View from the C-Suite: Sunwing resets during shutdown

Samantha Taylor, who joined as CMO in March from Indigo, sees the pandemic as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to evolve the business.

Samantha Taylor

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

On March 17, Sunwing Airlines became the first Canadian airline to announce it would temporarily suspend operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, starting March 23.

By that time, former Indigo marketing exec Samantha Taylor had already accepted to become CMO of its Toronto-based parent company, Sunwing Travel Group. She delayed her original March 31 start date by a month to help the bookstore chain transition into pandemic mode, and arrived at the travel company with its planes already grounded. (The company has said it will resume operations on Aug. 31.)

Today, Taylor leads marketing and digital strategy for Sunwing Travel Group, which claims to be the largest vertically integrated travel company (offering flights, hotel stays, and airport shuttles) in North America, and it has divisions that include three tour operators and several vacation resorts in the Caribbean, all of which bring in $3 billion in annual revenue.

While Taylor admits there are challenges to transitioning into any new role remotely – let alone entering one of the industries most disrupted by the pandemic – she says it “actually hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be.”

She says Sunwing has been busy “laying a new foundation” for what the company will look like on the other side. “In that way, it has been exhilarating.”

“All of the normal initiatives in a normal business [environment] take a while – that’s not the case now. Now, we can clearly focus on making the changes that we wanted,” she adds. “I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the business, decide what you want to be on the other side. You don’t get these opportunities often, and for me, it’s incredibly exciting.”

What have you been working on specifically since you arrived?  

Sunwing is family-owned and operated. It grew incredibly fast to its current scale. Sometimes when you do that you miss some foundational pieces from a customer standpoint.

We’re laying all those pieces now to make sure we have a 360 view of our customer, that we’re able to communicate and engage with them in an agile way and to respond to their needs throughout their entire journey, whether that goes from dreaming about an upcoming vacation to post-vacation service and everything in between. We are making some changes to our marketing technology stack and also investing in our app to make it more customer-centric.

Secondly, our customers post-pandemic will be those familiar with our brands. We are focused on welcoming them back and ensuring they feel confident when they begin to travel again. Transparency, continuous dialogue and understanding what matters to our customers is key for our communication strategy. This piece is very closely tied to the technology, as we want to make sure that we get closer to them, and make sure that we are responding to their needs through the entire journey.

Finally, we are working on a Sunwing brand evolution. Sunwing will be a different company on the other side of this, as will all travel providers. What is the role of the brand in our customers lives? We have the biggest selection of top rated hotels and resorts at incredible value – but what else can the brand provide to our customers lives?”

What do you believe the airline recovery will look like in this country? And how are you preparing on the marketing side? 

“I feel confident that once the borders open back up [completely] and the quarantine is no longer [fully] in place, Canadians will look to experience these moments again that feel like distant memories right now. Canadians will engage with travel in a different way, but we are a country that likes to see the world – I can’t see that changing in the future.

When it comes to marketing, we look at it as “gates” happening externally, and we need to plan to be ready for when those gates open. The first gate is the borders. When the borders open, that will be [one] communication strategy. When the quarantine is lifted, that will be a different communication strategy. And when people actually get back to travel and we need to scale this with our partners in the travel industry, what are we doing at that point? So it is less about a calendar and more about these large external factors indicating the different transitions that we will be going into, depending on where our environment is.”

How is Sunwing communicating with customers while flights are suspended? 

We have stayed very close to our customers and have tried to understand what they are looking to hear and how we can support this journey. These have really centred around three themes: customer health and safety, community support and engagement, and forward planning.

In June, we launched our Safe with Sunwing program that communicates our enhanced health and safety protocols across our entire operation. These included enhancements to our cleaning standards, social distancing measures, and changes to the experience across all of our hotels.

We also launched our Sunwing Celebrates Heroes initiative, which had more than 14,000 entries as Canadians nominated a deserving front line hero in their community. We are announcing 100 winners this week for the program, which includes a free all-inclusive vacation to a Royalton Luxury Resort. This follows a series of initiatives we have launched over the last six months to help support the pandemic movement locally in ways that we can, whether that was offering repatriation flights in March or our partnership with Second Harvest.

We are now focused on the future and supporting Canadians who are starting to plan travel. This includes providing as much flexibility as possible for those who are starting to plan what their future travel will look like.

Your Safe with Sunwing messaging draws a link between offering a safe travel environment and being an integrated travel company. How does being integrated help Sunwing keep its customers safe? 

All travel providers are committed to ensuring that all customers are safe when travelling. That is our particular spin on it; we control the entire journey [from when customers check in, to the airport transfers, throughout their resort stay and journey home]. But the entire industry is committed to that. None of us is interested in competing on safety. We’re all doing our parts to ensure all Canadians feel comfortable travelling in the future.

Where our integration gives us an advantage is that above and beyond safety, we’re able to control the experience that customers have and look to make that as frictionless as possible. We’re with our customers for the entire journey, so making sure that they know that and feel that support is a unique value proposition that allows us to provide a unique Sunwing travel experience.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.