WestJet brings a miracle to Fort McMurray

The airline's latest holiday surprise attempts to reignite the holiday spirit in the tragedy-stricken community.


WestJet’s surprising and heartwarming stunts around the holidays have quickly become one of the more iconic elements of the season, and this year the company used that platform to bring the spirit of Christmas to a community that needed it most.

In May, a wildfire began to spread across Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan that would eventually cover 590,000 hectares at its peak. Approximately 2,400 homes were destroyed and 88,000 people were forced to evacuate, most of which were in and around the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

In early November, WestJet began interviewing residents impacted by the fire, finding the destruction of their homes and communities had made it hard for them to embrace the holiday spirit. Despite that, Corey Evans, manager of sponsorship, community investment and experiential marketing at WestJet, says the people there had maintained their resolve to push forward through the tragedy.

“We were impressed by the attitudes of the people there and how they just kept kept moving,” Evans says. “It reminded us of the people in Whoville gathering around the Christmas tree after they had everything taken from them. It has been a really tough year in Alberta and we decided that focusing the miracle in Fort McMurray was something we should and could do to create a magical experience for them.”

To bring the holiday spirit to Fort McMurray and celebrate the residents’ perseverance, WestJet organized a “Snowflake Soiree” to bring residents of the town together around their own tree. But the surprise was still to come.

Many families in Fort McMurray had treasured heirlooms – like family photos and holiday ornaments – destroyed along with their homes. So, when families entered the party, they had a family photo taken of them. Later on in the evening, gifts floated down from the sky, with a Christmas ornament containing the new family portrait inside.

Finally, the families were given a free flight on WestJet to help reconnect with family members they’d been disconnected from following the fire.

Studio M led creative on the campaign, with media buying by Media Experts and PR support from Edelman. In addition to social channels, a 30-second cut of the video will be airing in Landmark Cinemas locations over the holidays.

The “Christmas Miracles” began in 2013 when WestJet set up a virtual Santa booth in airport lounges in Toronto and Hamilton, with staff running to fulfill holiday wishes and get the items on the luggage carousel so it could meet the passengers when they arrived at their destination. Later iterations brought a similar concept to people living in the Dominican Republic, or encouraging staff to do 12,000 “mini-miracles” across the country.

On the one hand, the popularity of the “Christmas Miracles” have made other companies and organizations more willing to help WestJet get past some logistical hurdles the program might have previously faced.

But on the other hand, popularity means the company has to carefully manage expectations.

“The golf course we held the party at said they would never have a party on the fairways, but when we told them what it was for, they were all in,” Evans says. “But we had to go through Facebook groups to organize the party, and we never referenced WestJet or ‘Christmas Miracle.’ The last thing you want to do is get people’s expectations up, and managing those makes the surprise much more impactful.”

Because of all the logistics involved, WestJet also had a backup plan. In their initial interviews with people affected by the fire, the company asked about the treasured items they lost. While there is no way to replace things that have so much emotional significance attached to them, WestJet challenged its employees to try their best.

Employees were able to do things like replace a family ring that had survived the war with a family heirloom of their own, or replacing a massive snowboard collection with a hard-to-find collectors item. Those stories have been collected on WestJet’s Christmas microsite.

Evans says that between English and French versions of the resulting video and all the different social platforms – including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat – the company created 20 different pieces of content for the campaign. Each piece of content can be unlocked in different ways depending on the platform. For example, users can click one of three buttons under WestJet’s tweet containing the videos to not only unlock more content, but share it with their own hashtag – “#YMMStrong,” “#AllTheFeels” or “#SurpriseFromAbove.”

“When we started, we would throw it up on YouTube and be done,” Evans says. “Now, there’s so much content. The way we’re sharing it is also an opportunity to really get out the key messaging we want Canadians to take away from the project.”