Santa visits, celebrity chefs: Banks build loyalty with virtual events

When PCSB Bank in Clarinda, Iowa, learned that there would be no Santa Claus present at the town’s annual Santa House this year, executives approached PCSB’s video banking provider, POPi/o, with the idea of using the platform for remote visits. It hired a longtime local to play Santa and offered virtual visits to children.

PCSB’s Santa program went live after Thanksgiving and runs through Dec. 23. Participants don’t need to be a customer of PCSB, and all Santa encounters are free. Parents will fill out an online form with their children’s names, wish lists and other nuggets of information while scheduling 10-minute appointments. Megan Cabbage, manager of branch operations, will condense these details onto a cue card for the resident Santa.

“More excited children will immediately blurt out everything they want and Santa spends a lot of time responding,” said James Johnson, CEO of the $275.2 million-asset PCSB. “If a child is shy or hesitant, Santa will take a more active role and talk about things he knows about them from the cue cards.”

PCSB Bank in Clarinda, Iowa, came up with virtual Santa visits after learning that Clarinda’s annual Santa House would not have a Santa. The resident Santa gets a cue card with the children’s wish list items and conversation starters.

PCSB is one of many banks that are offering virtual events to customers; not just holiday perks like Santa visits, but also special access to concerts, meet-and-greets with performing artists and celebrity cooking sessions. The broader celebrity-focused events are one way to deepen relationships with customers and amplify positive associations with the brand, while the digital Santa encounters are framed as brightening a dark holiday season, where health and safety measures have halted the annual pilgrimage to visit Santa in person. Banks that have adapted all types of these in-person encounters to a digital environment report strong customer feedback and, sometimes, an openness to continuing virtual events in the future.

Andrew Vahrenkamp, senior research analyst at Raddon, a research and analytics company in Schaumburg, Ill., has found that the people who notice an institution’s sponsorship of events and experiences tend to be its own customers. “Non-customers often lack the brand awareness to notice what’s going on,” he said. “My expectation is that it’s more about building and maintaining your brand loyalty with existing customers than getting new ones.”

Bank of America customers who enroll in the Preferred Rewards loyalty program get credit card bonuses, loan discounts, priority servicing and more in exchange for keeping high balances in their deposit or Merrill investment accounts.

In October, the bank started offering a brand-new perk that had not existed for customers previously: exclusive encounters with celebrities.

Targeted members could attend a cooking demo with chef Padma Lakshmi, listen to “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. read a bedtime story, and ready their best swing for golfer Francesco Molinari to analyze. When the rewards team first conceptualized these events pre-pandemic, the plan was to hold them in person. The pandemic forced them to figure out virtual alternatives.

The celebrity events are an enhancement to the basic loyalty program features.

“The most important thing for us was to have meat on the bone around our products, to win the entire relationship and make our customers feel valued,” said John Sellers, rewards executive at Bank of America. “Now we think the logical next step is to bring in this experiential- and lifestyle-type value.”

The overarching goal is more about building customer loyalty than meeting concrete sales metrics. “It’s making sure our clients understand we value them and recognize they have choices and can go other places,” said Sellers. “We’re not thinking, we’re going to generate X accounts or X dollars because we’re doing a virtual event.”

Banks have largely been pleased with the results of going virtual. More than 85% of Preferred Rewards attendees said in a post-event survey that the program was a valuable use of their time. About 75% said events like these made them more likely to deepen their relationship with Bank of America and Merrill. A JPMorgan Chase spokesperson noted that the company’s first virtual event packages for its Sapphire cardholder dining series sold out in less than 90 minutes.

On his part, Sellers is open to holding a mix of traditional and digital events when life returns to normal.

“We were very pleasantly surprised,” he said. “The pandemic readjusted our focus and opened our eyes to this virtual opportunity going forward.”

Citi provides its debit and credit cardholders with exclusive, presale or complimentary tickets to musical, sporting, theater and other events through Citi Entertainment. In May, the bank launched a virtual platform that included artist performances from Live from Home by entertainment company Live Nation and conversations with stars through [email protected] from the Paley Center for Media, a culture and media hub in New York and Los Angeles — in essence, moving an array of live events online. (Customers can still buy tickets to in-person events through Citi Entertainment, such as concerts that were rescheduled to 2021.)

A Citigroup spokesperson noted that one benefit of virtual events is Citi could extend its reach without geographic limitations or capacity restrictions.

Chase pivoted its in-person Private Dining Series for Sapphire Reserve and Preferred credit cardholders to an online Sapphire at Home series this fall through digital platform ON24. The first event saw Aaron Franklin, the chef behind Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex., share grilling tips and debut his new beer collaboration. To heighten engagement, viewers could submit their questions for a live Q&A and receive curated meal kits.

Other events are open to all Chase customers. In June, Chase streamed its first virtual Sound Check where country singer Brett Eldredge performed songs from his new album and shared behind-the-scenes footage; normally, Sound Checks are in-person musical events. In November, actress Awkwafina and chef Brooke Williamson held a cooking demo centered around Friendsgiving.

Bank of America considered its three October programs a trial run and made them free for Preferred Rewards members. Sellers expects that in the future, the program may include early or VIP access to events but more of them will cost money.

The rewards team will also rethink how to market these experiences. The bank targeted roughly 400,000 Preferred Rewards clients through email and its financial advisers but received about 2,500 registrations and 1,700 attendees.

“We learned that we could probably do a better job on the promotion,” said Sellers. “We didn’t want to bombard people with emails. But we could certainly handle a lot more from a technical standpoint.”

POPi/o is offering one free seat license for its customers through Christmas to use for virtual Santa visits, meaning they can add Santa as a video agent for free rather than relying on one of their paid licenses. StonehamBank, which is based in Stoneham, Mass., and has $678.9 million of assets, also arranged screen time with Santa over POPi/o’s platform. In case there was any doubt, a disclaimer on its website states that Santa Claus is not a StonehamBank customer representative.

Conversing with Santa through a screen may not be as intimate as visiting him in person, but Johnson and Cabbage of PCSB note the experience aligns with other ways that kids have adapted to digital activities this year, from FaceTiming grandparents to attending school online.

And the video visits make an impression. “One parent told us their child said their cheeks hurt because they were smiling so much after talking to Santa,” said Johnson.

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