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SAN FRANCISCO — When Ali Dockery, 28, won a sales goal challenge at experience marketplace site Eventbrite last year, her reward was far more than a fleeting pat on the back or even a generic gift card.

Instead, the account manager received tickets to the World Series, and took her father.

“Having this unforgettable experience with my dad was so much better than a cash incentive, which would have disappeared into my bank account or gone to pay rent,” Dockery says. “Blueboard turned my dream into reality.”

Blueboard is a year-old start-up that helps companies reward employees with unique experiences, ranging from $150 kayaking outings to $25,000 guided trips to Everest base camp.

If this sounds at best indulgent and perhaps even a little crazy, welcome to the work world of millennials, that 18- to 34-year-old cluster that make up 34% of the U.S. workforce, according to the bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, their office ranks are expected double by 2025.

The message to companies worldwide is simple. Ignore the needs of this group at your own risk.

Those who study millennials say these children of Boomers grew up in households that validated their feelings and in a society that serves as a social media echo chamber for their opinions. The result is a new breed of worker who values validation over cash and pledges allegiance to admired co-workers over a brand. It’s also a group that, thanks to our always-on digital times, now expects employers to help them ensure their lives are not just all about work.

HAPPY EMPLOYEES, HAPPY COMPANIES

Companies that engage with such workers see a benefit. According to a recent study by research and advisory firm Bersin and Associates, organizations with reward programs in place see a 14% improvement in employee engagement and productivity, explaining why the U.S. employee incentive marketplace is estimated at $38 billion.

“For this generation, raised by so-called helicopter parents who told them their opinion matters and life’s too short to be unhappy, the relationship with a boss can have an almost parental dynamic,” says Lisa Orrell, author of four books on millennials in the workplace and founder of consultancy The Orrell Group.

“The whole one size fits all recognition from the corporate world won’t work for them,” says Orrell. “They value things like workplace flexibility, talking to their boss daily and training and development. Smart companies are getting on the bandwagon. Those who don’t will see millennials leave.”

That pop culture thermometer Saturday Night Live just spoofed this trend in a sketch called "The Millennials." In it, a boss (Taran Killam) tells the camera he's worked decades to get to the top, only to be confronted with a texting, whiny Millennial (Kate McKinnon) insisting on a promotion because she's been on the job three days.

Blueboard was formed to try and staunch that exodus. The company, started by former consultants Taylor Smith and Kevin Yip who grew disillusioned by gift card rewards, has 24 clients ranging from GoPro to Box. On Thursday, it plans to announce a $2 million seed round led by Chinese fund Renren that it will use to grow its team.

“Our idea was based on the notion that for so many employees today all you’re doing is working, and those high school or college days of being involved in other activities tends to fade away,” says Smith, adding that the company’s name is derived for a blue bulletin board at the University of California at Berkeley where clubs would post their fliers.

Smith recalls getting a $600 gift card from a manager “that I don’t even remember how I spent.” But soon after, his boss gave him and his girlfriend a dinner out and couple’s massage. “I instantly liked my company more,” he says. “Our goal with Blueboard is simply to make managers rock stars with their employees.”

Blueboard offers a range of gifts designed to meet every whim. There’s a night at a comedy club where you get tips on a routine and then perform it live ($500). A day of trapeze lessons for circus fans ($150). And a James Bond day that includes skydiving, an exotic car rental and mixology lessons ($1,500).

A new feature that the company hopes to build out is a personalized concierge service, which allows top employees to design their own day or night out.

“Hiring is tough, especially in Silicon Valley, and Blueboard is one way to help us retain employees,” says Jill Coleman, office manager at Vungle, an in-app video ad platform. She manages the rewards program for her company, and is about to take a glass blowing class as her gift.

“We had a history of little gifts at the one-year anniversary mark, but decided we needed something more unique,” she says. “Giving an experience as opposed to money has a more lasting affect on employees.”

MONEY DOESN'T ALWAYS 'FIT THE BILL'

A growing number of companies are getting in the business of helping please the millennial worker.

Ambition is a two-year-old startup in Chattanooga, Tenn., that helps companies with “sales gamification, helping managers see where their people stand through contests, competitions and custom alerts,” says COO Brian Trautschold. “These workers care not just about commission but impact. And they crave recognition not just from managers, but all their peers.”

Virgin Pulse, a software company that’s part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, helps large companies cement employee loyalty by providing workers with everything from Fitbits to opportunities to join company charity bike rides.

“Richard’s belief is simply, ‘Take care of your employee and they’ll take care of you,’” says Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse. “Today’s worker is saying to managers, ‘Look, I’m happy to be flexible and work when necessary, but you need to in turn be helpful to me in my entire life,’ whether that’s helping me grow or simply get some sleep.”

PwC, the professonal services firm, recently dug deep into the way it was handling its growing millennial workforce, and quickly concluded it needed to make some changes. These included making sure millennials had an input on corporate decisions, encouraging career change opportunities within the company, and greater employee input on the corporation’s charitable efforts.

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article summarizing the changes, PwC's U.S. chairman Bob Moritz wrote, “These young people have a greater expectation than previous generations had that they’ll be support and appreciated, and financial rewards don’t always fit the bill.”

Blueboard’s Taylor says he’s constantly looking for off-beat adventures that will make an employee’s day and translate into an employer’s long-term hire, whether that’s sending people to the Grammy Awards or cruising the Galapagos Islands.

“We’re passionate about this,” Taylor. When asked what his dream reward would be, he laughs. “To build a company that is so vital that other companies can’t work without you.”

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava

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