Can optimism help airlines lure travellers back?

WestJet and Air Canada's marketing strategies have steered clear of pandemic woes, instead creating a sense of confidence amid on-and-off-again restrictions.

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This feature was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of strategy magazine

The months leading into the 2021 holiday season were a period of optimism for companies in the travel and tourism sectors as restrictions against travel seemed to be lifting. Then came Omicron. Can marketers keep a positive spirit as the resurgence of COVID-19 brings yet another sudden stop to an industry that has become accustomed, over the past two years, to a constant state of ebb and flow?

“We always expected this was going to happen. Nobody thought we were out of the woods, though everybody really wanted to believe we were,” Brent Rivard, CMO at Internova Travel Group – which represents more than 62,000 travel advisors with a presence in 80 countries – told strategy. “Domestic travel is one thing, but with international travel, we’re going to continue to see this stop and start.”

The last two years have been particularly harsh on airlines, which saw a massive decrease in traffic amid sporadic shutdowns of international travel and strict restrictions on all flights, including domestic.

At one point, according to Andrew Shibata, VP of brand at Air Canada, traffic was down 90% for airlines. Meanwhile, WestJet, which was accustomed to flying upwards of 60,000 passengers per day, had declined to 40,000 guests in the entire month of May 2021, says Richard Bartrem, the airline’s VP of communications, brand and community investment.

“It’s hard to imagine an industry that was more heavily impacted,” he adds.

Last summer saw a shift in the right direction, as case numbers declined and vaccination rates climbed, allowing for the lifting of restrictions on domestic flying. Some Canadians saw the opportunity to gather with families they hadn’t seen in a year. The airlines sought to capitalize on that urge with targeted messaging.

“During the pandemic, many people were not able to see their families and loved ones, so reconnecting with the important people in their lives was a top priority,” notes Shibata.

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To connect loved ones again, Air Canada leaned on its sponsorship of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with the launch of “Rise Higher,” an FCB campaign that tapped into the “youthful enthusiasm” people were feeling when it seemed like the pandemic was finally waning. The spot depicted people pursuing sport, travel, romance and familial connection – all things they had put off over the past year-and-a-half.

From WestJet and Rethink came an emotional spot called “Victoria.” The June 2021 spot told the story of a grandparent travelling from Victoria to Toronto by air to meet his granddaughter for the first time. The campaign was intended to push WestJet back into public consciousness by showing how it could facilitate connections between families who had been separated.

The optimistic messaging – in combination with a decline in COVID numbers – brought renewed interest in air travel, and the industry began a modest rebound.

“In August [2021], we were flying one million people,” says Bartrem – a significant increase from the 40,000 just a few months earlier. Loosening restrictions helped, but so too did the renewed marketing push.

In October, WestJet looked to build on that momentum and keep the prospect of international travel on the minds of Canadians who were eager to leave the country for the first time since the pandemic began. It did so with “Escape,” a heist-themed spot created by Rethink and featuring mask-clad people rushing to the airport in order to get away.

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That spot again alluded to the fact it had “been awhile” since people were able to freely travel, while also nodding to the helpful service of WestJet employees.

“We’ve seen the demand from people wanting to go on a vacation or to see their family,” explains Bartrem. “Stacked against that demand is all of the testing and other requirements that have been put in place.”

Air Canada and WestJet promoted messaging around how to be ready for travel, and both airlines coupled those measures with other efforts – such as more flexible rebooking policies and lower airfares – to entice guests.

A focus on safety that highlighted strict vaccination and testing protocols for passengers and staff, as well as heightened hygiene efforts and the HEPA filtration systems already present on aircraft, also sought to allay concerns of would-be passengers.

The goal was to build confidence and optimism about travel heading into the holiday season – sentiment that both WestJet and Air Canada then tried to seize upon with more marketing about the importance of family and connection at that time of year.

For Air Canada, that meant getting back to its storytelling format with “‘Tis the season to believe,” a spot by FCB that told the story of a man and woman – both characters inside neighbouring snow globes – who fall for one another, but are unable to connect, until being brought together by the magic of the holidays and (presumably) an Air Canada flight.

“It was inspired by the universally shared experiences and emotions felt over the course of the pandemic,” Shibata told strategy at the time. “Slowly but surely, family and friends have been able to safely reunite and share beautiful moments again, and we feel fortunate to play a small part in their journeys back to one another.”

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WestJet’s holiday campaign was a little more direct. Keeping in line with its annual “Christmas Miracles” platform, the airline and Studio M delivered a doc-style spot featuring Canadians in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver who were asked what they wanted most for Christmas. When they answered that they’d like to see family, a representative for the airline gifted them tickets to do just that.
In both cases, the campaigns were infused with optimism – which is “critical” to successful recovery messaging, according to Jay Chaney, CSO at Broken Heart Love Affair.

“Playing to your brand and your confidence while not worrying so much about what COVID is doing is the most critical thing that brands can do,” he explains. “Mentally, people are done with COVID. We went through that phase of fear, and now we’re in this place where people have had a taste of regained freedom and I don’t think they’re willing to let go of it.”

While the Omicron variant has led to tightening restrictions and rattled consumer confidence in travel, it’s important for marketers not to lean too far into the pandemic experience, because they could risk connecting their brand to the negativity and struggles of the pandemic in the minds of consumers, Chaney says.

“What you’re doing is amplifying that and attaching your brand to that fear-based rollercoaster that is happening around it,” he elaborates. “You’re associating your brand with a negative emotional response. That’s not where you want to be.”

Chaney says marketers should try to win consumers who are eager to travel, rather than convincing those who remain hesitant.
“There is going to be a contingent of consumers who are afraid to leave their house. You’re not going to convince them to do so, and I don’t think it’s ethical to try,” he says. “On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are eager. I don’t think it’s as big a challenge as it was at the beginning of COVID.”

While Omicron has undoubtedly put a dent in recovery efforts, Rivard believes “the industry is going to come back bigger and better than ever. It’s just a matter of not knowing what’s going to happen every week. Is this the week we exceed sales, or the week when we get another variant scare and everybody’s cancelling?”

Bartrem believes there’s still interest and curiosity when it comes to travel. “People want to go places and we’re seeing demand pick back up. While there are new challenges, you just have to visit an airport to realize how busy it is relative to where we were in 2020.”

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