Sky's the Limit: In-Flight Activations at 35,000 Feet

Captive audiences are pretty tough to come by these days. Whether they’re on their phones (and let’s face it, they’re always on their phones), or just tuned out to the barrage of marketing messages constantly coming at them, consumers today are tougher to engage than ever before. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, savvy event marketers have begun activating live engagements in what might be one of the few remaining “clutter-free” environments on earth. Or in this case, off it. We’re talking in-flight activations and airport events.

Driven by the same desire to carve out some unique territory and engage consumers in new and unexpected ways, event marketers started activating in and around airports about 10 years ago. With brands ranging from the endemic, like Canadian airline WestJet and it’s epic Christmas Miracle surprise and delight campaign, to the non-endemic, like Microsoft and Audi, who transformed layovers into impactful product demos, airports today have become popular platforms for live activations.

Since 2015, the trend has gone a step further as brands have started bypassing security, grabbing their boarding passes and setting up shop right on the plane. One of the first, Southwest Airlines, featured indie rock band the Black Cadillacs in a live performance that took place once the jet reached 35,000 feet. The program, designed to introduce its non-stop service from Dallas to Memphis, was part of the airline’s “Live at 35” program. Other in-flight activations for the airline brand have included a fashion show that used the center aisle as the runway.

The Bermuda Tourism Authority this June partnered with Uber to surprise Uber riders with a spur-of-the-moment trip from New York City to Bermuda. The catch? They only had 24 hours to pack their bags and hop on the chartered flight.

In a stunt designed to go viral, JetBlue in March leveraged the presidential primaries for an in-flight activation that invited all 150 passengers on board to literally Reach Across the Aisle. Passengers were told they would win a free round-trip ticket to one of 20 domestic or international destinations served by JetBlue, but only if they could all agree on a single destination by unanimous vote before they landed (Costa Rica was the winning location).

And lest you think this trend is reserved only for b-to-c events, JetBlue in July partnered with Bar Business magazine to host an in-flight mixology event called “Shakes on a Plane.” The event was designed to spotlight JetBlue’s premium beverages while giving its beverage partners valuable face—and taste—time with passengers.

Also in the b-to-b genre this year was Marie Claire magazine’s Power Trip, a 36-hour conference for women in business that transformed the cross-country flight from New York to San Francisco for 100 women into an in-flight experience that included pre-loaded laptops for each passenger, a media center, a breast-pumping suite, a touch-up make-up station, a meditation pod and meet-up booths. And of course, plenty of snacks and cocktails.

Key to the success of these early programs are strong social media strategies and savvy partnerships. Southwest, for example, engaged its agency partner to record and distribute its in-flight concert via various social media channels. The Bermuda Tourism office tapped partner Uber to give it valuable reach and bring its program to life. And Marie Claire used its entire in-flight event as a platform for its advertisers, like Shiseido, who offered the make-up bar, and Intel and Dell, who provided the laptops.

And while these don’t qualify as events, we were also inspired this year by TAM Airlines’ Ownboard Magazine campaign that personalized the in-flight magazine for each passenger based on their Facebook profile. And Air France’s #UpgradeChallenge, that challenged passengers in the boarding area to play a digital game for a shot at an upgraded seat. (Seriously, who wouldn't love this game and the airline that offered it?)

We suspect this new trend toward brand-sponsored in-flight entertainment won’t last long in it its current form. Airlines may begin to regulate how much and how often in-flight activations can take place. And passengers may push back, too. After all, planes really are one of the last few places left where it’s okay to sleep with your mouth wide open during business hours. But until they do, in-flight activations are still a fresh opportunity for enterprising brands looking for a way to break out, and get some “air time” with a (mostly) captive audience.

Posted by Kristy Elisano | Request as a Speaker

Caffeine dependent Jersey girl. Inspired by creative risk takers and underdogs. Chief Marketing Officer, Doodle owner and lover of all things chocolate.