[00:22:05] Rachel Moore: Well, speaking of social that’s my final question for you. Where can our listeners find and follow you online?

[00:22:12] Marrah Thomas: So mainly I do a lot on LinkedIn. I laugh because I feel like that is definitely becoming the new Insta or the new Facebook. I think it’s great. I try to post a lot about employee engagement, fun stuff Delta’s doing and just kind of keeping it light. So I’d love for folks to follow me on there.

[00:22:37] Rachel Moore: For this episode’s SkillUp segment, Marrah highlights the benefits of pushing the boundaries of today’s thinking.    

SkillUp Segment: Embracing Openness in Career Development

[00:22:45] Marrah Thomas: Be open. Inspiration comes from everywhere. And especially in your career as you grow you don’t always get ideas and designs from traditional places. You see it right now in the sustainability space where you’re trying to incorporate sustainability into events. And that is not native to events. We sometimes have a huge carbon footprint just for lack of single use of things. 

And so be open to ideas that don’t come from our industry. The reason I say be open is probably the best move in my career was to move out of an events team and into a different team that, Oh, by the way, I did events and I did awesome events, but it was just a small portion of my job.

So it taught me about the business and it also taught me how to do different things around events. 

[00:23:43] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Marrah Thomas for joining us on Event Experience, and thank YOU for listening. 

If you’re enjoying this show, we’d love to hear it!

Connect with us on social and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re listening. Also, don’t forget to share the show with your colleagues and friends. 

You can find transcripts of each episode and key takeaways on bizzabo.com/podcasts.

On behalf of the team, thank you. We’ll gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.

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