For many conferences, a big chunk of the time required to attend is invested in simply getting there and back. While on board their flights, attendees might spend time answering emails, catching up on sleep, devouring a book or watching the latest films. Or, they could begin experiencing the event before the plane lands.
Enter the inflight event activation -- a part of the meeting, or even an entire event, that takes place in the air. Whether an education session, a competition, a cocktail reception or a networking initiative, a growing number of event organizers are planning in-flight activities. Many of these are taking place on exclusive, "invite-only" flights; whatever the approach, the en-route experiences provide valuable opportunities to connect with clients and customers.
Marie Claire, for example, teams up with United Airlines for its annual "Power Trip" conference celebrating women in business. During a six-hour chartered plane ride carrying attendees from the West to the East Coast, the aircraft is transformed into a series of engagement spaces, such as a station for getting facials, a private breast-pumping area, a makeup touch-up counter and meet-up booths for networking sessions. Passengers also are treated to prize giveaways, snacks and cocktails throughout the experience.
In 2018, Tourism Saskatoon, WestJet and ProPlan Conferences and Events collaborated to bring 114 meetings industry professionals from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia, for the Canadian Innovation Conference, hosted by PCMA with a so-called "V.I.Plane" experience. The companies organized mid-flight dancing activities, handed out gift bags and hosted an educational keynote speaker.
How can you incorporate this trend into your next meeting's agenda? The midair event doesn't necessarily have to be extravagant, and the possibilities are endless. Following are some tips on how to make it happen.
Make it Fun
Add a gamification element to your event app. The morning or evening before the flight, send out a push notification to all flyers, inviting them to participate in an activity or game where they could instantly reap benefits. For example, in 2015, AirFrance launched the #UpgradeChallenge, a mobile app game that invites passengers waiting in the boarding area to compete in a digital game for a shot at upgraded seats and in-flight amenities.
Similarly, you could host a game up in the air. In 2016, JetBlue leveraged the nation's preoccupation with the presidential primaries by inviting 150 passengers onboard a flight to "Reach Across the Aisle". Passengers were told they would win a free round-trip ticket to one of 20 domestic or international destinations serviced 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.) If budget allows, this giveaway tactic could work on any flight, and would also encourage attendees to start working together before the conference even begins.
Most importantly, keep flight requirements top of mind. Cart services for F&B usually require that passengers are seated, so it would make sense to plan an activity during this time. Be sure also to start the event only after the plane has reached a cruising altitude. As with any flight, unforeseen disruptions like turbulence or WiFi availability might alter plans. In most cases, long-haul flights work best for activations.
Bar Business Magazine, in partnership with Tales of the Cocktail and JetBlue, hosted "Shakes on a Plane" in 2017 -- a demonstration where mixologists created three cocktails in the aisle while a Bar Business editor walked the seated passengers through the ingredients and processes from the front of the cabin. The experience ended with the two rounds of signature cocktails (and mocktails) offered, for free, during beverage service.
Take to the Terminal
You might also begin the event before the plane even boards. Delta Air Lines, for example, provides preflight breakfast and cocktails, a free checked bag, expedited check-in and security, a gift bag and complimentary Delta Silver Medallion Status to passengers on its annual Delta Festival Shuttle flight from Los Angeles to Austin for South by Southwest.
Delta says it originally launched the festival shuttle concept five years ago to engage L.A.'s influential tech, entertainment and production communities. In March 2019, the airline welcomed passengers (including representatives from Hulu, NBCUniversal, Two Bit Circus, FabFitFun and LinkedIn) to participate in networking events that began during a preflight reception. Aboard the plane, actors Ravi Patel and Patrick Schwarzenegger gave presentations.
Give Attendees an Option
It would behoove planners to notify attendees in advance that a certain flight will be hosting an activation -- especially because some travelers would rather answer emails and get some work done. Provide passengers the option to change their flight free of charge if they do not wish to participate.
Midflight, you might also offer alternative activities for those who decide they don't want to take part, such as providing free ear buds, eye masks and/or movie screenings to passengers looking to tune out.
One of the keys to success in planning your first inflight event is creating a strong social media strategy and savvy partnerships. The Bermuda Tourism Authority, for example, teamed up with Uber in 2016 to give its marketing initiative a broader reach. The pair surprised Uber riders with a spur-of-the-moment flight from New York City to Bermuda. In a similar manner, Marie Claire uses its entire inflight event as a platform for sponsors -- such as Shiseido, which hosted the make-up bar during the "Power Trip" flight.
To begin, promote an activation-specific hashtag in all branding materials and encourage passengers to share their experiences and photos, alongside the overall conference hashtag. This will help garner attention for the event and get the word out to prospective attendees interested in joining the next meeting's flight.